Hands On — Floating City

Craft & Design Workshop
Hands On — Floating City
Splavovi are inexpensive houseboats that float along the Sava and Danube. This drydocked one still has the oil drums.

Native to Belgrade’s two rivers, the Sava and the Danube, the splav is made from repurposed industrial junk. This raffish watercraft probably owes a large design debt to Belgrade gypsies, who are commonly scrap metal dealers. As Eastern Europe’s rock-bottom underclass, many gypsies literally live inside Belgrade junkyards, in fantastic sheet metal huts wired together out of anything handy.

So how do you make your own free-living splav houseboat? It’s intriguingly simple! First, get your hands on some empty German chemical-industry barrels — hopefully these drums held something nontoxic, such as paraffin or corn syrup. They’re cheap or free, since huge barges full of German oil drums steadily ply the Danube. Then scare up some rusty, Communist-era angle iron from any of the city’s many junkyards.

Take the German drums and the Yugoslav iron to a local marina at riverside. Weld the angle iron into a tight box that traps 12 or 15 of the watertight drums. Throw down some cheap wooden flooring over this buoyant iron foundation, then nail up a frame and a roof, doors and windows.

Launch your splav and have it towed. Find some spot on the shore that seems unclaimed, pound in a literal iron stake, tie a hawser to that, and you have staked your claim!

Further refinements are entirely up to you. Hanging dead rubber tires off the rim of your splav is a cordial touch, since friends with boats may visit, and these fenders will spare their hulls.

Of course you will have no mailing address, but you may be able to steal some electrical power, as that’s not well policed. Flowered window boxes are a gracious touch. If you’re a migrant fresh from the village, or a displaced Balkan refugee, you might also plant a little subsistence garden on the shore. Nobody will stop you from fishing the kindly Danube, and even if you’re one fish-and-pepper soup away from utter destitution, everyone will think you are amusing yourself like a city gentleman.

Building a houseboat on top of floating oil drums is extremely simple and cheap. That’s why there are hundreds of splavovi — more every week. But how do people get away with doing it?

Seattle’s once-colorful Lake Union houseboat village, which dates back to the 1890s, has long since been gentrified, Microsoftie-style. Amsterdam’s houseboats are legally fossilized in amber. Belgrade’s splavovi are much more modern animals. They evolved in an outlaw mini-state with a post-Communist economy in a turbulent transition. This means, as a hands-on vernacular architecture, they have a uniquely favorable economic, political, and legal environment.

This richness of creative opportunity has caused the splavovi to break up into several different species.

Basic Splav This is poverty slum-housing, over water. Somebody’s trying to make a full-time go of life on a splav, for lack of other choices. They may be refugees, smugglers, artists, drunks, poachers, visionaries, migrants, or retired on a nonexistent pension. Their lives are pretty hard, and they look it.

Recreational Splav This one was thrown together as a cute, toy, floating summerhouse by someone who enjoys the river. Rarely visited by their owners, who generally have real jobs and other homes, these splavovi often mildew or catch fire.

Speakeasy Splav This is what happens when the inhabitants of the Basic Splav catch on to the unique legal advantages of their situation. No taxes, no licenses, no fire-safety codes … no identity. Why not sell booze on board, or any other contraband that someone might like to consume? Yo ho ho!

Nightclub Splav Given that you’re already running an illegal bar, why not scale it up radically? Bring in a gypsy band, some techno DJs, or the fiercely popular “turbo-folk” ethnic divas! And — given that mere oil drums can only support so much dance floor — why not grab an entire dead barge or outdated river ferry, and just nail that hulk into place on the riverbank? You’ll have to settle that feat with the local cops somehow — but hey, cops are husky young guys; cops love boozy, miniskirted Belgrade party girls!

Deluxe Restaurant Splav Since everybody’s partying on the river anyway — life sure feels easier there, much less constrained somehow — why not feed them, too? The view of the Blue Danube is hard to beat, the air is cooler, ships have galleys — and if they don’t, you can always carve out a kitchen with a blowtorch.

Nouveau Riche Splav The urge to show up the neighbors is as old as mankind, so why not a big, gaudy, two-story splav with aluminum siding and maybe the tasteful stylings of a fake Chinese pagoda? Given that there are so many splavovi, a host of handymen are in business making them, and they’re looking less spontaneous and more like a houseboat industry.

Over the past few years, Europe has been learning a lot about climate change. The summers are much hotter (that’s good for splavovi, because the river is cooler than anyplace else in town). The winters are milder (also good for splavovi, because they are flimsy, lightweight, and poorly insulated). The droughts are longer (not too bad, as splavovi can squat in the river mud if need be) and the rains are sharp, sudden, deep, and sometimes catastrophic. The flood of 2006 took a toll on splavovi.

So the trend is clear: both rivers’ shores will end up with huge, wet margins of uninsurable, semi-habitable, climate-change slums — the new urban river marshes. Such a severe situation will take a lot of painful adaptation. Unless you’re halfway there already.

A river isn’t a toy for city dwellers. A city is a toy for a river.

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Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and part-time design professor.

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