Every year, for a while now, I have asked students to read a short passage from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, Chapter Seventeen, from line 163 to line 276 starting with: ‘And did it flow?’ The few pages that follow constitute one of the best descriptions of an ecosystem that I know, embracing environmental and social milieux — the goal being a shave, the journey a complex exploration of the interdependence of the weather and plumbing, and by necessity the relationship of two men with elaborate psychological profiles, walking together, chatting.
As you know, I have spent a lot of time and energy over the past few years working on the complex simplicity of water systems. I have become preoccupied with the architecture that has captured and conserved water in the past, developing a catalogue of building types that can be used in areas of the world where water scarcity remains an issue but where rainfall is plentiful. In relation to design, this appalling predicament is clearly a question of timing. All we have to do is to catch the rain and store it before it evaporates. All, being an oversimplification, of course, as although this proposition sounds simple; in a profound sense, it is not.
I hope that the simple building types that we have designed will continue to gain traction in the development community. More, I hope that handling surface water beautifully and effectively might, once again, be seen as a prerequisite, and an opportunity in the design of all buildings.
When I was a student, I visited Ralph Erskine’s recently completed Clare Hall in Cambridge. I loved the exaggerated down-pipes, large open-sided boxes, lined with zinc perhaps, or another uncoated metal, I cannot remember, shaped to discharge run-off from the big roof surfaces into the large, open, surface water run-off channels that were arranged next to the circulation paths for bi-cycles and people. At the time I was told that Erskine had drawn little water wheels with brightly colored blades to be fitted into the lowest part of the open sided box-like down-pipes, that would spin and splash every time that it rained. These tiny rain-toys were not made, but the idea has lingered in my mind.
Working in Kyoto, in the early 1990s, I visited many of the Villas and Gardens, as I had in Rome and its surroundings in the 1980s. I have a vivid memory, while visiting Kinkaku-Ji, the Golden Temple, walking in the grounds, it rained; a short, but forceful shower. I retreated under a tree to get out of the rain, then I heard a sound, a sharp clunk followed almost immediately by a softer clink. A small pool of water had overflowed into a carefully carved bamboo pipe, held asymmetrically, rain-path and lever simultaneously. This pipe discharged and then returned to its resting place… clunk, clink, signaling the end of the shower. A simple but singular moment, celebrating the rain, but also welcoming the sun that followed, sweetly.
Playing with water may not seem a priority in relation to so many other issues that appear more pressing. However, this winters aberrant weather conditions, thanks to ‘El Nino’, might make the case for designs that provoke a more intense, embodied, recuperative relationship with water. Balancing surplus and scarcity is not just a technical problem, it is a cultural project. Worth trying while we have it, because when its gone it will be too late.