Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

ADS3: OFFSETTING the OFFSHORE: On the Illusion, Delusion and Dilution of Waterfronts

Tutors: Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe

How thick is a shoreline? The distance that separates the onshore from the offshore allows for an intentionally ambiguous, malleable and interstitial void where activities that are legally restricted on one side are encouraged on the other. Through the lens of water systems, in 2018/19 ADS3 will investigate the construction of financially-built environments in order to envision modes of inhabitation between humans and other-than-humans in this era of increasingly evident man-induced climatic events. Through a range of critical spatial practices, students will take the coastline of the United Kingdom as a point of departure to design interventions that challenge the financialisation of water and the global circulation of its value.

In September 2006, one year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, one of the largest homeowner insurers in the US changed the definition of a ‘coastal area‘ from 1,000 feet to one mile. By extending this littoral zone, existing houses were moved closer to the water than they had ever been before, allowing State Farm Insurance to drop coverage on these now coastal properties. This decision reclassified space as if these waterfront houses had already been flooded. It also pre-empted the insurance company from future million-dollar compensation settlements in the case of another devastating hurricane. Under the name of environmental protection and climate change mitigation, the waterfront was pushed inland to reduce the quantity of insured objects. This reclassification constituted a form of insurance-engineering of the coast — defining a zone in which inhabitants were not only at risk, but also legally divorced from the disaster relief provided by home insurance, leaving thousands of policyholders in a legal limbo of potential eviction and the eventual loss of their mortgaged home.

Offshore drilling platform on fire. Nugensis
Offshore Drilling Platform on Fire. Photo: Nugensis

Quantifying Ecology?

What architectural methodologies can be learnt from the way in which insurance and finance companies construct the loopholes they use to control space and people? Looking both at the space embedded in the onshore and the offshore, ADS3 will focus on legal ambiguities that determine the way we inhabit territories. These legal loopholes expanded after the 2007–8 housing crisis, when many investors shifted their activity from real estate speculation into the more profitable ‘protection’ of nature — trading on the newly calculated financial value of the environment that creates a whole architecture demarcating boundaries to ‘protect’ space. For example, in the case of water, a slice of pizza in New York is often cited by economic investors to justify the ownership of aquifers by private enterprises. By claiming that the purity of the New York water supply is what gives the city’s pizza its unique flavour, these investors argue the Delaware Aquifer – which provides the city’s water supply – must be privately owned and managed, perpetuating a neoliberal notion of value that abuses collective rights and ownership of resources.

The control of the tidal zone and the privatisation of aquifers lie at the core of the financialisation of water-space. They introduce a neoliberal logic of environmental protection that allows for the extraction of profit as an essential component of the built environment. The financialisation of coastal space started in the United States with the 1980s wetland policy guided by George H W Bush’s notion of ‘no net loss‘. While this policy was theoretically developed to protect the net quantity of wetlands in the US, it also allowed for destruction of natural habitats by the development of any housing complex, railway infrastructure, flood defence, military complex, urban settlement, or tourist resort when mitigated by the restoration of an ‘equivalent’ landscape elsewhere. For each acre of lost wetland, at least one new arce is to be created in another location. Therefore the net amount of biodiversity is meant to remain 'the same' in terms of surface area, quality, or quantity. A new suburb built on a drained millenary wetland in Louisiana can be environmentally neutralised by restoring a comparable wetland elsewhere in the state.

Under the fallacy of ‘making space for nature‘, as it is commonly known, the assignation of value to natural landscapes before they are destroyed by urban development allows those destruction forces to ‘offset‘ and ‘restore‘ the damage. In the case of the UK, biodiversity offsets are defined as ‘conservation activities that are designed to give biodiversity benefits to compensate for losses‘. This logic takes for granted that ‘development’ inevitably results in ecological damage, with new ‘nature sites‘ needing to be created to mitigate that damage. ADS3 will explore how architects can challenge this notion of environmental destruction as a given. We will contest the deregulation of planning and environmental legislation that favours private funding for a certain understanding of neoliberal conservation and urbanisation. Against the continuous erosion of human and other-than-human ecologies, the studio will develop counter-financial architectural narratives in order to explore how we could ‘un-own‘ space as part of a de-quantified logic of ecological care.

Cliff erosion, Hemsby, UK. Photo: Mike Page, SWNS, 2018
Cliff Erosion, Hemsby, UK. Photo: Mike Page, SWNS, 2018

Littoral Conditions

Mapping the shoreline as a flat static margin does not take ecological dynamics into account. Being a complex ecological dispositif, the fluctuation of the shoreline, and the buffer spaces alongside it, will be explored this year from a combination of marine, oceanic, hydraulic, visual, architectural, urban, and risk perspectives. By visualising the forces that shape the littoral condition in the UK, new paradigms around the liquid and fluid encounter between land and sea will provide a basis for the studio. Our design projects and interventions will think about new models of cohabitation between humans and other-than-humans, extending from the North Sea to the English Channel or the Irish Sea. We will seek to understand ocean-space and its complex ecologies through multiple jurisdictions ruling on, along and beyond, its shores.

ADS3 will focus this year on conflicts around global offsetting mechanisms and the role of the offshore in creating these offsets. As both an extra- and inter-juridical space, the offshore is best represented by the idea of the flag of convenience – the mechanism by which countries offer maritime registration to vessel owners from other countries in exchange for low or non-existent taxes. Not only has the recent housing crisis in the UK boosted environmental mitigation and offsets as a profitable investment, it has also exposed how housing assets in the city have become deeply entangled with speculative offshore ownership. In less than a decade, London has become the most prominent example of the proliferation of offshore ownership at a global level. The offshore – the financial space beyond the physical and regulatory end of the state which operates at an extra-state level – is entangled with a housing crisis, but also with a severe ecological crisis, as both are part of a global circulation of value relying on the architecture of financially built environments.

Iridescent abalone shell
Iridescent Abalone Shell


The effects of onshore activities on the waters surrounding the UK begins far inland. In 2006 clams were claimed to be changing sex in the south-west coast of England. Ecological changes associated with cattle run-off down the estuarine system were cited as one of the causes, illustrating the impact of intensive agriculture and hormone-mimicking chemicals used to increase milk production in cows on the larger maritime ecosystem. Recurring patterns of coastal erosion exacerbated by man-induced seabed disturbance are also making East Anglian cliffs collapse due to flash floods, pushing hundreds of properties literally to the verge of disappearance. Norwegian salmon corporations have moved to British waters because of less restrictive regulations to pollute the ocean. Fracking conglomerates take advantage of the disadvantaged in order to hide the effects of pumping toxic water that leaks into the underground, while we buy bottled water from Fiji’s ‘fresher’ aquifers in the Pacific. Water delivery in England has shifted from a public service into an exploded set of commodities to be bought and sold. Besides, the engineering of global water systems for financial profit have even led to many ‘cancer alleys’ in industry-heavy residential areas worldwide, where residents rights to access clean drinking water are simply ignored. The fact that these cases often involved the same unprivileged sectors of the population has been identified by Robert Bullard as environmental racism, making inequality in inhabitation more and more present.

Mishka Henner, Feedlots - Tascosa Feedyard, Bushland, Texas. 2012-13
Mishka Henner, Feedlots – Tascosa Feedyard, Bushland, Texas, 2012-13

The Illusion, Delusion and Dilution of Waterfronts will expand beyond UK-based phenomena to examine global processes around the extraction of value, erosion of democracy and creation of profit margins. With potentially new border demarcations subdividing the seas, the challenge of how and whether to split ecological systems will also emerge. ADS3 will critically analyse the preservation of ocean space and the architecture of the water systems and eco-political structures that conform it. This year’s projects will think of other forms of infrastructure and material cultures that challenge the extraction of economic or political profit from the shores of the country, while addressing the high levels of social inequality in seaside towns in Britain.

Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand, recently granted legal personhood. 2018
The Whanganui River in Aotearoa (New Zealand) was granted its own legal identity, with the rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person in 2017

Standing Waters: Process and Outcome

OFFSETTING the OFFSHORE: On the Illusion, Delusion and Dilution of Waterfronts will ask students to develop critical design interventions that challenge and rethink neoliberal approaches to ecology and financially built environments. Working on the intersection between land and water as a 4-dimensional entity, the research-led design and design-led research processes will facilitate architectural tools that operate and produce spatial objects on multiple scales. These include drawing, mapping, models, audiovisual materials, and performative components, incorporating digital platforms and social media as key conceptual elements of the project.

The final format of each student’s proposal will align with the agency of the project. During a series of intensive two-day hands-on workshops, students will research, map and detect a landscape of opportunity that conveys a critical agenda toward the commodification of water as natural capital at a territorial scale. Students will then design a specific policy loophole, landscape tactic, mobile building/infrastructure, construction detail and energy concept that combine to produce a new scenario that contests or unmakes current speculative approaches to ecology. As speculation is deeply reliant on circumventing regulations, students will learn how to ‘cheat‘ the confines of the neoliberal architecture world. Looking at existing laws, planning policies and current masterplans, they will design a proposal that exists within these blurry zones of legal ambiguity. Different scenarios of economic or environmental uncertainty will be incorporated in the long-term scope of the designed object.

People leaving their homes in Whitstable after the North Sea Flood, 1953. Photo: Canterbury City Council
People leaving their homes in Whitstable after the North Sea Flood, 1953. Photo: Canterbury City Council

Supports & Structure

In 2018/19 the studio begins with the Live Project – a collective submission to  an international open competition. Formulated during an intensive three-week exercise, the submission will critically address the construction/destruction of environments and offset mechanisms. The collective project will include extensive mapping and design proposals that rethink modes of urban ecology and water systems by looking at human and other-than-human networks. Using the collective project, students will identify multiple sites in the UK that will serve as a base to develop a series of interventions for their individual projects. Working on various locations and multiple scales, students will have to create an all-encompassing set of interdisciplinary design tools to convey their agenda through specific interventions in financially built environments.

Throughout the year, the studio will provide a diverse set of skills to guide and support students on how to establish an independent/collective professional practice: self-initiating a project, establishing resource development and funding tactics, applying to different opportunities or open calls, etc. As part of the working methodology, there will be a series of arranged visits to independent practitioners‘ studios in London, exhibitions and relevant institutions that relate to the different projects and can provide an insight into possible forms of practice after graduation.

Glines Canyon dam removal to restore the health of the Elwha river. Photo: USGS, 2016
The Glines Canyon Dam was removed to restore the health of the Elwha river. Photo: USGS, 2016


Daniel Fernández Pascual is a founder of Cooking Sections, an experimental spatial practice based in London. He holds a MArch from ETSA Madrid, and an MSc Urban Design from TU Berlin and Tongji University Shanghai and a PhD from Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London. His research focuses on the ambiguity of the law, real estate speculation, demarcation of spatial boundaries, architecture of financialisation and the housing crisis. In 2013, he organised a house lottery to explore alternative tactics to circumvent debt. He also co-founded the Modelling Kivalina Working Group – which is supported by the World Justice Fund – to investigate the changing shoreline and the phenomenon of climate refugees in Alaska.

Alon Schwabe is a founder of Cooking Sections, an experimental spatial practice based in London. He holds an MA (Hons) in Research Architecture from Goldsmiths, University of London. He has a background in theatre and performance. Between 2006 and 2009 he was a member of Clipa Theatre for Performance Art. Since then, he has collaborated in a variety of self-initiated projects. In 2012, he worked as a guest curator for the Bat Yam Biennale for Landscape Urbanism. Since 2012, he has been a member of Vienna-based Wochenklausur. He was invited to participate in Re-Locate as a curator of the multidisciplinary platform to develop new relocation and advocacy strategies for climate-displaced communities in Alaska. He also co-founded the Modelling Kivalina Working Group – which is supported by the World Justice Fund – to investigate the changing shoreline and the phenomenon of climate refugees in Alaska.

Follow ADS3 on Instagram: