The history of architecture and urbanism is full of magnificent examples of water features designed to celebrate the power and significance of this precious resource. Indeed, in the days before indoor plumbing, fountains, springs, and wells, as the source of water in cities, possessed a special cultural status. In Moroccan fountains, for instance, water spouts, as sources of life, and important aspects of Islamic ritual, become the holders of rich geometric ornament. The fountains of Rome, each grander than the next, are set up to glorify the immense power of nature–and of the popes who commissioned them.
During the 20th century, however, as technologies allowed for water infrastructure to be hidden out of sight, the infrastructural aspect of urban water features was lost. Today, we stand at a critical juncture: new ideas and advances are allowing water to once again emerge as a functional element of cities as part of new green infrastructure projects. This post, through the framework of Visual Ecology, investigates how designers can use the form of urban water features to create empathic and sensorial connections between urban dwellers and water, using Studio Dreiseitl’s work as a case study.
The systems involved in biological water infrastructure are increasingly complex and necessitate a very deliberate design approach to remain legible; take, for example, just one of the many Living Machines that John Todd has designed: the wastewater treatment system at Omega Institute in New York, where water is purified by being pumped through a series of seven distinct cleansing biotopes. Can this system, like Trevi Fountain in Rome, begin to inflect the architecture it is framed by?
The design of the buildings by BNIM to Living Building Challenge standards certainly helps to integrate and highlight these constructed wetland features as part of the center’s larger environmental education mission, but how could it go further? What about constructed wetland features in a more quotidian urban environment? Beyond the functional requirements, what kinds of rules should designers follow in integrating such a series of cleansing pools into an urban square or courtyard?
Robert Thayer Jr.’s idea of Visual Ecology provides a good starting framework. For Thayer, Visual Ecology is about undoing the concealment of ecosystem functions enabled by 20th-century science and engineering:
“While science and technology have made it possible to comprehend deeper levels of ecosystem knowledge they have also enabled the physical cover-up and subsequent concealment of dimensions of the landscape once readily accessible to more primal peoples.”
Visual ecology, then, is that “perceivable dimension of ay ecosystem that allows us to see into, understand, and sustain ourselves and other life forms dependent upon that ecosystem.” In Thayer’s view, Visual Ecology necessitates the rediscovery of an “ancient art” and “language of ecological revelation” with its own “vocabulary, syntax, grammar, usage, and especially […] poetics and purpose.” This language is necessarily reductive; of course it is impossible to fully explain and reveal “intangible, aspatial, invisible,” and limitless environmental phenomena, but at the very least it can reveal our dependence on and responsibility towards their sustained function. (1)
With its clear symbolism and narrative flow, water, for Thayer, is “the easiest way to reveal an ecosystem.” Fittingly, it is precisely the medium taken up by sculptor and ecological landscape designer Herbert Dreiseitl, who, after starting his career designing water features in small German towns, has now built his reputation planning large-scale urban water systems from Portland to Singapore. His early years as a decorative fountain designer were very formative, leaving him, as he writes,
with a feeling of unease. I was particularly dissatisfied with one very common idea: water as a decoration in the townscape, a pleasant toy for artists and architects, but a superfluous one sometimes– and this is said while all the essential water management in the town, like for example rainwater removal, drinking water provision and sewage disposal, is dealt with functionally, scarcely visibly and without any aesthetic sense as part of the engineers’ domain.
Dreiseitl’s mission, then, became to present water itself as an art form, and to elevate the functional aspects of hydrology–cleansing biotopes, constructed wetlands, swales–to a higher level of cultural relevance and artistic expression. In the process, his work emphasizes the interactive and dynamic nature of natural-social interactions. (2) As the authors of Deep Immersion: The Experience of Water explain, “Dreiseitl’s projects are significant in that they are […] didactic features serving to reconnect fountain water to its source in the larger watershed.”
In the Hattersheim Town Hall Square project, for instance, water becomes a potent force that breaks up the geometric rigidity of the plaza steps. The water swirls and eddies down their eroded and sculpted forms, gurgling and chirping, before diving underneath the street. When it reemerges on the other side, it takes its time meandering among outdoor seating elements before flowing into a much more naturalistic park, where it is filtered, aerated, and channeled into a large pond. All throughout, physical interaction with the water is encouraged, and children often play in the structure. As Timothy Beatley explains in his book Native to Nowhere, the project
“brings the feel, sight, and sound of water to the center of Hattersheim and then, by extending to a nearby park, serves in a very visceral way to connect the gray and the green… The connection with the natural physical world is immediate and therapeutic.”
Most importantly, the fountain system connects water with a sense of exhilaration and journey, creating a narrative and a sort of urban scavenger hunt. The actual journey of the water, meanwhile, ends right back where it began: after settling in the pond and adjacent cistern, the water is pumped back up to the top of the steps in an infinite cycle, connecting city center to park.
In the larger town of Gummersbach, Dreiseitl’s town square fountain design provides for even more interaction with the urban fabric.
Here, fan-shaped stone slabs, lit with special lighting to create a dappled feeling of light and dark, cascade into jagged pools with protruding patterns–one might even call it a kind of ornament–designed to create particular flow shapes and sounds.
Perhaps most interesting is the way that these patterns, abstracted as backlit painted glass shapes inset into the pavement, continue across the square and reappear as motifs in a four-story glass wall on the bank building. This wall, too, is a water feature, used as the building’s natural air conditioning system. In this way, uses of water–for pleasure and for function–are linked through an artistic motif. Together, the lights, sounds, and patterns create a unique sensory experience that encourages an empathic connection. Perhaps the only thing missing from the project, as compared to Hattersheim’s, is a more explicit indication of the origin, destiny, and environmental importance of the water.
A third German project, this time in Hannoversch Munden, completes the suite of sensory projects. Here, the idea was to communicate the presence of water in the city through light and sound. Water flows between the church and the town hall down four terraced steps. Dreiseitl describes additional features in an interview:
The water feature is a piece of art. We capture the sounds of the city using microphones and this sound is then transformed into vibrations on plates under the water. These plates create different ripples and textures in the water. To express this vibrancy, we use lights to reflect these hot spots of movement. Light is directed at the water and its patterns are then reflected onto different building facades.
This is an interesting kind of “inflection” of the urban environment by the presence of water. Beyond physically changing the architectural form of buildings that surround it, here the water uses these buildings as a canvas, taking over their surfaces to tell its story. The linkage of the shape of the water ripples with the actual human activity in the city through the recording/vibration system, while perhaps not intuitively obvious, is an incredibly elegant way to tie together water and urbanism.
While these early projects provide an important language and toolkit for connecting people to water in all sensory dimensions, it is the studio’s latest projects that most convincingly apply this thinking to large-scale water engineering projects. The Tanner Springs project in Portland, for instance, features a large water-cleansing wetland along with an art installation that highlights native species living there: prisms with images of local fauna are inserted between railroad ties that join to form a sinusoidal shape.
The water treatment system for the Queens Botanical Garden falls even more directly into the realm of green infrastructure. Here, five different systems, including green roofs, cleansing wetlands, and a “green parking garden,” are employed to collect, treat, and reuse for irrigation as much on-site water as possible. All are unified through a water “spine” that runs through the main building and recalls the now-hidden branch of the Flushing River. Collaboration with the architects for the main building, BKSK, led to the very deliberate visual emphasis on certain water management features, such as the drainage from the roof to a rainwater collection system and the numerous bridges over canals.
Together, these projects by Dreiseitl’s studio suggest a new approach to the design of water infrastructure that incorporates sensory experiences. How can this strategy be tweaked to more specifically incorporate lessons about urban nature? How can these designs include room for organisms other than humans and find ways to celebrate those creatures as well? Can Dreiseitl’s methods be applied to media other than water? We welcome you to leave your thoughts in the comments below!
1. Thayer RL,Jr. Landscape as ecologically revealing language. Landscape Journal. 1998:118-129. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asu&AN=505722366&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
2. France, R. L., Laura Sewall, Herbert Dreiseitl, and Ebrary. Deep Immersion: The Experience of Water. Sheffield, Vermont: Green Frigate Books, 2003. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/yale/Doc?id=10769259.
3. Dreiseitl, Herbert, Dieter Grau, and SpringerLink. New Waterscapes. Basel: Birkhäuser Basel, 2005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-7643-7665-9.
4. Beatley, Tim, Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age. New York: Island Press, 2005.