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The stuff of life: throughout history, human progress has generally been the result of attempts to control water, but beyond this mastery, our relationship with water can embody cultural, social and spiritual dimensions. (Comment).

Following the inauguration of Berniai's Fontana dei Quauro Fiumi in the mid seventeenth century, it became customary for themore privileged inhabitants of Rome to hold a corso on the flooded Piazza Navona on Sunday mornings." Everyone who possessed an elegant coach (or small boat) suited to the occasion had himself driven (or rowed) through the cooling water at a predetermined time, to enjoy the ritual of seeing and being seen. In the nineteenth century, the social status of the logo estivo declined and the popolino took over the flooded piazza in donkey carts, often overturning passengers into the water. This riotous aquatic pageant finally came to an end with the installation of cobbles in the piazza in 1867.

From the aqueducts of antiquity to the Baroque fountains on squares and street corners, Rome has enjoyed an intimate relationship with water. The city developed and exploited water on a vast scale, the aqueducts of imperial Rome furnishing supplies for 121 fountains, 11 imperial thermae, 926 public baths and assorted private establishments.(3) Up until the Empire's decline, the tiered arches of monumental water conduits dominated the cityscape, each aqueduct terminating in a huge fountain adorned with statues and water shrines immortalizing stern gods, great men and noble deeds. The Romans, like the Greeks, recognized the social, therapeutic and hygienic qualities of bathing as well as the potential of water to orchestrate environments conducive to sensuality and leisure. The enjoyment of water was evident in garden grottoes and nymphae structures in which fountains, cascades and pools were choreographed to create an appropriately sybaritic milieu.

Constantinople was also crossed by water conduits that strode over valleys like giant bridges. Under the great Ottoman architect and engineer Sinau they were replaced by more technically advanced hydraulic mains. Yet though water-bearing structures disappeared from the city's public spaces, they reappeared more elaborately in building interiors. In the secluded inner world of pavilions and arcaded courts, water acted as a precious agent of cooling and animation, reflecting light and playing off exquisitely ornamented filed surfaces. No other architectural tradition depends so heavily on the physical and sensual employment of water as that of Islam. Historically, the traditional Persian garden appropriated water for irrigation, display and effect, and its influence spread throughout the Muslim world, assuming increased symbolism as water came to represent the source of life amid inhospitable landscapes. The Moorish Alhambra at Granada is, as Aaron Betsky notes, 'a locus classicus'(1) for the use of water in ar chitecture, a monument to its connective capabilities going beyond simply seeing buildings as objects to something lyrically phenomenological, sensed and experienced by the entire body. The Islamic world also assimilated the tradition of the thermae, supplanting the athletic culture of the Greeks and Romans with the more languid repose of the hamman. In fifteenth-century Cordoba there were 900 hammans and they remain an important Muslim social institution.

Progress, in technological and social terms, is generally the result of successful attempts to control water. Most major cities and towns were founded round a water source--river, stream, spring, lake, delta or harbour. (One exception is Johannesburg, built on a gold seam instead.) In determining a location, an accessible supply of drinking water, waterways for goods transport and efficient sewage removal were all crucial factors that shaped the ground plan and evolution of settlements. Water planning is one of the oldest driving forces in urban development, yet the way it is handled is more than the result of simple technical ingenuity. Relationships with water can also manifest profound social and spiritual dimensions. The ghuts of India and Nepal are essentially just great stepped embankments on the sides of rivers, but they are also a connection with the divine, binding earthly existence with the cosmos through ritual bathing, mediation and the disposal of the dead. In the more prosaically inclined Nether lands (as Aaron Betsky also observes), the constant battle against the sea and the need to irrigate land to bring it into productive use gave rise to a political tradition of localized cooperation and entrepreneurship that helped the Dutch to avoid the excesses of fendalism and nationalism.

Yet despite humankind's physical, cultural and spiritual affinity with water, it is also a powerful enemy of the built environment. The very act of building involves protecting against rain and snow to keep people and possessions dry. Throughout history, humankind has confronted the elements with as much fear as reverence, yet although warmth-generating fire was taken into dwellings at the dawn of time, water has been kept at a distance for much longer. (The domestic bathroom is a comparatively recent innovation, appearing in European homes around the early nineteenth century, after being tried and tested in castles, hotels and luxury brothels.)

Water has the power to destroy as well as create; at the wrong time and in the wrong place in can cause high tides, floods, erosion, destruction and spread disease. Its absence can be just as pernicious: droughts and lack of ground water can wipe out people, flora and fauna, and change ecosystems. Today, a billion people do not have adequate supplies of drinking water and two billion have no sanitary facilities. Moreover, water is shamefully squandered by developed countries (a Mediterranean tourist uses, on average, 1000 litres a day, even though water is scarce in summer) and by nations with aspirations to become developed--the groundwater level in Peking in decreasing by two metres annually, but water is used with abandon for air-conditioning plants, street cleaning and garden sprinkler systems. We are defined by our relationship with water, yet increasingly waste, exploit and pollute a resource so essential to life. Strategies for sustainable water planning, distribution and development must ensure that p resent achievements are not at the expense of future generations.

There are many ways this harmony might be cultivated, but the following modest architectural example suggests one approach. In restoration of the Fondazione Querini-Stampalia, Venice, Carlo Scarpa saw no point in devising defensive schemes for dealing with the city's periodic acqua alta. Instead he accepted flooding as a fact of life and installed stepping stones in the cellar, ensuring that every corner of the building could be reached without people getting their fleet wet. This admirably practical yet elegant solution changed the perception of water from a regularly occurring threat into an almost theatrical experience. Rather than being feared, water was accepted, welcomed, even, as an inevitable, transforming force of nature. We need more ways of being similarly reconciled. CATHERINE SLESSOR

(1.) Commissioned by Pope Innocent X. Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers was completed in 1651. A quarter of figures represent the main tributaries of the four continents: the Danube, River Plate Ganges and the Nile.

(2.) The concave surface of the piazza could be easily inundated by blocking the drains.

(3.) Aquatecture: Architecture and Water, Anthony Wylson. The Architectural Press, London, 1986, p5.

(4.) 'Take Me to the Water'. Aaron Betsky, Architectural Design Vol 65 no 1/2 1995, p9.

(5.) Ibid, p9.

(6.) Think global act local, Wolfgang F. Geiger, Waterscapes, ed Karl II. C.I. adwig, Basel, Birkhauser, 2000, p72.
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Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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