For nearly a year now there have been lush advertisements in the glossy magazines for a ship that won't be launched until the end of 2001. It is a vessel that might be considered the missing link between the geriatric cruise liner and the concept of the moving city that ignited architectural enthusiasm in the 1960s and then, like so much that was fresh and clever at that time, got buried under a mass of neo-primitive conservation.
The ship is conventional enough except that its upperworks look more like waterfront architecture than naval architecture, and it is called The World of ResidenSea. In common with all modern luxury liners it is not as large as its famous ancestors - at 40,000 tonnes it has about half the displacement of the Queen Elizabeth, and its passengers are numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. The difference is that most of its passengers will actually be residents, and their 'cabins' will be luxurious apartments ranging from 100-300m2 in size with what the project's estate agents describe as 'grand entrance halls, spacious living areas and large verandas overlooking the ocean'.
The World of ResidenSea, under construction in a Norwegian shipyard, is in effect a floating town that will circumnavigate the world all year, sailing from one port to another 'in pursuit of fair weather, international events and cultural attractions'. Because of its mobility it will be a virtual place, maintaining its identity by means of state of the art information technology and its business links via satellite. Because it will spend 70 per cent of its time in port, the World of ResidenSea will still be a sort of cruise liner, but it will also be much more than that. Though only the super-rich will be able to afford its 110 splendid 'residences' at between £1.3 million and £5 million a go, they will nonetheless find themselves part of the first sizeable exploitation of the concept of living on the planet without occupying land. This dream will forever be associated with the projects of Richard Buckminster Fuller and the Archigram age of technological superhumanism.
Fuller, spiritual father of all such projects, died in 1983 before the shadow of 'sustainability' had lengthened over innovation. Fortunately there is an exhibition devoted to his work coming to London's Design Museum in June. Fuller's first schemes for mobile cities centred on the revival of giant airships. Failing this, he conceived the idea of 'Cloud Structures', giant metallic balloons 1.7km in diameter, with passenger accommodation for thousands, that would rise into the air through solar heating and orbit the planet driven by the winds. He turned to the oceans in 1965 when he proposed his first residential 'floating atolls', called Tetrahedronal Cities. These were to be giant floating pyramids with sides 3.2km long that would house a million people and be towed to offshore anchorages in places like San Francisco Bay or Tokyo Bay. A later floating city concept was Triton City, a project funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. This time Fuller proposed complexes of neighbourhood- sized modular floating communities, three of which would form a town of 30,000 which could then evolve into a city with the addition of further modules. Fuller envisaged these units being produced in shipyards in the same way as offshore oil platforms before being towed into position. Like the ResidenSea, they were parts of the grand scheme of the future that he outlined to his biographer Robert Marks in 1962, whereby with the aid of such giant projects he believed men and women 'may be able to converge and deploy around earth without its depletion.'