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Water is Weird
A water feature designer talks about his work
The Great Ocean Cleanup
The Tree of Learning
- Eye on Design
When an architect talks about a material, he generally makes reference to its resistance, durability, and performance. As a water feature designer I see it from a completely different angle. How will water glide on it? How will the material’s texture affect the flow of water? Is it going to make an interesting water pattern? How will it look when it’s wet? Will it generate a pleasant sound?
Playing with water can be very addictive, almost an obsession. The possibilities of integrating water into architecture are endless. Its presence can radically transform the atmosphere and convey a real sense of place. With moving water we can activate a public realm and still water creates a relaxing ambience. Just as in the Inuktitut language there are more than 12 words for snow, a fountain designer has a rich vocabulary for the behaviour of water. As the American landscape designer Lawrence Halprin points out in his referential book Cities, it can gurgle, splash, go plop, plop, plop, fshzzzsh, and spaatzzz!
Designing with water is fascinating, but it can also be very challenging. Water can break the most resistant material by erosion or corrosion. It can leak and infiltrate through concrete walls or flooring. As a designer it forces me to innovate, anticipate, and develop robust engineering processes. Because water will reveal defects the eye can’t see, I have learnt from experience (and mistakes), not to lower my guard.
Water is weird; it has a plethora of strange and unique behaviours.
An irrelevant detail or a minor difference of a few millimetres can make a project fail. Perhaps it sounds as if I have the Sword of Damocles hanging permanently over my head, but in reality, I believe in generating creative tensions that leverage positive outcomes. It is like a never-ending learning process. Water teaches me humility, and if I ever think I am mastering it, it soon puts me back in my place.
One of my favourite quotes about the work I do comes from Dianne Pilgrim, Director of Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York; Fountains unite the physical and inspirational aspects of water to play a fundamental role in enhancing the human environment.
Fountains also harmonize water and design. Each project is a comprehensive integration of ideas, design and technique. It can involve very complex technologies and computerized programing, or simply rely on the natural luminous and reflective capacities of water.
The world looks different reflected in a pond – almost like an ‘otherworld’; one that is colourful, intense and beautiful. And then suddenly, the wind comes and distorts the reflection – making the image unreal. Was it all in my imagination?
Main Image: Le miroir d’eau place de la Bourse, Bordeaux, France by JML Water Feature Design