Thinking Architecture with an Indian Ocean archipelago

The following is an extract from my paper Thinking architecture with an Indian Ocean archipelago, submitted to the journal GeoHumanities.

In his short essay, Desert Islands, Giles Deleuze proposes that geologically speaking there are two kinds of islands: “continental islands” and “oceanic islands” (Deleuze 2004, 9). The former are islands because of a distance opened up by geological processes (erosion, fracture etc.) between them and the continental mass of which they were originally a part. Their defining dimension is their distance (far or near) from their mainland. The islands of the Aegean Sea, the original archipelago, belong to this type. They are geological extensions of the mountains of the Greek mainland that once formed a land bridge from Greece to Asia Minor. Given this, it is not surprising that, in western thought, relationships between land and sea have been thought of as binary and opposing, given that the sea has dislodged the island from its original attachment, and that islands have been theorised in terms of their distance from or relations with their mainlands, through tropes of isolation, dependency or peripherality (Easterling 2004; Staniscia 2013).

This is the model that informed O.M. Ungers 1977 manifesto, Die Stadt in der Stadt, Berlin das Gruner Stadtarchipel (translated as The City in the City, Berlin: A Green Archipelago), a blueprint for the city as a collection of architecturally significant, value-laden fragments floating in a gridded, valueless (from an architectural perspective) metropolitan sea.

O.M.Ungers. Berlin: a Green Archipelago. Source:

O.M.Ungers. Berlin: a Green Archipelago. Source:

In this template for architecture’s relation with the city, and reminiscent of Carl Schmitt’s view of the sea as “nothing but waves” (Schmitt 2003, 13) and of Roland Barthes idea of the sea as a “non-signifying field” (Barthes 1993, 112), the metropolis was assigned the status of nothingness.

Through parallel actions of reconstruction and deconstruction, such a city becomes an archipelago of architectural islands floating in a post-architectural landscape of erasure, where what was once city is now a highly charged nothingness (Koolhaas 1995, 200).

West Berlin was conceptualised as outcrops of architectural singularity pitted against a dividing sea of characterless urbanisation.

This template and the distinctive binary it is modelled on has influenced ideas about architecture’s relation with the city ever since (in particular Aureli (2011)). It sets up clear boundaries between what is architecture and what is not, where it is and where it is not and reinforces the idea of architecture as an autonomous, isolated, self-contained discipline and the city as a collection of separate parts. Where architecture is, its history, theories, formal logics and compositional rules are sovereign and endlessly repeated. Everything outside of this is considered architecturally unthinkable, to be non-architecture, and hidden from view, denied or eradicated.

There is however another way of thinking the archipelago if one starts from Deleuze’s other category, oceanic islands, to which Indian Ocean island formations, including the Maldives, belong.

The Indian Ocean: Source: Library of Congress.

The Indian Ocean: Source: Library of Congress.

Oceanic islands, as their name suggests, originate in the ocean. They are extra-continental formations, emerging as a consequence of sub-aquatic activity, usually volcanic eruptions. They cannot be theorised in relation to continents, for they never were continental in the first place. In the case of the Maldives, they do not even stand on a continental shelf, but arise directly from the earth’s mantel, as a consequence of tectonic shifts and rifts. In order to understand and theorise these kinds of islands, we have to think vertically and plumb the subaquatic depths.

It was Charles Darwin who first proposed in his early monograph The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (Darwin 1842) that coral atolls are the peaks of living pyramids of coral limestone extending down to depths of 3000 m. He hypothesised that they result from volcanic oceanic ridge subsidence and fringing coral up-growth, to maintain itself in the photosynthetic zone (a maximum of 45 m below sea level). One of Darwin’s contemporaries, T. H. Huxley, at a lecture in Manchester in 1870 said “it is one of the universal lessons of geology that the land is going down and going up, and has been going up and down, in all sorts of places and to all sorts of distances, through all recorded time. Geologists would be quite right in maintaining the seeming paradox that the stable thing in the world is the fluid sea and the shifting thing is the solid land” (Huxley 1873). We now know of course that this is not the case and that throughout earth’s history, sea levels have also gone up and down, but the point is that thinking the archipelago from the perspective of oceanic, not continental islands, requires thinking in depth (ups and downs), not distance (nears and fars), and in terms of relationalities and continuities, not separations and oppositionalities, between land and sea.

Diagram of atoll formation. Lindsay Bremner.

Diagram of atoll formation. Drawn: Lindsay Bremner.

Darwin had realised that coral reefs “although plainly geological structures on a stupendous scale, were created by slow, gradual growth of countless billions of tiny creatures over vast periods of time” (Chancellor 2008). This discovery was in symmetry with his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (Darwin 1881) in which he argued that the humble earthworm toiling beneath his feet was literally creating the landscape. The tiny marine organisms that build coral reefs perform similar feats to those of earthworms. They are “small agencies” (Bennett 2010, 95) that, without the slightest idea of what they are doing, are, given time, changing the face of the earth, history and human culture.

Reefs are the skeletal structures of tiny oceanic organisms called polyps. They are made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) separated from seawater by the polyps and secreted from their bodies. Reefs grow as polyps deposit this limestone material beneath them, pushing their nutrient gathering tentacles upwards towards the sunlight. They are nourished by a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, a species of photosynthetic algae that live in their tissue. The coral polyps and algae have a delicately balanced mutualistic relationship that facilitates a tight, economic recycling of nutrients between them. This relationship is the substructure, the building block of life in the coral archipelago. It is the finely tuned relational nexus connecting reefs, fish and other invertebrates, sea grass beds, sand banks, vegetated islands, and, when bundled with human activity, accumulates buildings, cities, livelihoods and recreation as its progeny (Weier 2001). It is integrated into everyday life and the cultural imaginary of the Maldivian people and socialised and appropriated as unpaid work/energy in fishing, tourism and construction industries (Moore 2015). The country’s very existence depends on keeping the symbiotic metabolisms of these tiny sea creatures in a state of good health.

Road building aggregate, Hulhumale, April 2015.

Road building aggregate, Hulhumale, April 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

In the coral archipelago, it is grazing fish, sea urchins and other organisms that transform coral into the sand and rubble that converge into islands. They act as bio-eroders, grinding coral skeletons into fragments, digesting the algae they contain and excreting the ground coral. This settles into the reef, forming a porous structure of coral fragments, shells, rubble and sand. This degraded coral debris is not stable and is moved around by winds, waves, tides and currents. Coral islands are piles of sand and rubble formed in this way in a dynamic balance between new sand and coral rubble being added from the reef and eroded by wind and waves back into atoll lagoons or the open sea.

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

At times this process stabilises long enough to form sand bars that become vegetated to form islands, at others, it simply disappears back into the sea (Heyerdahl 1986).

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

What is land and what is sea is not fixed but changes all the time from day to day and season to season. “An atoll is not solid ground. It is not a constant thing in the way a rock island is a thing. An atoll is a not-so-solid eddy in a sea of sand and rubble” (Eschenbach 2010).


Seasonal beach change around selected islands in Baa Atoll. Source: Kench, P. S. (no date). The Geomorphology of Baa (South Maalhosmadulu) Atoll and its Reef Islands, p. 19.

This contrasts with Deleuze’s island as an “egg surrounded by the sea” (Deleuze 2004, 11). Coral islands are not islands in the ocean, but islands of the ocean, produced by its dynamic energies. They are liminal spaces, geology and biology, land and sea. They are arrested matter in motion, driven by currents, tides, winds, seasons, and marine life. Islands, lagoons, mangrove swamps, sea grass beds and coral reef flats are little eddies of relative stability in a dynamic mesh of relational instability.

Sand eddies between Gasfinolhu + Thusdhoo, North Male Atoll. Source: Google Earth.

Sand eddies between Gasfinolhu + Thusdhoo, North Male Atoll. Source: Google Earth.

Landforms are sandforms, relatively unstable, always moving, formed by erosion, deposition or siltation and shaped by the forces of the seasonal monsoon.

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

Thinking architecture from this perspective is firstly to be mindful that oceanic processes produce islands and boundaries between islands and the sea are fluid and change all the time. If for a moment, following The Green Archipelago’s example, this is taken as a metaphor for architecture and its relations with the city, the two can no longer be thought of in binary terms or as mutually exclusive. Instead architecture must be thought from within the “fluid mobility and tactile materiality” (Steinberg 2013, 157) of the urban relations in which it is configured. It becomes no more than a little eddy of relative stability in the dynamic matrix of relational instability that makes up the city. That architecture and the city were posited as oppositional and external to one another in the Green Archipelago should not be taken as self evident, incorrect or historically arbitrary, but rather as a way of creating a niche for architecture as a disciplinary practice within a modern economy by positing that its forms, compositional rules, theories and histories are autonomous, self referential, timeless and universal. If however, “the ground beneath our feet turns out to be the sea” (Perera 2009, 1), as is the case in a coral archipelago, architecture’s autonomy falls away. Instead it becomes a topological condition, its internal logics formed, deformed and twisted by dynamic urban processes. This way of thinking privileges cross currents and connections and conceptualises architecture as a complex relational field. Thinking architecture in this way, means “getting wet” (Baldacchino 2012), metaphorically speaking. It means rejecting an insular imagination and thinking architecture as thoroughly urban-in-nature from the start. Architecture is not, to use Aureli’s word, “absolute” (2011), but continuous with and contingent upon the historical socio-ecological relations in which it is embedded, produced, to which it gives form and with which it struggles.

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. photo: Lindsay Bremner.

Maadhoo Island, South Male Atoll, November 2015. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.


Aureli, P. V. (2011). The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Baldacchino, G. (2012). Getting  Wet. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures 6 (1): 22–25.

Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. New York: Random House.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Chancellor, G. (2008). Introduction to Coral Reefs. Darwin Online.

Darwin, C. (1842). The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. London: Smith Elder and Co.

———. (1881). The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. London: John Murray.

Deleuze, G. (2004). Desert Islands. In Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles, CA and Columbia University: Semiotext(e).

Easterling, K. (2004). The Confetti of Empire. Cabinet 16.

Eschenbach, W. (2010). Floating Islands. Watts Up With That? 27 January.

Heyerdahl, T. (1986). Maldive Mystery. New York: George Allen and Unwin.

Huxley, T. H. (1873). Coral and Coral Reefs. In Critiques and Addresses, by Thomas Huxley. London: Macmillan. Project Gutenberg eText #2937.

Koolhaas, R. (1995). Imagining Nothingness. In S, M, L, XL., ed. B. Mau and R. Koolhaas, 199-202. New York: Monacelli Press.

Moore, J. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.

Perera, S. (2009). Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Borders, Boats, and Bodies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schmitt, C. (2003). Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum. New York: Telos Press.

Staniscia, S. (2013). The Island Paradigm and the Mediterranean. In New Geographies 5, ed. A. Petrov, 255–62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Steinberg, P. (2013). Of Other Seas: Metaphors and Materialities in Maritime Regions. Atlantic Studies 10 (2): 156–69.

Ungers, O. M. (1977). Die Stadt in der Stadt. Berlin das Gruner Stadtarchipel. Reprinted in Hertweck, F. and S. Marot (eds.). (2013). The City in the City: Berlin: A Green Archipelago, 83-130. Zurich: Lars Muller

Weier, J. (2001). Amazing Atolls of the Maldives. NASA Earth Observatory.


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