BELGRADE’S GYPSY HOUSEBOATS ARE THE DWELLINGS
OF THE FUTURE.
By Bruce Sterling
NATIVE TO BELGRADE’S TWO RIVERS, THE Sava and the Danube, the splav is made from repurposed industrial junk. This raffish watercraft probably owes a large design debt to Belgrade
gypsies, who are commonly scrap metal dealers.
As Eastern Europe’s rock-bottom underclass, many
gypsies literally live inside Belgrade junkyards, in
fantastic sheet metal huts wired together out of
So how do you make your own free-living splav
houseboat? It’s intriguingly simple! First, get your
hands on some empty German chemical-industry
barrels — hopefully these drums held something
nontoxic, such as paraffin or corn syrup. They’re
cheap or free, since huge barges full of German
oil drums steadily ply the Danube. Then scare up
some rusty, Communist-era angle iron from any of
the city’s many junkyards.
Take the German drums and the Yugoslav iron
to a local marina at riverside. Weld the angle iron
into a tight box that traps 12 or 15 of the watertight
drums. Throw down some cheap wooden flooring
over this buoyant iron foundation, then nail up a
frame and a roof, doors and windows.
Launch your splav and have it towed. Find some
spot on the shore that seems unclaimed, pound
in a literal iron stake, tie a hawser to that, and you
have staked your claim!
Further refinements are entirely up to you. Hanging
dead rubber tires off the rim of your splav is a cordial touch, since friends with boats may visit, and
these fenders will spare their hulls.
Of course you will have no mailing address, but
you may be able to steal some electrical power,
as that’s not well policed. Flowered window boxes
are a gracious touch. If you’re a migrant fresh
from the village, or a displaced Balkan refugee, you
might also plant a little subsistence garden on the
shore. Nobody will stop you from fishing the kindly
Danube, and even if you’re one fish-and-pepper soup
away from utter destitution, everyone will think you
are amusing yourself like a city gentleman.
Basic Splav This is poverty slum-housing, over
water. Somebody’s trying to make a full-time go of
life on a splav, for lack of other choices. They may
be refugees, smugglers, artists, drunks, poachers,
visionaries, migrants, or retired on a nonexistent
pension. Their lives are pretty hard, and they look it.
Recreational Splav This one was thrown together
as a cute, toy, floating summerhouse by someone
who enjoys the river. Rarely visited by their owners,
who generally have real jobs and other homes,
these splavovi often mildew or catch fire.
Speakeasy Splav This is what happens when
the inhabitants of the Basic Splav catch on to the
unique legal advantages of their situation. No taxes,
no licenses, no fire-safety codes ... no identity. Why
Photograph by Bruce Sterling
30 Make: Volume 12