Transitional States: Hydraulic history and architectural activism

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Greensward Plan (1858) / John Frederick Lewis, Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill (1924)

Bonier, C., “Transitional States: Hydraulic history and architectural activism”
Shaping New Knowledges / Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Annual Meeting / Seattle, Washington, March 2016

Disaster, suspense, and material loss are often the first results of taking a decided step, either by nations or by individuals.[1]

The question is posed, “there is too much water and also too little, what can we do?” This is the contemporary conundrum. Water is rising, and weather events challenge every boundary between land and sea. Simultaneously seasonal drought parches Silicon Valley, unsubtly mocking technological fixes. Clean water remains a luxury in many of the world’s most populous cities, and ancient water-related diseases such as cholera and yellow fever still stalk the globe. Urban rivers offer the potential of remediation and recreation, but also threaten floods and illness. We define water as a resource and a crisis, and hope that we can preserve it and be defended against it. But what can architecture do?

In the face of pressing problems, we naturally turn to the most advanced technology and theory, but what about advanced infrastructural history? Does the past have anything to teach us, particularly about the role of design in crafting water management solutions which thoughtfully incorporate both public health and urban life? Can an active understanding of hydraulic history arm architecture students for careers which will evolve in dialog with pressing issues around urban water, public health, and civic space? Perhaps through the investigation and evaluation of historical design responses to past water crises, students and practitioners can gain the inspiration for designs which are both poetic and political.

A brief assessment of two counter-posed periods in hydraulic history brings into question our contemporary theories of urban water and public health. The first period of large scale hydraulic modernization took place in most American and European cities by the latter half of the nineteenth century, when comprehensive plans were put in effect to remediate water-borne disease through the construction of waterworks, sewers, and parks. Sanitation was the watchword, and civilian and professional corps were organized to restructure and to monitor urban infrastructure and public health. This time period can be posed against our contemporary moment of flexible and green infrastructures, attempts to remediate the nineteenth-century’s heavy-handed solutions to urban water management. By paying careful attention to the opportunities and failures of these two moments of hydraulic threat and hopeful remediation, I hope that designers, educators, and students may enter our new era of watery challenges with sufficient insight and boldness to imagine ways of working with water that surpass sustainability. As water has destabilized urban life in the past, each moment of chaos has allowed a transition in thought and the invention of new approaches to infrastructure, public space, and civic life.

[1]     George E. Waring, Jr., Report on the Social Statistics of Cities: Part I, The New England and The Middle States (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1970) 796. This was first published in 1886 by the Secretary of the Interior as part of the Tenth Census, of 1880.