Phase 1: Spring 2007
Phase 2: Summer 2010
Phase 2 Team:
Maya Przybylski
Fei-Ling Tseng
Matthew Spremulli

Project appears in Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism.

Project appears in Fuel, Alphabet City Series.

Phase 1 of this project was done as a M.ARCH Thesis at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. Mason White was the Advisor.

The Caspian Sea lies at the frontier of global off shore oil operations. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world’s largest inland water body and the oil beneath it has been caught in the turmoil of shifting global powers. The 1947 site of the world’s first off shore oil platform, extraction in the Caspian went dormant in the 60s as the Soviet regime refocused on newer, more easily exploitable fields. But in 1991, the sea was suddenly available, a largely untapped reservoir that attracted a collection of major and minor actors. The United States, the European Union, regional powers, oil companies, international financial institutions and nationalist movements anticipated the opportunities latent in the Caspian’s seabed.

Before these opportunities could be realized, however, the redivision of the sea amongst its new claimants required resolution. The three new littoral states - Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan – inserted their claims into what had been a stable agreement between Russia and Iran. While dispute over the contested territory continues, it is certain that rigs will be installed, pipelines will flow, and the oil will be exploited. Even as this occurs, it is increasingly clear that the petroleum economy and its associated operations have a limited lifespan. The Caspian will remain beyond that moment when the last barrel of oil leaves the sea bed.

Is it possible to extend the momentum generated by the oil operations with a strategy that envisions the post-oil future of the sea? Is it possible to plan for this moment as a new phase in the life of the sea, rather than passively anticipating a post-industrial wasteland?
Can we learn from the Caspian Sea’s non-human occupants to extend the momentum of oil operations into the post-oil future?
The World’s Largest Inland Water Body
The Caspian does not fall neatly into the categories of maritime law, being inland and isolated from the world’s oceans like a lake but saline like a sea.
Filtered Water
The Caspian is a complex of many interacting systems. Points of contact between agents, flows, and operations are hotspots for potential strategic intervention.
Core Samples
Before any of the potential riches of the Caspian’s seabed can be realized, legal rights to the sea and the oil beneath it have to be resolved and redivided among the new claimants. The prize under dispute is not a simple territorial surface but a three-dimensional, four-level system: the air space over the sea, the water itself, the sea floor, and the subfloor geology with its sought-after reserves of trapped petroleum. Each stratum houses a unique combination of the sea’s occupants, operations, and political boundaries.
Projected Reoccupations
Activity in the Caspian Sea, projected to 2100: as oil extraction declines, opportunities for alternative economies and ecosystems emerge. A clue to this reoccupation can be found in the changing migratory patterns of Caspian water birds, who have adapted their routes to take advantage of the surfaces of abandoned platforms. A host of opportunistic new occupants might find niches as more such sites become available.
The organizational strategy for operations currently emerging in the Caspian Sea is primarily a hub-and-spoke model. Satellite oil operations are directly connected back to the major ports on the shore, Baku and Turkmenbashy. As activity in the open water increases, connections between rigs are amplified and the strategy is modified; the lines of contact back to the ports become less significant.
The relationship between the occupiable surface offered by the abandoned rigs and the territories of the sea’s occupants becomes more evident as years pass. The development that followed the building of the rigs rendered parts of the shoreline inhospitable to water birds, but a less obvious result of the human incursion is that the now deserted structures have begun to offer birds and fish new habitats – expanding their territories’ bounds. The birds have begun to fly from rig to rig during their migration, avoiding contact with the shore altogether. The abandoned rigs offer similar habitats for fish by simulating reef-like conditions that attract nutrients for the fish. This type of reactivation is already taking place; this site, located at a convenient location on the migratory flyway, offers a resting place for passing birds.
The Caspian Sea currently represents the frontier of oil exploration and exploitation. It is projected that oil extraction will peak between 2020 and 2030. When the oil companies begin to wind down their operations, the key to the proposed renewal of the sea will be the re-exploitation of the relics they leave behind. Here, a small offline oil platform, abandoned in the 1960s, has been transformed into a node along a network of bird watching and dive sites.
Sparsely dotted over the vast sea, the constructed surfaces of the rigs are at a premium. Sectional site studies offer a strategy for maximizing these surfaces vertically, offsetting the strata of the rigs to increase the occupiable area. As wildlife and human populations shift and diversify, it is expected that the scarce but valuable surfaces will attract new occupants. This offline oil extraction platform is transformed into an accommodation and gateway unit for leisure and adventure seekers.
The contested territory, effectively uncontrolled, is a laissez-faire offshore opportunity for maverick entrepreneurs. The presence of abandoned structures, coupled with the redevelopment of some rigs towards new uses, provides a site for a material exchange operation. The central position of the territory, adjacent to the waters of all littoral states, makes it an ideal base for such activities. Scavenged rig components, sorted and traded, are reclaimed as resources.

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