In a future world without oil, we'd end up with thousands of unusable massive oil tankers, some as long as 40-story buildings. Instead of sending them to scrapyards, a team of architects wants to turn them into floating neighborhoods.
The supply of ships isn't hypothetical: Every year, as old tankers wear out, they're already being scrapped. Most end up in shipyards in places like India and Bangladesh, where workers are paid a few rupees a day to attack steel hulls with blowtorches. It's dangerous—hundreds of workers have died from falling steel or explosions over the last decade in India alone—and the ships themselves are considered toxic waste. But by giving the hulls new value in development, the architects hope to change the disposal process.
Their target market is the Middle East, where developers are already pouring money into projects like artificial islands in Dubai and new skyscrapers for Abu Dhabi and attempting to create newly iconic designs. But what could be more iconic than reusing actual oil infrastructure?
"Wealth, power and cultural enlightenment has come to this region because of its oil history," says Dutch designer Chris Collaris, who created the conceptual design for The Black Gold with Ruben Esser, Sander Bakker, and Patrick van der Gronde. "But that oil history—or current status—can only be seen on big seas and big harbors. Why not really embed it visible in your built culture and society? It's so powerful and breathtaking to have this mega structure at a long beach working as a real functional building."
After carving out the internal structure of a megatanker, the designers propose turning it into an airy public space for events, a museum, shops, and even housing, with a park-like area on the top deck. At over 1,300 feet long, some tankers could easily accommodate an entire neighborhood.
It wouldn't be an easy conversion to make—cleaning toxic waste off tankers can cost as much as $1 million in current recycling processes, depending on the size of the ship. "The dismantling and cleaning of parts which will not used in the ship anymore would be the biggest part during construction," says Collaris.
But that's a process that would have to happen anyway to recycle the steel, and the designers argue that reuse is a more sustainable choice. "A re-used tanker can be functional again for another 50 or more years," Collaris says. "It won't go on the big rough seas. And why not stay close to the first initial purpose or structure where the steel has been used for in the first place. Recycling by reuse in the same object is much more environmentally friendly than recycling the steel for new structures."
Most of all, they see it as a symbol for the shift in the Middle East. In 2000, the former oil minister of Saudi Arabia predicted the coming end of the age of oil:
Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil—and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.
As climate change becomes more urgent, it's possible to imagine that happening, and the redesigned tankers can point to that possibility.
"We think it's interesting to reuse the mega oil tanker as an icon for the future, referring to a time without oil," says Collaris. "Only by completely changing its function and position this could be a surprisingly good structure to address and accommodate new interests of the Arab states."