Architectural Ecologies Lab Team Leads Research Trip to the Maldives

Interdisciplinary Cohort Explores Radical Alternatives through Field Work and Public Engagement.

What better way to spend an ecological summer break than investigating the effects of climate change in the highly impacted Maldives? An interdisciplinary team from the Architectural Ecologies Lab did just that. This past July, three California College of the Arts faculty from the Architectural Ecologies Lab joined two scientists for a two-week field trip to the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean of 1,200 small coral islands, 200 of which are are human-inhabited.

The Maldives face immediate and urgent impacts of sea-level rise caused by climate change, including disastrous, recent coral bleaching due to ocean warming. CCA faculty Margaret Ikeda, Evan Jones, and Leslie Carol Roberts joined Dr. John Oliver of the Benthic Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and the biologist Jo Guerrero on a visit to numerous islands, conducting field work and sharing research and design work by California College of the Arts faculty and students interrogating ecological changes and how we might mediate the effects through varied approaches.

Professors Ikeda and Jones lead the Buoyant Ecologies Maldives integrated architecture studio, which began work in 2017 to develop speculative proposals for floating communities in the Maldives. Professor Roberts co-directs the Ecopoesis Project, an interdisciplinary initiative of the AEL and CCA’s MFA in Writing Program, exploring how we use language to grasp and process life, human and non-human, in the sixth extinction. 

The team’s research brief included field work and interviews to better map and understand the complex island culture, politics, economies, infrastructure, and marine ecology. The team left with optimism about future collaborations and strategies for partnerships this fall semester and beyond.


  • An evening lecture and panel discussion at The Maldives National University (MNU) with more than 150 attendees, including former president and climate activist President Mohamed Nasheed; Dr. Mohamed Latheef, the Chancellor of MNU, and Dr. Shazla Mohamed, Dean of Engineering, Science and Technology (home of the architecture department). 

  • Professors Ikeda and Jones were invited guest reviewers at MNU for the final studio presentation for a fourth-year undergraduate studio, which explored the planning and development of a community over water.

  • A two-day exhibition in Male’ (the capital city) of Buoyant Ecologies Maldives studio work, followed the talks. This work had previously been exhibited at the Hubbell Gallery at CCA in February, 2019 (curated by CCA faculty member Michael Bogan) and at the Benthic Lab Open House in April, 2019. This event was an opportunity to meet with the public and discuss the studio projects on exhibit. Many people attended, including representatives from government agencies who were curious about both the adaptive design approaches and the incorporation of sustainable systems. These initial meetings have cultivated relationships with a new constituency who have become an essential resource for this fall’s Buoyant Ecologies Maldives studio, currently underway at CCA.

  • Professor Roberts led a series of Ecopoesis dialogues with Maldivian students and visitors to the exhibition, interviewing them and discussing local perspectives on how climate change impacts economic, social, and ecological dimensions of daily life.

  • The island of Dhangethi, the site of the Buoyant Ecologies Maldives studio, was the main focal point of the trip. After a three-hour speed boat trip in heavy monsoon seas, the team spent three days meeting with island residents, learning about the local infrastructure, understanding the island’s hydrology, and recording thoughts on climate. Most of their time was spent on the water, including snorkelling with the majestic whale shark, observing the marine eco-tourism industry, and talking to local divers. The biologists, both divers, explored an adjacent marine sanctuary, and documented the shallow and deep lagoons that skirt the island of Dhangethi. Dhangethi, with a population of 500, is looking to grow its tourist economy. The implications of a heavier human footprint on water use and effluent were explored and discussed with local leaders. 

  • To better understand the Maldives economy, which is based on high-end, foreign-funded resorts and tourism, the team visited the Conrad (Hilton) Resort, home to a famed underwater restaurant and representative of the industry.  The Conrad biologists explained the hotel’s coral restoration scheme and took the AEL into the waters for a closer view.. The next stop was the Banyan Tree Resort, a global hotel group based in Singapore. Banyan Tree has a reputation for serious commitment to marine biology research. Their resident marine biologist, Steve Newman, has more than two decades of dive work and research around coral and marine life in the Maldives. In addition, he is on a government panel that looks at how to better manage eco-tourism across the country. Connected to a research university in the UK, the Banyan Tree routinely hosts PhD students conducting research about the local ecologies. The hotel is also one of the only marine biology labs in the country. The AEL team saw documented extensive coral bleaching on this warmer inner island atoll and observed how sharks and other reef species were adapting. Oliver continues discussions with the biologist at Banyan Tree lab about possible research collaborations in the coming years.

Isha Fathmath, a 2018 Buoyant Ecologies Maldives student, 2019 CCA M.Arch graduate, and principal of Doric MV architecture based in the capital Male’ with local partner Layana Mohamed, coordinated all the public events and was invaluable to navigating the islands from a local perspective.

There is more to come with both ECOPOESIS and the Buoyant Ecologies team. Roberts and her CCA ECOPOESIS colleague Christopher Falliers are teaching a semester-long graduate seminar ECOPOESIS. This interdisciplinary course looks at embodied messaging around climate change, engaging in form-making and language to articulate climate change and the feelings of the sixth extinction. The Buoyant Ecologies team is incorporating the feedback of all their new partners into a third design studio, titled “A Blueprint for Resilience,” and has been working remotely with an MNU architecture studio sharing ideas around innovative technologies, cultural traditions and ecological adaptations.

Community Event Celebrates the Launch of Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab

During a weekend of worldwide climate protests and California Coastal Cleanup Day, leaders from California College of the Arts (CCA), Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Port of Oakland representatives, and community members gathered on Saturday, September 21, to commemorate the launch of the Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab in Oakland’s Middle Harbor. This innovative floating research station offers a first-of-its-kind approach to addressing the effects of climate change to be deployed in the San Francisco Bay. The event was organized by the Architectural Ecologies Lab in partnership with CCA Architecture Division and project funder CCA Center for Impact.

Led by CCA architecture faculty and AEL directors Adam Marcus, Margaret Ikeda, and Evan Jones, the Float Lab builds upon five years of applied research at CCA and merges expertise of architects and designers, advanced digital fabrication manufacturers, and marine ecologists. It is engineered to serve as a breakwater to reduce coastal erosion and also be a habitat for marine life in order to increase marine biodiversity. The Float Lab will be used as an educational tool in fulfillment of Middle Harbor Shoreline Park’s mission to be a place for learning about local history, natural environment, maritime activities, and stewardship for the environment.

The Float Lab launch celebration kicked off with a jazzy, New Orleans–style ceremonial procession performed by the Edna Brewer Middle School Band. The band led over 100 guests down to Port View Park, where the festivities and remarks took place. In the crowd were City of Oakland and Port of Oakland leaders, fifth grade students from Prescott School in West Oakland, musicians from Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, multiple community members, and CCA leadership and faculty, as well as current and former CCA students involved with the development of the Buoyant Ecologies research. The celebratory procession lead guests to Port View Park, where the community picnic joyfully commenced with food, refreshments, DIY kites, and coloring book activities as they viewed the Float Lab doing its work in the bay. The event even featured specialty 3D-printed Float Lab-shaped cakes, created by culinary artist and CCA M.Arch alum Carlos Sabogal.

The distinguished speakers then gathered for remarks. Speaking at the event were (in order): JD Beltran, director of CCA Center for Impact, Amy Tharpe, director of Social Responsibility, Port of Oakland; Adam MarcusMargaret Ikeda, and Evan Jones, CCA Architecture faculty and Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab project leaders; Stephen Beal, CCA president; Keith Krumwiede, CCA dean of Architecture; fifth grade students from Prescott School; Brad McCrea, director of Regulatory Program, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; and Richard Sinkoff, director of Environmental Programs and Planning, Port of Oakland; and Libby Schaaf, Mayor of Oakland.

Four students from educator Connie Zunino’s fifth grade class at Prescott School in West Oakland gave a special presentation about Tanaids, a small crustacean native to the bay. The students displayed a colorful, papier-mâché representation of a Tanaid while stating scientific facts delivered in rhyming poetic verse.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf concluded the remarks. Wearing her California Coastal Cleanup T-shirt and green Oakland Proud ball cap, Mayor Schaaf delivered impassioned remarks about the importance of offering innovative solutions to climate change and expressed her commitment to environmental stewardship, especially for future generations: “What’s so exciting about the Float Lab is this is not just a scientific laboratory, this is a show of power from our students—our students at CCA, our students in the Oakland Unified School District—and just know that you have an entire community here in the city of Oakland cheering you on, telling you how important this work is, and telling you to use this information for good, for change.” She then shared the ceremonial ribbon-cutting moment with one of the fifth grade students from Prescott School.

“The challenges around environmental issues are just enormous, and we’re so proud of the work that our faculty and students have done to begin to address this,” said CCA President Stephen Beal. “The founder of CCA, Frederick Meyer, believed that the best thing was to take young creative people and to connect them to the complexities of social, political, and economic life. And that’s been at the heart of CCA for 112 years. Never has that been more important than it is today.”