We look back at Water Works – Ecologies of Entanglement

How do we find a new design attitude towards water? This question brought together designers, (landscape) architects, urban planners and water experts in Rotterdam during the water event Water Works – Ecologies of Entanglement.

Type Update
Published on 13 April 2023
Part of Embassy of Water
We look back at Water Works – Ecologies of Entanglement
Part of Embassy of Water

Wind force 5, the grey water sloshes against the high Rotterdam quay. We are standing close to the edge of the Nieuwe Maas. It is low tide, you can tell by a streak of weed on the quay opposite. What lives here in the cold water? What memories does it evoke? What would we like to ask the water? During the water event, the guests not only listen to the many speakers but also try to connect with the water in various workshops and experience what it is like to give water a voice.

“Great times are coming”

The government recently decided to make water and soil guiding spatial decisions. But how do you put that into practice? How do you know what water and soil need and how do you take that into account in a major construction project? “It also means that things can’t be done; that realisation has to sink in now,” said Karla Niggebrugge of the province of North Brabant.

“Great times are coming,” says architect and former Chief Government Architect Floris Alkemade on stage. His interlocutor Anne van Kuijk of the province of North Brabant also thinks in terms of possibilities: “Drought is perceived as a problem, but it also offers opportunities for quality of life”. This does require imagination and a new language, they say. As an example, they cite the tapestry hanging in the provincial government building, made by the Textile Museum. The tapestry depicts the future of Brabant. “You can see the whole province on the tapestry, but you can also point to your own house,” says Alkemade. “The environment I know has a stratification that I only recognise when I hear the story accompanying it. I like it when there are stains on the carpet where people touch it a lot. Those are the places where we have to pay attention”.

“Designer, put yourself first if you have a vision”

There is an important role for designers and other innovators in shaping a world beyond transitions. And these need not wait for a commission from Alkemade: “Storm forward enthusiastically and don’t stand aside for anything at all. Any form of modesty should be abandoned. Put yourself in front if you have a vision”. Van Kuijk adds: “Make sure you are where it happens. Beautiful concepts and ideas often evaporate because they do not connect with daily practice. Therefore, find your companions within governments, make it concrete. You need buddies who are not in the design world, but who understand what you mean”.

The future of the Dutch delta

Climate change and urbanisation are putting Dutch deltas under pressure. Fransje Hooimeijer, scientist and lecturer at TU Delft, presents the ‘Redesigning Deltas’ project: innovative designs for five Dutch delta regions. “How can spatial design offer transformative action perspectives for the future of the Dutch delta?” Fifteen design firms were invited to work with scientists on five tasks, using water and soil as starting points. The plans show what regions could look like in 100 years’ time. “I like interdisciplinary processes,” says Hooimeijer: “STEM and creative go very well together.” She emphasises that designs get better when we look at the issue from different angles. For example, you can determine the area’s value based on its function, as it is often done now. “But we need to value and use the land differently,” she argues. Using the designs, a sustainable future image becomes conceivable.

The workshops

Moderator Marsha Simon asks the audience, “What do you think multi-perspective means? As an anthropologist, as an architect, as a designer, what do you see when you look at water? How do you translate that into words or images that others understand?” In the three following workshops, all participants try to give water a voice.

Arita Baaijens is a scientist and explorer. In recent years, she met people in the desert, in Siberia and in Papua New Guinea who believe in animated nature. With her science brain, Baaijens found it hard to believe that the invisible nature spirits really existed. She developed the method ‘deep mapping’, which makes the invisible a little more visible. “The conflicts in decision-making processes are precisely about what is not on regular maps, such as relationships. If you want to work towards a future, you have to find another story to go with it. Suppose we develop a language of the sea? Can we rewild the Dutch language to bring back the sea in the language? Can you see the sea as a relative or as a family member? How would you design if water is your client?”

Deep designer Anne van Strien tries to connect with trees and water, discovering an “entanglement”: an interweaving of roots, soil, water, banks, plants and animals. “What happens if we really listen to De Dommel? Let’s move to a new design attitude of really listening, to a pure dialogue with nature. It’s worth a try.”

Anthropologist Phebe Kloos: “If we get to know each other, that includes non-humans. This afternoon, that’s water. Anthropologists look at human-human relations, but a new movement is emerging that examines human-nature relations. How do you relate to your environment?” As an example, she mentions the river The Ganges: “I see a polluted river, I don’t want to go in there because I will get sick. But someone who lives there can see the river as a mother. Immersion actually cleanses you. We look at the same thing, but we see something different and we react to it differently.”

“I have no such attachment to water”

We go outside for the workshops and stand in the stormy wind watching the water. An employee of a water board tells us that he grew up by the sea. “I feel that now, that I still have the connection again when I stand here by the water,” he says. At first, he has nothing to ask of the water. “I don’t have that kind of connection with water”. But when he tries to open up, he asks, “Where are you going?”. “The water molecules flowing here have been everywhere, I find that fascinating. It’s a beautiful thought that you are actually one with the cosmos”. Laughing, he says: “But I’m a bit of a techie hear!”

Everyone sees something different

Looking across the water, another workshop asks “What do you see?”. As soon as participants share what they have seen, it turns out that everyone sees something different. A participant says: “One looks with a designer’s gaze: ‘The water is in frames, I see a lot of stone, towers’. And someone else sees sunlight, a coot, waves, movement.” The next task: What would you like to see differently and what can you change yourself to make that happen? The participant himself wants to see more love, he would like us to honour water again.

Poet Wessel Klootwijk creates a short poem during one of the workshops:

You wink with your waves
Sparkle in your gaze
Your stirring full of emotion
You were and remain you and me

“We need many more people than just engineers”

Urban and landscape designer Dirk van Peijpe (De Urbanisten) closed the event with examples of design for water in an urban environment such as the Waterplein, the Keilehaven tidal park and a park on the Hofplein line. “How can we design our cities to be resilient to climate change? This requires a lot more people than just engineers. Not only do we need technical solutions, but we also need to call on nature to protect us. If you seek space in the city, you also make it an attractive city.” He mentions Tidal Parks Keilehaven in Rotterdam. “Once this was a rich ecology with fresh and salt and ebb and flow, but urbanisation has made the water less alive. Where the port is moving towards the sea, we want to design the riverbanks ecologically, give plants and animals a place again. We know there is a kingfisher, swans nest there, dragonflies are present. It will be richer.”

The event Water Works – Ecologies of Entanglement took place on Friday 24 March 2023, as a side-event of the UN Water Conference in New York and was organised by Anouk van der Poll of the Embassy of Water and Saskia van Stein of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam.

Thanks to:
Partners of the Embassy of Water: Province of North Brabant, Water Board De Dommel, Brabant Water and the Municipality of Eindhoven.
Partners of the IABR: Municipality of Rotterdam, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

Moderator: Marsha Simon

Speakers: Anouk van der Poll, Saskia van Stein, Floris Alkemade, Anne van Kuijk, Fransje Hooimeijer, Arita Baaijens, Anne van Strien, Phebe Kloos, Dirk van Peijpe.

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