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Wet narratives: architecture must recognise that the future is fluid

Tritonimage buckminster

As a bastion of dryness, the contemporary city does not understand the blurred and shifting boundary between wet and dry, river and bank, ocean and shore

It goes without saying that water is the stuff of life, and if the levels of world waters rise, the stuff that will make life difficult. We are made of water, we drink water, we wash with water, we purify water, we purify things with water. There is too much water, there is too little water. Before water is somewhere, as landscape architect Anuradha Mathur and architect/planner Dilip da Cunha argue, it is everywhere. Be like water, Bruce Lee implores. Despite the ubiquity of water, its measure is diverse and polyvalent.

Whether framed through political ecology or literary devices, water remains an existential theme. If catastrophes and perils determine design motivations in the 21st century, water is up there – whether as threat of sea-level rise, depletion of coastal cities and communities, tidal surges, hazardous contaminations, or for that matter, as life-threatening scarcity. Besides channelling the discourse of disaster, a narrative of water is already inducing alternative strategies in design thinking. A wet narrative asks for a new design intelligence that is perhaps better conveyed by the term ‘waterness’ than a tagged-on qualifier like the ‘aquatic’, ‘liquid’ or ‘hydraulic’. In overcoming the deep dichotomy of a wet and dry ideology, and a prejudice of the dry land codified, for example, as ‘land use’ in planning vocabulary, new motivations entail a phenomenological appreciation of ‘water as ground’, and an urban and landscape strategy: wet urbanism.

1892newyork1600

1892newyork1600

Bulwarked and sustained by water, the Isle of Manhattan in a 19th-century map.

Image c1875 Parsons/Currier & Ives

Once upon a place and time, the city of Dhaka – Bangladesh’s capital and now a poster-city for wild urbanisation – emerged cautiously from an irascible landscape known as the Bengal Delta. A 10-minute ride outside the metropolitan madness still shows the aquatic reality of the land – rivers, canals, waterways, ponds, floodplains and agricultural fields completely girdle the city. But few people recognise that Dhaka is a tender land-mass, virtually an island framed by three rivers and a fluid landscape. From furious landfilling operations, motivated by real-estate economy, to infrastructural interventions, precipitated by a perception of peril, the precious landscape remains savaged. Dhaka is symptomatic of most cities in powerful hydrological milieus (deltaic, riparian or coastal) and undergoing furious transformations, where practices of planning, whether official, private or impromptu, have succumbed to the regime of a dry ideology. 

A deltaic geography is an immense force of flow. Water cascading down from upland mountains brings pulverised remains to the floodplains below in the form of sand, silt and mud, depositing them in an unpredictable geometry of land-forms and waterways. Flows and overflows – more commonly understood as ‘floods’ – impart to this landscape a corrugation of flat plains, ponds, muddy enclaves and ‘lowlands’, all of which constitute the distinctive but amorphous topography. As ‘delta urbanist’ Kelly Shannon observes, in such an excruciatingly flat terrain a few centimetres matter in differientating what is wet from what is dry. 

Both mystical and cosmogonic as a phenomenon, the chars – land formations caused by the dynamics of soil-shifts and water flows – rise annually in the delta waters to inaugurate an Adamic landscape. Delicate chars appear one year in the complex choreography of land and water to disappear the next, while more or less stabilised ones become sites of settlement. A char is thus a reminder of an earlier turn of a river and deposition of silt to form the new land mass, demonstrating a geohydrological process in action. In this motile landscape, where a site is hardly reliable, and the architectural foundation is literally wobbling, the conventional parameters of city building and architecture are brought into question. Born out of a fluid dynamic, in which place-form is more critical than object-forms, chars pose a conceptual challenge to the imagination of landscape norms, and to the relationship between architecture and landscape.

From the heart of the present city, Dhaka and the delta appear as two separate entities, antithetical and strangers to each other. Fed on dry ideas, planners and policy-makers remain befuddled about envisioning or even managing a city in such a toiled terrain; any deliberation begins with an assumption that a water terrain is unreliable for the city and must be thwarted. In the horizon of the contemporary city, the delta does not even appear in the consciousness until a deluge comes, like clockwork, annually and unmistakably. The past tense of Dhaka being a deltaic city marks both a failure to innovate planning positions and exacerbation of the ‘natural’ opposition between city and landscape.

Drowned world

Drowned world

The cataclysm of the flood that sweeps away human civilisation is no longer science fiction.

Image by David Pelham/Penguin Books

Conventional urban planning has basically become the production of land, the manufacture of dryness. Landfills, embankments, bridges and roadways have supported the technology of a dry culture, pitting the city against the aquatic delta. In the schism between dry and wet, dominant planning practices have not only obscured immersive worldviews, but also enforced a limiting measure on an otherwise prodigious and unruly landscape represented by the delta, whether it be the Gangetic, the Mekong or the Mississippi. How can one find an urban and architectural relevance in such a fluid dynamic? 

Water has never been too far away in architectural and landscape operations, but it is clear that we are on the cusp of a new water discourse. From the technological utopia of the 1960s that produced powerful images of floating cities and water machines, from Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay Project (1960) to Buckminster Fuller’s Triton City (1966), we have entered new conversations, that swing between the standpoints of hydrological technocrats and climate scientists (climate change is primarily a water and moisture issue), to landscape strategists and wet philosophers. Traceable to a reverie about water by Gaston Bachelard and a short but brilliant exposé by Ivan Illich, on how reverential water has now become chemical H2O, a shift has been precipitated in the design field by an abundance of writing and schemas, by architects, landscape architects, academics and design professionals arguing from a wet perspective.  

Italo Calvino’s city by the water, in one of his oft-cited descriptions of invisible cities, constitutes pithy prescience of the perceptual, philosophical and ideological dichotomy between wet and dry: arriving there by sea or by land will result in a different city. A lesser known work outside the Bengali language, Manik Bandhyopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi (A Boatman of the Padma, 1936) centres on a river trader’s scheme to create a utopia on a char island. The story also describes the life-world of a marginal riverbank community intertwined with the ebb and flow of one of the greatest deltas of the world in one of the densest places on earth, where hydrological intensity meets sociological density. Benh Zeitlin’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) shows life on the other side, the Louisiana bayou or the ‘bathtub’, bringing to the foreground the differential politics of dry regimes and wet regions.

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9671

Alberto Kalach’s inundation of Mexico City reconceptualises the growth of the city around its central lake. Image courtesy of Taller de Arquitectura ‘X’/Alberto Kalach

There is still much to learn about a water ethos. Even though water practices have existed for centuries in hydrologically charged places, from Suzhou (China) to Ayutthaya (Thailand), a deltaic geography is a heightened condition for producing new measures of water and new imaginaries in contemporary design discourse. In Naga: Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific (1982), the Thai architectural anthropologist Sumet Jumsai takes a measure of the deep structure of such aquatic landscapes. Jumsai also recalls Buckminster Fuller’s assertion that humans had spread not from Africa but from Polynesia, and people in the Pacific Rim still bear, what he calls, a ‘nautical reflex’.

In its variegated properties, there are two kinds of water: water that we contend with which is everywhere – moisture, rain, puddle, pond, river and ocean – and water that we channel, pictorialise, enclose, pipe, distribute, or otherwise make subservient to infrastructure. While the channelling and canalising of rivers (often employing a dubious term: ‘river training’) and the erection of embankments are all premised by the literate deployment of lines, water refuses lines. As an instrument of measure, representation and projection, lines construct edges. 

If, as on the Rhodian shore, lines are attributes of the human intellectual endeavour to bring about clarity and control, in practice they always misrepresent the dry and the wet. Precisely articulated lines – Mathur and da Cunha tell us – confine water as ‘rivers’ and ‘channels’ when they would prefer to flow and overflow. Instead of being a line, the edge of water is always a zone of gradation of moisture from sparseness to submersion. Conventional methods in mapping and representation, in engineering, architecture and landscape operations, fail to register this nuance. We conceive the world in how we represent it, and if lines show a stark edge between dry and wet, we seek that in our realisations – we are already in a defective default mode. 

Gcaejr

Gcaejr

Dhaka in 1924 as a perpetually porous city, permeated and defined by water.

Image courtesy of Antiqua Print Gallery/Alamy

Water is an agent of transformation, of fluctuations and inversions of the orientations of the world, producing ambiguity and reversibility. This is a recurrent motif in the cultural and literary imagination of the delta, as in Padma Nadir Majhi. In his fictional The Stone Raft (1986), José Saramago provides a more troubled depiction of a disoriented life after the Iberian Peninsula starts drifting away like a raft on the sea, making all land-based constancies fraught. Whether in a fictional or factual narrative, when water enters the everyday domain it can disrupt normality, and produce new social and political realities.

The reversibility induced by water and its flux interrupts an easy equation between water and ground. The term ‘ground’ continues to privilege terra firma as the fundamental basis of the life-world. Water not only challenges but also disturbs what we take for granted: that land is ground. In an alternative constitution, in which the firma of terra has been unsettled, one can think of three possible scenarios: water versus ground, water as ground, and water is ground. It is also necessary, consequently, to bring to the foreground a language of the phenomenon of water: Immersion. Buoyancy. Absorption. Drift. Level. Depth. Fluidity. Flotation. Ebb. Tide. Rhythm. 

When floodwater comes and stays for weeks, it presents a fundamental architectural dilemma: the givenness of a solid platform, on which life happens, is disrupted. In extreme situations, as when floodwaters seasonally hit Bangladesh or Thailand, or for that matter New Orleans, people climb up on the roof with what matters most (in Bangladesh, cattle and poultry). The search for something that we take for granted and that has become disrupted – the horizontal as a fundamental architectural necessity, indeed something primordial and ontological – becomes a powerful imperative to reboot human and community life. 

Embracing water and wetness is a natural consequence of a deltaic milieu. From folk culture to modern literature, chars, lowlands and riverbanks continue to circulate as geographic sites of reference in the vastly ‘rural’ Bengali imagination. But what of the city? In its positioning as a bastion of dryness, the contemporary city has not cooperated with the delta. 

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21489

Louis Kahn’s amphibious Capitol Complex in Dhaka employs techniques of dig and mound.

Photograph courtesy of Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Present Dhaka city is being built from the fluid fabric of its surrounds. In Dhaka’s inexorable expansion from its relatively higher grounds into the precious region of floodplains, wetlands and ‘lowlands,’ vast aquatic areas are being furiously filled up in an unprecedented scale of urbanistic drive. Every hour, as part of the operation, barges on various rivers and rivulets girdling Dhaka carry sand and soil from one location to deposit on another – typically, on a ‘lowland’ that is marked for dry development eventually to be parcelled off as building lots. In another method, an array of steel pipes, sometimes miles long, pump sand and silt from a river location onto a landfill site. This is the human version of setting a landscape in motion. 

Most of the radical transformation of this landscape is happening beyond the orbit of a masterplan, and certainly without any deeply considered urbanism. In the meantime, the fluid margin of the city is increasingly inhabited by subaltern groups, vagrants, and other exiles upended by the furious city-making at the drier core, unable to partake in the fruits of the furious economy. It is precisely at this juncture, the edge, where the expansion of the city meets an aquatic matrix, that a new kind of city-thinking is needed. What should be the perimeter of the city in such a nexus? How will the two sides of this fluid edge be planned? Cities like Dhaka cannot grow infinitely in every other direction, swallowing up wetlands and agricultural land with mind-numbing speed, and throwing off balance a precious ecological and hydrological system. If not, then how will population growth and the appetite for urban land be resolved? The brilliant opportunity for urban designers and planners is to show, in the framework of a wet urbanism, that growth can be addressed by sustaining and enhancing the city’s crucial hydro-geographic system.

Louis Kahn intuitively recognised the dynamics of water when he received the commission for the National Capitol Complex in Dhaka in 1963. Although water was a powerful compositional thematic in the design of the assembly complex, with the whole layout seen as a mirror of a delta topography, Kahn moved beyond compositional engagement after he received the commission for a large housing project in a functional floodplain. Kahn’s unrealised sketches show a new investigation of water as ground, in which bridge-like housing hovers above fields and floodplains allowing the passage of water. Without naming it so, Kahn had already inaugurated the foundation of what we now call wet urbanism.

1 sketch by louis kahn

1 sketch by louis kahn

Kahn’s sketch of the northern areas of the complex indicates the housing ‘bridges’ that traverse the floodplains. Image courtesy of the Louis I Kahn Collection at the University of Pennsylvania

Wet urbanism entails a conceptual shift. What for the visionaries of the 1960s was an ideational exercise has now become an ethical imperative. Going beyond the norm of thinking about Dhaka, and similar cities, in which morphologies of the dry centre are privileged, plans for such cities have to find terms of cooperation with an aquatic nexus. A provisional manifesto for such an urbanism might propose the strategies listed below.

Platforms and plates. In Nan Madol, on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei, built in the eighth century and abandoned six centuries later, is an enigmatic settlement built as a set of artificial islands on a coral reef at the edge of the island and sea. In designing a school on a site that doesn’t quite exist as it lies submerged in monsoon waters for months, Saif Ul Haque, in his Arcadia school project outside Dhaka, created a bamboo platform and pavilion on simple floating devices harnessed to the submerged soil. As an architectural fundament, platforms and their production take on urgency in an aquatic place. Kahn, while working on the Dhaka Capitol, reflected on dig-and-mound as an architectural strategy  in the delta. This could be a point of departure for new iterations of the platform.

Fluid dynamic. Form does follow hydraulic flow in which horizontal and vertical movements of water may direct architectural and landscape formations. The Mexican architect Alberto Kalach suggests the inundation of a vast area outside Mexico City, not only to recall an earlier pre-Hispanic hydrological setting, but to restructure the growth of the city, ensure water security and restore the depleting ancient Lake Texcoco. Kongjian Yu, the prolific landscape architect from China, is also known as the restorer of troubled waterscapes. In projects such as the Liupanshui Wetland Park in Guizhou Province, and the Tianjin Qiaoyuan Wetland Park, in Tianjin, Yu modulates landscape forms to generate new public realms and enriched ecology with flowing water as the structuring element. Porosity and perforation, flow and overflow, can be new leitmotifs in constructions. An organised matrix of mounds, canals and water plains may create a new topographical and urban realm as an alternative to the practice of troublesome landfilling. 

Embankment is a barrier, how can we deconstruct it? Embankments, bridges and landfills have become standard prescriptions for large-scale infrastructural operations for the modern environment. Following a series of devastating floods in the 1980s, Dhaka is now defined by embankments that physically define wet and dry. Embankment structures have sliced through wetlands and agriculture, posing more questions for environmental justification, as well as urban expansion. Instead of being a ribbon, articulated from the concept of a line, embankments can take many forms. They can be undulating or porous, multi-level or layered, and fractured or disassembled: the critical thing is to allow the passage of water. Instead of being a rude barrier, embankments can be developed into an integral landscape with circulation paths, terraces, drainage systems and water reservoirs, and perhaps even housing as a superstructure. Controlled fractures and openings may allow flow of water from both sides in response to wetlands, reservoirs, retention ponds and agricultural parks. Producing such embankments would help to restore the natural ecology of the river and create new habitational spaces for the city. 

Seasteading institute

Seasteading institute

Proposal for Artisanopolis shows what the infrastructure of a sea-based civilisation might look like.

Image courtesy of the Seasteading Institute

Stilts and sticks. With the intention of bringing ‘the city into the floodplain and the floodplain into the city’, a network of cautious and careful development – streets, walkways, housing and public places – that are mostly elevated either on stilts or non-continuous earth mound over fields, gardens and parks, each at different elevations and responding to different levels of flooding, may be imagined. The porosity at the lower level will assure an unimpeded flow of water at different seasons. Le Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital project for Venice remains unexamined as a possible source for such a model.

Where there is water, flotation is not far away. Fuller’s Triton City was conceived as an anchored floating city that would be located close to the shore and connected with bridges to the mainland. While the original project commissioned by a sponsor did not proceed, Fuller was invited by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1968 to plan a series of neighbourhood-sized floating communities between 3,500 and 6,500 persons. Perhaps the cruise ship has now become an exaggerated incarnation of Fuller’s idea, but there are many modest and effective examples of floating architecture, such as boathouses, floating markets and floating vegetable gardens. Itsuko Hasegawa’s proposal for the Yokohama Port competition suggests recycling anchored ships as a series of interconnected public spaces. Mohammed Rezwan’s flotilla of floating schools in Bangladesh and Kunlé Adeyemi’s Makoko Floating School in Nigeria are examples of revising received types that follow the flow rather than circumvent it. 

Whichever of these strategies of perforation, inundation, elevation and flotation are adopted to accommodate an increasingly blurred world, architecture must recognise that the future is fluid.

Lead Image: The dream of a floating metropolis consecrated in Buckminster Fuller’s 1966 Triton City. Image courtesy of The Buckminster Fuller Institute

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2017 issue on water – click here to purchase a copy