Levitating Architecture: Jetsons-esque Fantasy or a Practical Form of Flood Protection?

Pat Finn Pat Finn

Flood prevention is a perennial concern for architects, and one that is becoming more relevant each year, as climate change continues to cause sea levels to rise and storms to rage with increasing frequency and intensity. As architects across the globe rack their brains for solutions to this dire problem, few have come up with a proposal as imaginative as that suggested by architect Lira Luis of the Chicago-based firm ALLL, who believes she can build structures that levitate above the ground or water.

Luis had the idea for levitating buildings when she was working on an underwater project that involved easily removable parts. Luis used magnets for this project, and at one point mistakenly held the magnets the wrong way. She noticed that even here, under water, the magnets repelled each other.

“This is where my a-ha moment came,” she says. “What if buildings and cities levitated?” The idea isn’t as far out as it may sound. Magnets are already used to make Japanese bullet trains levitate above the tracks. The technique, however, has never been used before in architecture. Luis wants to change that.

Luis uses both software models and traditionally built scale models to test out the logistics of her plan. “I’m approaching it the old-school way,” she says. Her current model is quite small, only 13 ounces, but it can levitate 1.5 inches off the ground. Luis claims that larger buildings will levitate higher off the ground than smaller buildings in much the same way that larger buildings require a larger foundation than smaller buildings. She envisions a future where people access their homes via ladders, bridges or even jetpacks.

Flood prevention is an issue of personal significance for Luis, who grew up in a village in the Philippines where many of the buildings are built on stilts. This age-old solution, she claims, leaves much to be desired. “You can’t predict how high the water will go,” she says. “Think about New Orleans, when the levees broke. People in high-rise buildings didn’t anticipate that the water would reach those heights.” A levitating building, in contrast, would be able to rise with the tides. And unlike a building that floats on water, it won’t be subject to the fickle movements of the capricious sea.

Of course, there have been detractors to Luis’s utopian scheme. “You can only levitate something about an inch or a few inches before it gets very inefficient,” says Martin Simon, a physics researcher at UCLA who specializes in magnetic levitation. “How that will help in a flood, I don’t understand — not to talk about the expense and a million other problems.”

You can evaluate Luis’s dramatic proposal for yourself at the Coverings Conference in Chicago, where Luis will be displaying a model of her building. The conference is held from April 18th to the 21st.

Photos: Ksju Kami; rendering: ALLL; sketch: Lira Luis

Pat Finn Author: Pat Finn
Pat Finn is a high school English teacher and a freelance writer on art, architecture, and film. He believes, with Orwell, that "good prose is like a windowpane," but his study of architecture has shown him that a window is only as good as the landscape it looks out on. Pat is based in the New York metro area.
Read more articles by Pat

Beyond Architecture: 10 Unique Product Designs by Zaha Hadid

Hadid lent her sculptural aesthetic to furniture, fixtures, jewelry and shoes.

13 Amazing Design Trailers by Zaha Hadid Architects

Each of ZHA's buildings include an inspiring video that helps to narrate the project.