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Water, water everywhere

A flood of built examples prove the architectural potential of designing with water. Why is the UK so slow to catch on?

Three key issues will dominate architecture and urbanism this century: agriculture (how cities feed themselves); informality (how cities deal with slums, markets and street vendors); and water. As sea levels rise, as weather patterns grow more chaotic (leading, for instance, to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy at Seaside Heights, New Jersey, above); as populations boom and urbanise; as housing crises intensify: the relationship between architecture and water will become increasingly critical.

For centuries we and our cities have been shaped by water as we’ve clustered to riverbanks to trade, wash, travel and farm. But now the moves with which we shape water will in turn become the great successes and failures of design in the 21st century. Water may be one of the great challenges but is also an unprecedented opportunity.

There is something undeniably alluring about water. When the urbanist William Whyte studied public plazas in 1970s Manhattan, he discovered that one of the most popular was Paley Park by landscape architects Zion & Breen. New Yorkers described Paley as calm and quiet but Whyte proved it was not only busy most days but, decibel for decibel, was one of the loudest plazas in the city because of the roar of its artificial waterfall. The simple presence of running water in the small space was dramatically changing people’s perceptions of the plaza. While Whyte studied the effect of water, the public realm of Aldo Rossi’s floating Il Teatro del Mondo was towed across the Adriatic Sea into Venice where it was moored for the Biennale in 1979 - architecture and water joining forces in a theatrical device.

The moves with which we shape water will, in turn, become the great successes and failures of urban design in the 21st century

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the Makoko settlement throws the political realities of building and water into stark relief. When I lived in Nigeria before studying architecture, few Westerners had heard of this vast informal development built illegally on stilts out over Lagos Lagoon and home to 100,000. Now the astonishing neighbourhood is better known, in part because of NLE’s Floating School, which creates a municipal infrastructure for education as well as providing a legitimising civic focus to the threatened community.

Water clearly can inspire positive interventions, but also urban nonsense. Take Thomas Heatherwick’s celebrated rolling bridge: a striking piece of engineering but crossing a tiny dead-end canal basin easily walked around. Serving no purpose other than spectacle, it is symptomatic of a very British attitude where water becomes the urban equivalent of an art object providing pretty views but no social ambitions.

The big question facing the UK and especially London is housing equality. Can it remain a city with a rich mix of people from a variety of backgrounds or is it set to become merely an investment opportunity for oligarchs? Water is an incredible agent of change and London is blessed to have so much of it in canals, reservoirs, streams and the Thames. To avoid a watery grave and harness water’s potential, designers must become much more ambitious.

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