Shma's bold "water city" concept is a reimagining of the medieval Thai city of Ayutthaya, that rethinks flood defenses for the 21st century by drawing inspiration from the past. It's a concept, yes, but one worthy of a second look, given that this is a uniquely Thai response to the catastrophic flooding that hit the country last year. Gizmag takes a moment to set Shma's scheme in its proper context: that of the very recent past, as well as that of Ayutthaya's heyday as one of Asia's, if not the world's, foremost cities.

The flood

The 2011 monsoon season hit Thailand with catastrophic flooding that cost 815 lives and affected millions of others. World Bank estimates put the damage to the Thai economy at nearly US$50 billion, largely due to the impact upon industry. Factories and plants in seven industrial estates in Thailand's central plains were evacuated due to the deluge, with automotive and HDD industries among those worst hit. With arguably the most severe flooding to hit the country still fresh in the memory, the debate surrounding the human response to flooding is of rather more than academic interest, to put it mildly.

A US Navy Sea Hawk helicopter assesses the damage outside Bangkok during the 2011 floods

Responses to flooding tend to fit one of two philosophies. One is that physical flood defenses can prevent most flooding (in the areas protected, that is) and mitigate the effects of the worst unpreventable events. The other is that catastrophic flooding should be accepted as inevitable, and that humanity should adapt, one way or another, to live with rather than combat flooding.

Given that the 2011 floods effectively stalled what had been the extremely rapid growth of the Thai economy, it's not surprising that the Thai government was quick to announce $11 billion of flood-defense spending including approximately a half billion for quick-fix measures at industrial centers. The seven sites affected in 2011 are to be surrounded by 21-foot (6.5-meter) dikes later this year: a measure that it's difficult to fault.

Reisdents of Ayutthaya put inner tubes to good use during the 2011 flooding (Photo: Daniel Julie)

Longer-term measures announced have proved more controversial. These include reforestation and the construction of dams and reservoirs, dikes, floodways and diversion channels. Some academics have criticized such plans as hasty, lacking the due consideration for social impacts and the proper analysis of whether they'll actually be effective. Both the short-term and long-term measures clearly fall in line with the view that flooding can be either prevented or mitigated with flood defenses.

A call to arms

Though the official line is to shore up traditional flood defenses, there are other voices expounding a more radical long-term response.

The 2011 floods were, unsurprisingly, a major talking point at the Architect Expo 2012 in April, held in the Thai capital, Bangkok (a city that was itself subject to wide-scale evacuation as the result of flooding). There, the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA) presented Water Brick 2012: an exhibition presenting the results of its prior call to arms to architects and planners to address the problems posed by water management in Thailand.

ASA had asked six architectural and planning firms to come up with six radical responses designed specifically for the Thai towns and cities of Nan, Hat Yai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Chanthaburi, Nakhon Sawan and Ayutthaya. The last of these fell to Bangkok-based landscape architects and planners Shma. Its response is bold, to say the least.

Ayutthayas past

Located in the Chao Phraya River, Ayutthaya also experienced extensive flooding last year. In fact, since its foundation in 1350, the city has continually been subject to flooding. But according to Shma, it is only in recent times that planners sought to keep out flood water using (what are now) conventional flood prevention techniques.

Flooding in Ayutthaya Province in 2011 (Image: NASA)

Before the modern era, inhabitants of Ayutthaya lived in a city that welcomed, and was even reliant upon, water both within and without its limits. The city, described by author Derick Garnier as the "Venice of the East," was once renowned for its beauty and at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, was likely one of one the world's most populous cities, and almost certainly one of the wealthiest in Asia.

Much of that wealth was generated from the trade of rice grown around the city, specifically a new strain of floating rice particularly suited to flooded conditions (useful, as the paddy fields surrounding the city flooded each rainy season). Canals were the preferred means of bringing rice into the city. A painting commissioned by the Dutch East India Company shows Ayutthaya as a network of pathways and canal-ways, and Garnier writes that living and trading on the city's waterways was common. Alas, the city was brutally laid siege and destroyed by the Burmese army in 1767.

A painting of Ayutthaya commissioned by the Dutch East India Company (Image: Josh)

The ruins of the historic city are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and modern-day Ayutthaya, built to the east, is distinctly canal-free.

That would change if Shma was to have its way, drawing inspiration from the historic city with modern-Ayutthaya looking at flood waters "not as a threat but as an economic opportunity."

Ayutthaya 3.0

Shma's scheme centers on the creation of a "water detention network" that would retain water during the rainy season for use in agriculture for the rest of the year. This would require the abandonment of the current mode of rice cultivation in which the growing season overlaps the coming of the rain. Shama instead calls for "double-cropped" fields that would leave lands available for water retention in designated reservoirs. "Floating agriculture" would ensure that these fields and reservoirs are productive all year.

The scheme blurs the distinction between the industrial and the agricultural (and to a point, the urban and the rural), envisaging as it does a patchwork of rice fields, water storage infrastructure and settlements.

Shma argues that the approach brings myriad economic benefits. Agricultural waste could be put to use as an energy source for the city through biomass or gasification. Conversely, waste from urbanized areas could be put to use as fertilizer. The upshot would be an increase in agricultural productivity that would, with the construction of a high-speed rail link, see Ayutthaya emerge as a center for tourism and commerce.

The project images are as grand as the scheme. The array of parabolic white spires depicted rising up out of the reservoirs (presumably some form of infrastructure related to the floating agriculture) strangely resemble the prangs or reliquary towers that, even in ruins today, are icons of the historic city (look again at the Dutch East India painting if you didn't spot them first time).

Ruined reliquary towers of the historic city of Ayutthaya (Photo: Patricia Young)

A reservoir of Shma's re-imagined Ayutthaya

The cost and viability of such a grand scheme is obviously wide open to the snark of the scrutinizer, but it's worth bearing in mind that, in light of last year's events, Shma is playing with live ammunition here. Its response falls well into the alternative flood response philosophy that accepts and works with, rather than against, inevitable flooding.

Shma's re-imagining of Ayutthaya makes way for flood water, and puts it to to use. But its concept not only asks a bold what if as to 21st century responses to mass-flooding, but also achingly yearns to restore a once-great city to its former self. I'd call that a concept worthy of the name.

Source: Shma

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