Water and the City

Posted on March 30, 2012 by

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the impact of water on urban environments. Water in a city not only calms and quietens, it also has an astonishing aesthetic effect. Water creates order and harmony and constructs perspectives. Being a liquid, it dissolves harshness in the cityscape and has a certain give to it visually. It lends majesty to buildings that may otherwise be mediocre and creates converts the ordinary to grandeur. Venice or Amsterdam are famous examples of liquid cities, and their beauty is well-known. In Amsterdam, the canals liquify the streets, softening the austerity of the merchant houses that line them. The city feels light and ephemeral, which gladdens the heart every time one emerges from the inside to find that the dreamlike apparition is still there. In Venice, by contrast, it is the city that solidifies the water it is built on and in. The entire edifice is so breathtaking that normality is interrupted and the city cannot be. The pleasure of travelling on a vaporetto along the city’s liquid streets is familiar to all visitors to the city.

There are more prosaic examples that illustrate the benefits of water in a city. In Brussels, for example, the Flagey cultural centre, on the square of the same name, is in some respects a clunky and austere art deco building. It’s solid facade is often considered ugly by visitors and locals alike. ImageWhen viewed from across the ponds, however, as it is here, the harmonious proportions of the building are revealed and its nickname le paquebot, or ship, really fits. This is because the water frames the building, providing distance and perspective, without the aesthetic dreariness that a large square would provoke.

The popularity of the Ixelles ponds, seen in the above photo, especially on a sunny day, testifies to the uplifting effects of water on the city. These ponds are the remainder of a once vast network of waterways and pools that filled the area in around Brussels, which after allis built on a marsh. Very few have remained as they were progressively filled in over time as the city developed. Even the once snaking river was buried in vaults in the city centre. The lack of water is a shame and Brussels would do well to look into reopening closed waterways and steering further development around rather than through its natural topography. The city has done well to preserve its forests and is all the better for it; it is, in fact, one of Europe’s greenest capitals. It could only be improved by highlighting its marshy nature.

Several campaigns are already underway to reopen covered docks and canals in neighbouring Antwerp, to reconnect with the city’s maritime heritage. In Mechelen, several city centre canals have been reopened to great effect.

Many global cities were built in or around water, which was often diverted or buried to speed urbanisation. If we are to create a true sense of place and return a sense of majesty to our cities, it is time to look at ways to bring the water back.

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Posted in: Architecture