Cleaner, Clearer, Brighter, Better

March 2014

On the future of water everywhere
The floods in the UK, February 2014 Photos: Matilda Temperley.
In this time of extreme weather conditions it behoves us, one and all, to take even more heed of the water around us. Political paralysis and overconsumption are rife, and as such, it is appropriate to revert to experimental thinking if we are ever to properly address the way we tackle the challenges and truly respect the waters around us. Here, DAMN° sheds light on the wonders of water.
Drenched, sodden, soused, sopping. Deluged, engulfed, immersed, barraged, inundated, aqueous... Rather like the now-debunked linguistic cliché that declares the Inuit-Aleut languages to have at least 100 synonyms for snow, everyday we seem to hear more and more rarefied words for the increasingly waterlogged state of our world. Not to mention the deluge of images of flooding, surreal scenes of houses marooned up to window-ledge height in glimmering watery reflections – both evil and beautiful. Or waves as majestic and terrifying as Hokusai’s, transmuted from the 19th-century Great Wave of Kanagawa to the great wave off the dowdy seaside pier near Portsmouth in 2014.
If the weather was in turmoil in 2013, with everything – storms, heat waves, temperature changes – off the charts, from where I sit holed up between gales in London on a Sunday morning in February, these Biblical extremes look set to heighten. Already this year, England has recorded the worst floods for 200 years, and there is talk of the potential for sci-fi-like disaster scenes in central London should a storm surge breach the Thames Barrier, which could eclipse the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York. In China last year, Shanghai recorded 49.9°C, its highest temperature ever, while the worst rainstorms in 50 years flooded the Sichuan Province, washing out bridges and setting off landslides. The California 2013-14 drought is epic – the worst in the state’s recorded history. In São Paolo, the drought is so extreme that at the start of February the government warned that the system providing half the drinking water to South America’s largest city would run dry in 45 days if there were no rain. 
Welcome to the decade of extreme weather conditions, or rather, extreme weather contradictions. How we make sense of these changing weather patterns – and sooner rather than later – is one of the most significant challenges we face. A year ago, for DAMN°’s first water issue (n°37), I looked at a few of the ways we are beginning to think differently about our water. This time round, as political paralysis and over-consumption continue, I have collected a clutch of recent projects that show how experimental thinking aims to help change the way we approach the challenges and think about and respect our water environment. 
Photograph of Hurricane Sandy, Museum of the City of New York. Rising Waters opened in the autumn of 2013 at the Museum of the City of New York to mark the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. The result of an open call, one-thousand photographs from a submission of over ten-thousand works by professionals and amateurs are a sharp reminder of the devastating impact water can have on urban life, including the preparation processes and on-going coping and rebuilding efforts.
Thames Baths by Studio Octopi. In London, Studio Octopi’s Thames Baths proposes to take advantage of a cleaner river when the Great Sewer is added to Bazalgette’s over-stretched system in 2023, to create a series of bathing pools in the heart of the city, including one at Blackfriars Bridge. @ThamesBaths, Picture: Plane.
Map of American Rivers by Nelson Minar. We know that rivers are our planet’s lifeblood, crisscrossing the landmasses like the arteries in our bodies or the finely veined patterns on the back of a leaf. These extraordinarily beautiful maps, developed by software engineer Nelson Minar using data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, show all of the rivers in the 48 contiguous states of the USA, revealing that rivers run through just about everywhere, including areas typically considered dry, like the deserts of Southern California.
Clean Water by Stephen Goodwin Honan. Clean Water – referred to as ‘the idea that will change the world’ at the World Design Forum 2013 – is a plant-based water purifying system designed to clean up manmade pollution in rivers and groundwater. Devised by Oxford University doctoral student Stephen Goodwin Honan in response to the World Health Organisation’s alarming description of arsenic poisoning from contaminated water as ‘the largest mass poisoning in history’ causing cancers in an estimated 1.2 million people in the developing world each year, the filtration system exploits the astonishing power of plants to naturally purify polluted water. Specific plants are grown in a container and, as water is pumped through it, arsenic is trapped in a filter where it is absorbed by the plants. The filtered water is then safe to drink, while the plants can be harvested annually and the arsenic chemically extracted and sold for use in electrical devices, to provide extra income for the user. Apart from the filter and plants, all parts of the system can be sourced from local everyday materials. Running costs are minimal and no specialist expertise is required to maintain the system, which is scalable for varying levels of demand. A simple yet effective example of harnessing the natural world’s remarkable cleansing powers. 
+ Pool by Family and PlayLab. What if our river water was so clean we could swim through the centre of the city? This scenario might be closer to becoming a reality than you think, as designers from New York to Helsinki, from Osaka to London propose river baths and harbour baths that, as well as making new ways to experience urban waters and claiming new leisure spaces in the hearts of our cities, might also change the way we think about and look after urban water. In New York, + Pool proposes to transform part of the stinking Hudson River into a public swimming haven, making it possible for New Yorkers to swim in clean river water for the first time in 100 years. The pool’s walls are made up of a layered filtration system that will –testing pending – incrementally remove bacteria and contaminants to ensure clean, swimmable water. By cleaning up a small part of the river, the project will not only allow people to experience views of the metropolis as they swim, but also make improved water quality tangible, acting as a catalyst for debate about urban water pollution. Launched via Kickstarter, + Pool has already proven to be one of the most popular civic projects for crowd funding, and a test lab is scheduled for this summer.
ARCTIC exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. So what’s behind these changes? As scientists point to warming in the Arctic driving the changing global weather patterns, the Arctic region is increasingly present in the media and yet remains one of the least known regions of the world, shrouded in the mystery of strangeness, exploration, and adventure. ARCTIC sets out to explore this terrifyingly vast and beautiful region through manifestations in science, art, literature, and culture. The show ranges from the expected – depictions of melting ice caps and tragic tales such as that of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition – to newer perspectives, like the poignantly personal project by photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva. Her series of haunting photographs depicts her own return to the diminishing community of her birth in the remote Siberian town of Tiksi, where Arbugaeva explores the life and dreams of a young girl of a similar age to her when she left 17 years ago.
Makoko Floating School by NLÉ. As suburban towns in the Thames Valley sink below the water line, interest in large-scale floating infrastructures as a solution to the problems posed by urbanisation and climate change is fast moving up the political agenda. But there are also defter low-cost responses to living in flood zones, gleaned from the developing world, which could provide robust prototypes for housing and other uses. Parts of Makoko, a sprawling slum on the fetid Lagos lagoon, have recently been forcibly cleared by the government as this historic fishing settlement on stilts is increasingly battered by rising seas and heavy rains. The floating school was devised by NLÉ Architects, a Nigerian practice that focuses on the developing urban world, in response to the community’s needs. The three-storey A-frame structure combines local Makoko building technology with global flotation technology in a highly adaptable low-cost solution. Isn’t this the sort of approach that major cities in the West could learn from?
A Banksy piece near the Oval Bridge in Camden Town, London Photo: Zak Hussein.
The floods in the UK, February 2014 Photos: Matilda Temperley.
This article appeared in DAM43. Order your personal copy.