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Editorial: Water needs an architectural embrace

Architecture and design can, at best, turn problems into assets

The Van Alen Institute celebrated environmental design at its Spring Books Soirée in New York last month. One of the books was particularly relevant to the June issue of The Architectural Review, which is largely devoted to water: Blue Dunes, by architect Claire Weisz and Jesse Keenan of Harvard GSD. The book was a response to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy (or Superstorm Sandy as it is sometimes known), and is based on a project that investigated ways of providing offshore coastal protection via artificial ‘barrier islands’, mitigating the impact of extreme weather events before they hit land. 

Weisz and her multi-disciplinary practice WXY have for many years been rethinking design approaches to infrastructure, which at worst can be a case of ‘do the engineering and paste on some design afterwards’. The practice doesn’t just investigate theoretical propositions, however. Its latest design project is of heroic scale – the reconstruction of the eight-mile long Rockaway Boardwalk in Queens, New York, which was wrecked by Hurricane Sandy. Federal aid totalling more than $140 million was made available to restore Rockaway Beach, and the second phase of that programme, now complete, comprises an improved and enhanced boardwalk.

Federal funding has meant that designers and engineers have been able to design in resilience features which include six miles of retaining walls and planted dunes, sand infill underneath the new boardwalk and other sand retention measures. Multiple layers of protection are provided for the elevated steel-reinforced boardwalk structure, but in her book, it is apparent that a further and most important layer could be provided at sea, rather than on land.

Catastrophic events involving water mean that an essential asset is suddenly regarded as a mortal enemy: ‘Mother Nature’ behaving in an arbitrary, not to say cruel, fashion. The conventional engineering response has for centuries been one of resistance, and sometimes attack, as in land reclamation projects which assert man-made control over natural forces. There is another way of approaching water and water environments, however, well-illustrated in this issue. Put simply, it is the idea of embrace rather than resistance, exploitation and mitigation rather than fear and loathing.

This attitude was beautifully expressed in a talk by Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha at the Australian Institute of Architects’ annual conference in 2012, held in Brisbane (itself the victim of a catastrophic flood the year before). They contrasted the fair-weather/foul-weather maps of colonial engineers in their native India with a design proposition for dealing with the water implications of monsoons, based on retention and release rather than protection with no positive outcome. 

You might say that the way we exploit water and gravity in a vertical condition, that is to say the generation of hydroelectricity, should have its horizontal equivalent, especially given oddities of water and geography which mean that even in riverine Bangladesh, there are still areas suffering from drought.

The contribution that architects are able to make to propositions about how we deal with water-as-problem stem from the fact that the profession spends much of its time synthesising conditions and challenges. Sometimes that will involve unpicking the work of previous architects and engineers who have ‘solved’ problems, but in a narrow way that is doomed to failure because it has not taken into account broad issues of geography, geology, hydrology or human behaviour.

Architecture and design can, at best, turn problems into assets – given intelligent clients and, of course, enough time to think.

Lead image:

WXY’s mammoth eight-mile-long Rockaway Boardwalk in Queens, New York, has designed-in resilience. Photograph by: Albert Vecerka / Esto