Left: Mary Mattingly, Inflatable Home, 2008, color photograph, 40 x 50“. Right: James Halverson/Lux Visual Effects, The Waterpod, 2009, three-dimensional rendering, 30 x 40”.


New York–based photographer and sculptor Mary Mattingly has designed The Waterpod, a floating eco-habitat that recalls the work of Buckminster Fuller, Andrea Zittel, and Constant Nieuwenhuis and that will launch this May in the East River. Here she discusses the evolution of the project. Mattingly’s second solo exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery in New York, titled “Nomadographies,” will open on April 2.

THE WATERPOD is three years in the making. Prior to this project, I made wearable homes with three layers, fit for mobile people in different environmental conditions (arctic, desert/tundra, and water). I began to design these as I was traveling often and as I became increasingly worried that government and corporate agencies were largely ignoring problems caused by pollution and climate change. I wanted to respond to the growing instability of cultures and the political unrest arising from inattention to these issues.

After my first show at Robert Mann in 2006, someone asked me what I was going to do next. I responded that I wanted to create a live/work capsule in the East River, perhaps in the Newtown Creek, since at the time New York City was doing very little to prepare for rising sea levels. The Waterpod project began with preliminary sketches; it was a translucent sphere with two levels. One was a sleep and study area underwater, essentially an aquarium, a quiet and contemplative space. The top level would be for work; it would feature a garden space and would resemble a small autonomous system. An infrastructure of soil connected to a wire framework would keep the pod upright.

It was interesting to learn how to create this kind of system, one that the inhabitants would not necessarily need to leave and that could exist as a mobile space. Finding sustainable solutions for living made me question the design, as well as the role of community in the space. I thought about the relationship between individuals and utopian spaces and kept in mind future possibilities. The Waterpod also developed from my series of photographs of abandoned utopian spaces, titled the “Anatomy of Melancholy,” and conversations I had with Eve K. Tremblay, a future Waterpod inhabitant, which forced me to consider why most attempts at utopian systems fail. I began to focus on creating a fluid space with spheres for inhabitants that draw together many different communities. I wanted it to be mutable in design, concept, integration, and autonomy.

At first, I designed it as a personal space, but as the idea evolved, it became clear that it needed community to be sustainable and to benefit from multiple inputs and interpretations. I became more interested in the benefits that could be gained from a diverse community living on and interacting with the pod. I started to form a group of people who were interested in the project, either from an artistic, infrastructural, or technological point of view. Artist Mira Hunter was one of the first people I approached. Mira was raised in a famous floating house in Vancouver designed by her father. Eventually, we formed a democratic group, a meritocracy, and developed a set of guidelines. Right now, there are five people who will be living on The Waterpod. One guideline is that as a resident you don’t need to stay on board; but while on board and off, residents are encouraged to catalog their activities, so we can have a record of what’s coming and going. Everyone will have to help out with repairs, gardening, cooking, and composting. Basically, everyone will learn how to take care of everything. I think this is really important––as the first industrial and technological age in the developed world is drawing to a close, people need to relearn how to do a lot of things.

Many elements of the project are currently under way. Derek Hunter and Alison Ward are building a modular superstructure in a warehouse in Long Island City while the barge platform is docked in Bayonne, New Jersey. We’re in the process of finalizing insurance before we move to Pier 35 in Manhattan. Once that’s ready, we’ll have a month to build there, and we should launch and move in by the end of May. Even though this is a project that I imagined having a very long life span, here in New York it’s going to be abbreviated. Due to various environmental guidelines, we need to move the pod every two weeks. We also have to secure a sufficient number of piers to be able to move it and still have a long enough time to live on board.

Engineering students are building some of the technological elements. Artist Stephanie Dedes is coordinating a barter system with local greenmarkets, while Carissa Carman has designed the on-board living system. Carissa is creating a greenhouse and an outdoor garden space, which is based on companion planting. Through open calls, groups and individuals in New York have started to grow specific vegetables on behalf of the project, and we’ll transplant them to the barge’s garden space in early May. People have been sending us pictures of the vertical gardens in their apartments; it’s one of my favorite parts of the project right now.

As with The Waterpod, many of the images in “Nomadographies” are about autonomous mobile systems of living that are low-tech, ad hoc, and adaptable. The Waterpod embodies these ideas and responds to their present uses, while “Nomadographies” projects into the future in a performative and metaphoric way. Some of the photographs follow artist (and Waterpod inhabitant) Veronica Flores and me as we travel through Mexico toward Mexcaltitan, using bicycles piled high with boxes to carry our belongings. This journey forced me to reconsider notions of ownership, harsh climate conditions, scarcity of clean water, and conflicts between the state and warring cartels. While “Nomadographies” embodies future histories, the “Anatomy of Melancholy” revisits the past, and The Waterpod enters the present, blending fiction and autobiography with different ideologies.

More information about The Waterpod can be found here.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler