Sink or Swim

Extinction Rebellion sinks a house in the Thames for climate protest

Extinction Rebellion members Katey Burak and Rob Higgs crafted the floating house (Guy Reece/Extinction Rebellion UK)

Last Sunday, a sinking house in London’s River Thames became a trending meme-of-the-day, specially manufactured by sculptor and fabricator activists from Extinction Rebellion U.K. to imitate conditions under a global climate emergency. The stunt worked particularly well in the U.K. as it happened to fall on the same day as flooding in Derbyshire and Yorkshire in Northern England, a coincidence—like the Venice City Council voting against climate legislation as high tides bathed Louis Vuitton shoppers on St. Mark’s Square—likely to become increasingly more common.

The image was that of a traditional peak-roofed brick-and-vinyl-sided house with a smokestack, half-submerged and heeling, as it floated down the river past the Tower Bridge. The actual prop was carefully constructed—a facsimile of a home made semi-real. Its brainchildren, sculptor Katey Burak and fabricator Rob Higgs, had been given a budget of $3,500 from Extinction Rebellion U.K.’s savvy arts group to make it a week before the early October week of global disobedience against the climate crisis, but it took a month to carefully craft the flooded house.

The facade of a house being attached to a raft

Extinction Rebellion U.K. activists constructed the flooding “house” on a life raft on the edge of the Thames. (Robb Higgs)

Burak and Higgs constructed the likeness by hanging fiberglass panels on a metal frame, hooked onto a scaffolding attached to a life raft. It was carefully crafted ruse, with the aim of producing an image, Higgs said, of “our society drifting downstream one after the other.”

A smokestack and facade attached to a raft

They carefully attached pieces to a scaffolding attached to the raft. (Courtesy of Robb Higgs)

After assembling the parts in Cornwall that morning—a peninsula on the southwest tip of Britain experiencing increasingly severe winter storms—they dropped the raft onto the edge of the river at Hermitage Wharf Community Moorings in Wapping, Londo, during low tide, lowering down parts and painstakingly assembling them so the facade hung six inches below the water level. Working periodically as boat builders, they wanted to nail the corner of the house to perfection to sustain the illusion.

Then, with the life raft’s outboard motor, the team headed downstream to get the shot in front of the Tower Bridge. They were looking for a bit more of a close-up than the one that ended up being the project’s signature, which shows skyscrapers rising on either side. The message is, in the end, is fairly self-explanatory. “To raise public awareness of the imminence of the rising sea level issue,” Higgs said. “Just because it’s a few millimeters now or 1.5 degrees, people don’t realize its imminent severity. We’re building up sea defenses rather than a deeper form of adaptation.”

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