Isle see you in my dreams

Water equals time,” wrote Joseph Brodksy, “and provides beauty with its double.” The poet was writing about Venice and he, like Italo Calvino in his sublime novel Invisible Cities (1972), was intrigued by how the waterborne city was able to reflect the things we want to see – that it becomes a cipher for our desires.

In a way, this is what islands can do. Whether they are remote and exotic, or whether they are proximate and dismal, or whether they are thriving ports and centres of trade, islands allow us to establish an idealised world separated just enough from reality to confer upon them a sense of the different.

There is no such thing as a single island architecture, that would be too simple, and too dull. Instead, there are typologies. It’s worth running through a few of them because they provide us with an intriguing picture of our own architectural desires – their peripheries defined by the sea, they provide a condensed essence of both our dreams and our fears.

Manhattan Island, New York City, US

First there is the cosmopolitan trading post. Whether it is Venice or Manhattan, Hong Kong or Singapore, these are the island cities the world looks to for inspiration; straining to contain their commerce and culture, their cosmopolitan population a polyglot global cross section.

These island cities seem to have become the models, the ideal of the city state, a place apart. They have their own architectures. Manhattan and Hong Kong shine as the exemplars of the spiky skyline, where towers crowd the cityscape, poking their heads above the morass for air and views. Space is limited by geography so these cities grow upwards, ever denser with each fragment of land being pressed into service. In defiance of their topography, some of these islands are also expanding. Hong Kong’s fragrant harbour is shrinking as land on both sides is reclaimed from the waters. In Singapore, this reclamation is even more visible with the vast Marina Bay development and the new Gardens by the Bay radically shifting the shores. These islands no longer accept their limitations.

View across the Marina Bay towards the Central Business District in Singapore

This leads us to another type of island – the reclaimed extravagance of the artificial archipelago. These were the symbols of excess, the absurd island bubbles of a property boom reaching into the Gulf. Each had a name designed to be more excessive than the last: the Palm, the Pearl, then, finally, the World, a projection of the ultimate colonial project in which anyone rich enough can own a simulacra state, albeit in a fetid swamp in a sea as warm and salty as blood. These islands did not develop an architecture, only an extension of the real estate prospectus, an idealised vision of a luxury lifestyle that has proved fiercely underwhelming. This is a language of villas and garages, of gated communities and high security, its blankness a reflection of its existential emptiness.

These were residential resorts that attempted to build on the image of another kind of island architecture – that of the paradise island. They sit somewhere between the imagined languid glamour of the colonial and luxury resort moderne. What is important is that this is an architecture that should look expensive and exclusive. This is what islands can do – they are the ultimate in gated communities, able to control who comes in and out.

A rural island in the Hardanger Fjord, Norway

The image of the paradise island is also close to the nightmare of the desert island, a beautiful place of seclusion and a terrible place of loneliness. There is the island architecture of Bond villains and oligarchs and the Robinson Crusoe shack of the shipwreck survivor. That nightmare crops up again in the sci-fi set of the post-apocalyptic or futuristic dystopia. Planet of the Apes (1968) sees Manhattan reimagined as an upside down world ruled by simians in which mute humans are enslaved, while Michael Bay’s The Island (2005) is a futuristic utopia that turns out to be breeding humans for harvestable body parts. The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), imagined by HG Wells a century earlier, reveals the same fears about a place of strange experimentation and macabre grafting of human and animal parts. This is the downside of an island’s seclusion, the hells to the imagined paradise, the contemporary equivalent of a place marked “Here be dragons” on a nautical map, an indication of the unknown amid the sublime.

Hong Kong Island seen from Victoria Peak

Then there is the nightmare of the island wasteland. These exist on the edges of our cities as an urban purgatory. There is Fresh Kills, New York’s landfill island. Starting off as a temporary dump for New York’s growing garbage mountain on Staten Island, it became institutionalised as, for a while, the world’s biggest man-made structure, a country of crap. It is now being re-landscaped into a rural idyll by James Corner, the British-born landscape designer of New York’s super-successful High Line, but this is still an island of spoil.

Then there is Canvey Island in Essex, a landscape of oil refineries and toxic earth, of the roaring flames of gas flares and the oily sum of defunct industry.

Yet even these moments of urban desolation can be rebadged as development opportunities. Paris’s Ile Seguin in the Seine, formerly home to the vast Renault factory, has been touted for years as the perfect location for a new cultural quarter.

On Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi is building its own Louvre, designed by Jean Nouvel, masterplanner and architect of the Ile Seguin. This is to be a place of mega-starchitecture, with Nouvel, Sir Norman Foster and Frank Gehry each contributing huge cultural buildings, trying to magic a real place from a marshy archipelago. This is what islands allow you to do. They have a self-contained identity, they feel like places in a way in which a site with its parameters simply defined on a map might not. That definition of the boundaries, the tightly prescribed limits is what creates character.

Artist's impression of the World islands along Dubai's coast

We might think of the tropical island, with its inherent notions of beauty and luxurious seclusion, but the culture of island escape is yet more imbued in the culture in Scandinavia. Here the island is a symbol of retreat but not necessarily luxury. Urban dwellers retire to cosy cottages to be isolated in a different way, braced more than pampered. They have generated a rather protestant architecture of quietly living in nature, from self-built log cabins to modest modernist villas. These are about returning to a northern idea of nature rather than the creation of the entirely artificial. Island architecture in the north, whether it is New England, Shetland or the Baltic, tends towards that protestant ideal of denial. These are structures that speak the no-nonsense language of seafaring, built in timber with windows that are about views and the horizon, and interiors that are warm and cosy, about shelter rather than luxury.

A branch of the Palm, Jumeirah, Dubai

Yet luxury is what islands have come to be about. In the hyperbole of developers and estate agents, islands have become the ultimate in bustling exclusivity or in solitary retreat, a paradoxical archetype embracing island cities and island getaways. What the island also undoubtedly does is make architecture beautiful. Manhattan and Hong Kong are formed by their waters – the buildings extrude upwards as the only way to grow. Venice is seductive because its streets are of necessity tight and a dark sottoporteghi will end in a sparkling glimpse of water.

The waters that surround the island city, just as Brodsky and Calvino wrote, reflect an idealised image of a liquid double, but the architecture of the island itself reflects with crystal clarity the values of the societies that build them.

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