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The Tree is Not Trying to Look Beautiful

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Here’s an image of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in happier days. It’s in semi-submersible mode so it could be towed to where it needs to be. Here’s a link to its technical specifications.  This next one’s a different type of oil rig – a jackup oil rig. Again, it’s not self-powered, but it has a hull and floats while it’s towed to where it needs to be. When it gets there, its legs extend down to jack the rig up and out of the water. Here’s a picture of the West Atlas jackup oil rig off the north-west coast of Australia in November 2009. In this photo, it happens to be on fire. It’s not blue skies all the time.

Human error aside, the jackup system is a very sensible way of doing things. Unlike the semi-submersibles that have huge underwater pontoons, the hull – for it is a real, seafaring hull – of the jackup rig serves the dual purpose of ensuring buoyancy during relocation, and being a protective underside once the rig is where it needs to be.

According to Offshore Magazine, jackup refurbishment activity carried out by offshore fabricator Lamprell at its yards in Dubai and Sharjah continues at much the same rate as last year, with 29 refurbs so far for 2010.  Other oil rig news was the announcement that the first jackup rigs are now to built in the UAE. This links to a brochure containing their technical specifications. You can see many such rigs in various stages of refurbishment and reassembly if you go to the port in Sharjah. Here’s one currently parked at Dubai drydock. These things are part of the UAE.

So what’s this post all about then? It’s not about the ecological impact of offshore oil drilling, or about our dependency on fossil fuels, or even the consequences of human error. It’s about beauty, actually.

The popular view is that architecture is all about adding some quality known as “art” to the science of building. Structures that haven’t been designed to be beautiful are routinely excluded from being considered architecture. Notice how the oil rig is not trying to look like a wave? Notice how it looks neither modern nor old? Notice how it does not try to be anything other than what it is? Notice how it could be anywhere? The logic of engineering, the technical nature of its task and the uniform harshness of marine environments are universal determinants. It has no need to look as if it is “growing out of the ground”. It has no big glass windows to “take advantage” of the view. It is not trying to be witty, self-referential, or pretty.

Finally, here is a photo of Sharjah’s Mubarak oil field. If it wasn’t for these overlooked structures offshore, many of us – including me – would not be in the UAE talking about architecture, teaching about it, or (hopefully) designing and constructing something that people might someday want to call it.

I think these useful structures deserve some thanks.