The Okavango Delta Spa was designed for Uncharted Africa, a wildlife safari company operating in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert Basin. Each year about eleven cubic kilometers of water spreads out across a fluctuating 6,000 – 15,000 km2 area known as the Okavango Delta, one of earth’s very few remaining endorhetic deltas, a system that discharges water inland rather than out to sea (figs, 2 and 3).
The Okavango Delta was once part of the ancient Lake Magadikgadi system that had mostly dried up by the early Holocene. It is now key to the transnational Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area coordinating a broad territory that spans Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola through a network of protected areas to increase biodiversity and expand historical wildlife migration routes (fig. 4).
The African Rift Valley System splinters, redistributes and captures the Okavango River in extensive waterways, permanent marshlands, and seasonally flooded grasslands (ref. 1). Summer rains in January and February surge downstream from the Angola highlands and spread across the Delta in March through June. High daytime temperatures drive rapid transpiration and evaporation setting off three cycles of rising and falling water levels.
When flooding peaks June through August in Botswana’s dry winter season, the Okavango Delta swells to three times its permanent size, drawing animals from kilometers away in one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife that includes some of the world’s most endangered species of large mammal; cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion (figs. 5, 6, and 7).
In the pristine Okavango Delta landscape, humans, just one among many sentient species in circulation, can leave an outsize footprint (figs. 8, 9 and 10). For site planning to facilitate movement of people through the ecosystem’s circuits of hydrology, geology, vegetation, and predators and prey, we looked to neuroscience for an explanation of spatial navigation and how sentient beings become coordinate with their environment and integrated into it (See Log 52 ‘Navigating a Nervous Ecology’). Only accessible by light aircraft or shallow hull boat, the project is made up of a series of interrelated fixed, tethered and free floating elements (fig 11).
Seven wood and thatch guest pods are secured to the delta floor in natural clearings in tall, dense papyrus beds that provide privacy (figs. 12 and 13). To prevent rotting, thatch requires a minimum pitch angle to drain. Working with traditional thatching methods from Angola, we introduced hyperbolic geometry logics and swept that pitch angle in space to create propeller-like roof forms with extended overhangs (refs. 4, 5 and 6). Pristine delta water is pumped up into a solar collecting drum mounted at the intersection of the two roof blades. Heated by the sun in time for guests returning at dusk, water is fed into the tethered floating spa.
Individual guest units are connected by a network of buoyant wood tracks anchored to four small islands – the tops of abandoned termite mounds – that protrude out of the water. Walkways flex and relax with changing water levels. Tapping Botswana’s traditional basket weaving expertise, but substituting grass with thin optical fiber cable, walkway guardrails are designed to be woven locally and solar powered, lighting the tracks through the site at night (refs. 8 and 9).
‘The Delta’s dynamic geomorphological history has a major effect on the hydrology, determining water flow direction, inundation and dehydration of large areas within the system. The site is an outstanding example of the interplay between climatic, geomorphological, hydrological, and biological processes that drive and shape the system and of the manner in which the Okavango Delta’s plants and animals have adapted their lifecycles to the annual cycle of rains and flooding. Subsurface precipitation of calcite and amorphous silica is an important process in creating islands and habitat gradients that support diverse terrestrial and aquatic biota within a wide range of ecological niches.’ UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 2014.
Solid ground in the Delta, built up over millennia, is assembled by colonies of Macrotermitinae, subterranean fungus-farming termites. The swarm produces a cementitious mix of desert sand and their own pheromones that emits signals into the air, evoking the swarm’s nest-building behaviors.
Kalahari Desert, Botswana
Wildlife safari lodge and spa
systems and materials:
Wood frame, wood, thatch, fiberglass, optical fiber
Lindy Roy with Albert Angel, Gavin Bardes, Karen Bullis, Aline Cautis, Heidi McDowell, Ana Miljacki, Lee Moreau, John Mueller, Chris Perry, and Mary Springer
MoMA P.S.1: Subwave, Alaska Rendezvous Lodge, Hotel QT, Sarah Bartmann Centre of Remembrance
Art Institute of Chicago https://www.artic.edu/artworks/201732/okavango-delta-spa-botswana-rendering
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, ‘New Hotels for Global Nomads’
SFMOMA, ‘ROY Design Series 1’
Art Institute of Chicago, ‘Figuration in Contemporary Design’
Henry Urbach Architecture, ‘X-Roy Projects’
selected press and publications:
New York Times (March 23, 1997)
Architecture (March, 1999)
Wallpaper (July, 1999)
Architectural Record (August, 2001)
Modern Painters (Winter, 2003)
Vogue Hommes International (March, 2002),
Wellness Design (May, 2003)
Seed (February, 2006)
TIME Style and Design (February, 2004)
Conde Nast Traveler (November, 2004)
bob: International Magazine of Space Design (September, 2005)
10 x 10 (Phaidon: 2008)
Figuration in Contemporary Design (Art Institute of Chicago: 2008)
The New York Times (November 1, 2002)
Town and Country (November, 2001)
Architecture + Urbanism (September, 2001)
Vladimir I. Vernadsky, The Biosphere
Randy C. Gallistel, The Organization of Action
Charles Scott Sherrington, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, Essay on the Geography of Plants
David Thomas and Paul Shaw, The Kalahari Environment
John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent
James G. Workman, Heart of Dryness: How the last Bushmen can help us endure the coming age of drought
Jakob von Uexkull, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans
William Morton Wheeler, Ant Colony as an Organism
Kevin Kelly, Out of Control
J. Scott Kelso, Dynamic Patterns