Water – cultural attributes


Water, nature’s most valuable commodity, is becoming scarce. Climate change is bringing flood and drought upon us. While politics remain silent, architecture, town planning and art have already responded. Evening falls over Las Vegas, the most amazing city in the universe. Cirrus clouds burn away and a light breeze stirs. After sunset, the Strip comes to life, even though the dry heat still has people mopping their brows as it tries to squeeze the last drop of moisture out of every pore. Air conditioning systems run at full throttle, fans rotate in time with the flashing neon signs. After Venice and Amsterdam, Las Vegas embodies the modern dream of taming nature. People strolling along Las Vegas Boulevard spare no thought for the fact that beneath the asphalt lies nothing but sand and that a network of water pipes and sprinkler systems runs beneath the perfectly manicured lawns.

To dive into the Versailles of pop culture, “to disappear into any one of the casinos”, which Jean Baudrillard went into raptures about, is like jumping into an ice bucket. Gondoliers wind their way through cool canals, ice cubes crack in Coke, but nothing can compare with the neo-baroque fountains of the Bellagio. They portray the ultimate achievement in popular culture.

When the water ballet resounds and 1,203 jets shoot their spray with perfect precision into the desert sky, it becomes clear that water is a luxury; water is power. In an orgy of eruptions, pressurized cannons shoot fountains almost 300 feet high into the sky. The air smells fresh, mist wafts over the lake as though being sprayed from an oversized perfume atomiser and curious onlookers wander on into the casino.

Water and culture have always been one. The Roman emperors erected giant aqueducts, opened spas and staged battles for the common people of ancient Rome. Ritual cleansing and profane frenzy lived side-by-side long before the Germans began sunbathing at the “Teutonengrill” stretch of Italian Adriatic beach, and wellness oasis appeared on the scene.

Up to around 70% of our body consists of water and during the course of our 80+ years of life we shall flush almost 13,000 gallons of it through our kidneys. Water is currently our most precious commodity to which we can no longer be indifferent, since climate change is repaying us with drought and floods. Tomorrow’s losers are already on the brink of exhaustion today. While our average daily consumption stagnates at around 34 gallons, around 63% of the population in Uganda have no access to clean water. And only half have access to good sanitation. Such water extravagance is therefore all the more astonishing.

76,000 palm trees and shrubs alone were planted in 1996 on the Siegfried and Roy Plaza. Water is the key to Las Vegas’s rapid growth. Around 1900, today’s city with a population of a million was just pasture land. However, on May 16, 1905, a special train brought speculators to a property auction in no-man’s land, where a town soon sprang up. This town legalized gambling in 1933, attracting the first soldiers of fortune from 150 miles away in Los Angeles.

The Colorado River provides water and cheap energy. However, the Hoover Dam proved to be the Achilles heel of Las Vegas way back. The falling level of the Colorado River left behind a rock face so white it looked as though it had been coated in guano. “The five years since 1999 have officially been the driest in 98 years,” stated the New York Times on May 2, 2004 and saw indications of a dramatic drought that would appear to be an anomaly in the 20th century, where water was abundant.

Indications proliferated that the west of the USA was drying up. And the city of casinos, where everything appears to be possible, responded. Nowadays a water agency is ensuring the controlled shrinkage of lawns and golf courses. The Bellagio water ballet now operates using flush water. The booming metropolitan region is adapting to a future of having to manage with watering less.

Water is becoming a curse. Either there isn’t enough of it, or else it comes in a deluge, in the form of floods and tidal waves. Climate experts fear that the sea level could rise by more than one foot by the end of this century. At first, water will engulf settlements and river deltas of developing countries. Then it will seep into all the harbor dykes, finding the weak spots and flooding the hinterland. Nothing could be worse, since almost half of mankind lives huddled within a 60 mile-wide stretch of coast.

Who can forget Katrina, the hurricane which swept over New Orleans on August 28, 2005? Who can forget the city’s desperate population housed in the Superdome, flooded homes and dramatic helicopter rescue attempts? Unless we are completely mistaken, New Orleans has learned some drastic lessons from its misfortune. This summer, the Mayor ordered an immediate evacuation when tropical storms threatened to hit the city.

The planning consultants AS&P Albert Speer & Partner GmbH, based in Frankfurt, are involved in city planning around the world. What is Albert Speer’s appraisal of the situation in New Orleans? “New Orleans is one of the oldest cities in the USA and is steeped in history. The change in the strengths of tropical storms is hitting them particularly hard. Nature is chaos and we are always trying to tame it. However, that is only possible to a certain extent.”

Another project comes to the rescue. The city currently resembles an open air laboratory for engineers and building contractors. They are looking for answers to rising water levels, storms and tidal waves. The spending clock is currently at 84 and keeps ticking. It needs to be 150. This is the number of eco-houses “Make it Right”, Brad Pitt’s non-profit organization, wants to build, houses on stilts at a price of $150,000 each. The Hollywood star splashed out when it came to finding a new home for flood victims and launched an international competition.

13 companies presented their first drafts last year, including Adjaye Associates, Shigeru Ban Architects, MVRDV and Brad Pitt’s housebuilder, Graft from Berlin. Houses under the brand name of “Mr. Right” should not only be affordable, they should above all be storm proof and have three rooms safely constructed on a platform with a veranda 8 feet above the ground, so that the water can flow underneath the house. Only the car must remain below.

If you click through the drafts, you will see some highly imaginative, some comical houses on stilts, but the most way-out has to be the escape house by MVRDV, which has just been exhibited in the Aedes Architecture Gallery in Berlin: the Dutch created an accessible image of destruction, a house that had been completely wrecked by the impact of the storm, in the form of a giant American mailbox. Pressed in the center by huge forces, the ends of the mailbox leap panic stricken into the air. Windows, balcony, doors – all odd shapes and at odd angles. A real “escape house”.

While architecture and urban development revolve around new solutions, art perhaps gives a vital contribution to a new global way of thinking. It can change approaches and make it clear how dependent we are on water. The laundry business alone is said to use billions of gallons for washing water and massive amounts of energy per year. It is no coincidence that more and more art promotions are placing water at center-stage, whether it be Olafur Eliasson filling an entire gallery with 6 tons of ice from Iceland’sVatnajökull glacier’s lagoon Jökulsárlón on the island’s south coast, or constructing an artificial waterfall outside Manhattan or Roni Horn constructing a “Water Library” in Reykjavik: 24 glass pillars filled with Icelandic glacier ice. Melting ice giants, an “Endgame gesture”, comments the artist.

Back in 1987, Andreas Gursky defined the “Ratingen Swimming Pool” as the epitome of our modern leisure society. However, with the “James Bond Islands”, he created a mega-image of the modern world. Gursky is not the first globalization photographer; however he is one of the most important. His view of the world is like looking at everything through a telescope floating in outer space. The photographer once said that his aim is to portray the “essence of reality”; what he unveiled in the hyperreal “James Bond Islands”, shows panoramas of a fragile creation in all their surreal depth of field. While Gursky has revolutionized the horizons of digital photography both technically and as regards content, there is an increasing desire to preserve what is real: in Vietnam, Ratingen and Las Vegas.

Water, our most precious raw material, will continue to occupy our thoughts. However what was once only cult and enjoyment, now has a new and deeply human dimension. It is a matter of moderating the worst consequences of climate change. Initially, it is about the dawn of realization. For that we need more art, architecture and design, not less.