“Thanks to technology, we will again live in harmony with nature”

On every continent, women and men are fighting to save the environment. Match set off this week with Jules Verne’s spiritual son who wants to make the oceans our future home.

Paris match. Tell us about SeaOrbiter, this crazy idea?
Jacques Rougeri. SeaOrbiter is the culmination of all my research and the focus of all my passions. It is both a science and technology platform, a mobile underwater base that will serve as a vehicle for learning and communication on all issues related to the ocean, biodiversity and climate. I designed it as the first international ocean station, like the ISS in space. I have always been fascinated by the parallels between space exploration and the underwater world. For me, these two great human adventures are intimately connected. They give rise to the spread of new knowledge that gives rise to other views of the earth that influence our way of life: communication, mobility, urban planning, architecture, thereby shaping the future of our societies. It is no coincidence that Cousteau built his first underwater home in the year that man first went into space. The similarity of closed life in these two extreme conditions is a fascinating subject for study and has much to teach us. That is why today it is important to have a permanent base at the international level, which allows researchers to come together to develop a benevolent research and innovation policy.

How can an architect-oceanographer be involved in undersea research endeavors?
By making underwater houses like the Galathée, or boats with a transparent hull that allow you to observe and discover underwater biodiversity, and by winning this world record for sixty-nine days underwater, during which I realize the SeaOrbiter idea, which allow researchers to observe the underwater world in situ 24 hours a day for extended periods of time. Research divers will be able to leave this base directly under water; 80% of the observations will be made while drifting to better understand how biodiversity evolves, or to constantly listen to life in the main ocean currents.

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It is also a machine that makes you dream. When you see it, you think of a sci-fi ship!
I am very sensitive to beauty, harmony and symbols. To inspire, so that everyone can identify with this project, strong images are needed. For me, such sources of inspiration were Leonardo da Vinci, then Jules Verne. They inspired me to go on incredible scientific adventures and explore new worlds. We must pass on our knowledge and our passions, raising awareness and educating the younger generation about the major issues of space and the oceans. For her, I hope that SeaOrbiter will have a strong international impact.

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A pioneer’s work: building underwater for forty years

This project is old. When do you expect to see it completed?
In fact, he is already 10 years old. At the time it was too innovative, but today it has all its legitimacy. Therefore, it is necessary to adapt it to new technologies. That’s why Rodolphe Saade, head of the CMA CGM, decided to accompany us. Between research, construction and sea trials, the cost of the project is estimated at 72 million euros. We are looking for new partners committed to the ecological transition to take part in this extraordinary adventure. SeaOrbiter is now taking its place in the blue economy that is shaping the future. And it caught the attention of President Macron during the United Ocean Summit in Brest last February.

Sea level rise is a major concern. What solutions can we consider to adapt to this phenomenon?
Today we are 7 billion people, half of whom live close to the coast. Tomorrow we will be 11 billion and 75% will live off the coast. Paradoxically, despite the risks associated with rising water, pressure on the coast will increase. The OECD has just released a staggering figure: sea level rise will affect nearly a billion people worldwide. The acceleration is significant. However, it will last more than fifty or a hundred years, which leaves us little time, in particular, to test solutions. As another says, “Let’s go slowly because we’re in a hurry.” Our responses must be adapted to geographic, cultural and economic areas and respect the way people live. Bangladesh or the Maldives will not have to deal with the same problems as the Camargue or the Netherlands. Together with our architectural agency Rougerie+Tangram and our laboratory, we are working on the development of the coast. In particular, we came up with the design of an atoll located in French Polynesia, consisting of floating structures so that residents can continue to live on the lands of their ancestors. I created the Jacques Rougerie Foundation, located at the Institut de France, to encourage and develop the outstanding imagination of young architects and engineers around the world. Our international architectural competition allows them to come up with very specific solutions. You must believe in human genius and its ability to adapt! I have always wanted to build the future by linking architecture, oceanography and biomimicry.

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You have another project, more utopian: the creation of the Merien civilization. Who are they ?
Aquanauts, creatures from the underwater world, whom I affectionately call Merians, because they live in harmony with the water element, which determines philosophy, outlook and specific behavior. I have stayed in underwater houses for a long time several times. You have no idea how happy this gave me. Jules Verne said: “What one person can imagine, other people can do.” It is in this spirit that I have designed the Cité des Mériens: its architecture is inspired by rays. It will be able to accommodate 25,000 Merien people, researchers, scientists, students…

Sea Orbiter is the project of my life. This will be the ISS of the sea

Is this “blue economy”, this “blue gold” a dream or a reality?
Just ten years ago, few of us were sensitive to the environmental issue associated with the oceans, and when we approached the industrial players with proposals for bold initiatives, research projects, we were listened to with a smile, politeness, and that’s it. Today, the economic world has realized that this is a key issue. The blue economy is the growth sector of tomorrow. I am happy to see that a whole generation naturally possesses this sensitivity, which they lacked so much. Among them are the economic and political decision makers of tomorrow.

But will the exploitation of underwater resources, even with good intentions, lead to the repetition of mistakes?
The ocean is a giant reservoir from which the renewable energy, food, pharmacology, and biotechnology of the future will flow. You must learn it, but use special working methods, because it is also an extremely fragile medium. When we talk, for example, about building cities on water, some imagine that we are going to pour concrete into corals. Of course it’s not about that! Villages or cities on the water will have to comply with environmental requirements. These methods of reflection and exploitation were mastered by the youngest. In a hundred years, the word “ecology” will become such a single concept that it is not even worth mentioning.

How do you see the world in fifty years: do you believe in a humanity that will live in harmony with nature?
I am a dreamer, but a pragmatic dreamer who goes after his dream. I understand the alarmist discourse, but I am convinced that we are still at the dawn of humanity. It is new technologies that will allow us to live in a sustainable future in harmony with nature, because it is important to rediscover the sacred bond that unites us. 3D printers will enable the creation of biological habitats better adapted to climatic events and habitats. Architects are already relying on these new technologies. There are, for example, electrochromic materials for glass surfaces that darken naturally in the sun and repel heat. Or very effective airgel insulators. Or low-carbon concrete that retains and releases heat. All of these solutions, combined with connected homes, will help manage energy consumption. I dream of seeing the development of this new nature-inspired biomimetic architecture because it addresses serious environmental and social issues. Some of the childhood utopias of the 1970s that were ridiculed become solutions for the future.