Report: Design in the terrain of water

The “Design in the Terrain of Water” Symposium / Exhibition / Conversation was a greatly successful and productive conference that took place at PENN Design from April 1 – April 2. This post serves as a transcript of notes and observations taken during the event…

In the terrain of water symposium began with the panel design “Activism and Advocacy in the Terrain of water”, where Teng Chye Khoo — the Executive Director of Singapore’s Center for Livable Cities — served as the opening speaker.  In his presentation he discussed the programs and all the urban hydrological projects that are currently under way in Singapore. According to Khoo, their biggest challenge in the coming decades will be to harvest all the rainwater that falls on the City State. He explained that Singapore currently recycles up to 30% of the water it consumes and that ABC water guidelines are being implemented to further address the growing freshwater demands of the island. Building a nationwide catchment system requires massive amounts of capital investments and Singapore is one of the few countries that can execute this transition in the coming decades. Teng Chye Khoo’s presentation helped set the stage for subsequent discussions about the role of policy in water management and implementation in other contexts, concluding his presentation by stating that: “while the US is working hard to achieve energy independence, Singapore is working hard to achieve its water independence.”

The panel on Activism and Advocacy enjoyed additional short presentations by Malhadev Raman, Alan Greenberger, Teddy Cruz and Herbert Dreiseitl. During this panel many important considerations where brought to the table like for example the importance of civic imagination, the role of critical approaches to water management and trans-boundary land-water linkages, just to name a few. Their conversations made clear that harvesting water is indeed energy efficient and that more experimentation is essential. When it comes to the successful implementation, adaptation and maintenance of decentralized approaches, the presenters and the public agreed that community engagement is key. Herbert Dreiseitl further explained that the problem is not the lack of technology, but rather the prevalence of fear and the lack of fantasy. Cruz added that designers need to work towards the pixelation of social and economic infrastructures in order to improve the current state of border cities throughout the world.

The discussions and panelists who participated in the previous panel gave longer and more in-depth presentations during the section — structure and infrastructure in the terrain of water. From the outset this section was very productive and insightful, beginning with Philip Da Cuhna’s presentation — Waters Everywhere . For Da Cuhna, rain should equal infrastructure & convergence (i.e. rain = infrastructure = convergence) and in order to move forward we must first study the history of human settlement in relationship to water.

The second presentation– Water as ground — outlined the anthology of terra firma. Here Kazi Ashraf spoke about Dhaka and of the many landscape alterations in the embankments to be re-engineered there. Teddy Cruz, lectured on the “Politics of Water” and explained the importance of radicalizing the local.  He introduced the audience to the existing trans-boundary urban conflicts that are emerging in places such as the US / MEX border. For Teddy, these issues can be found throughout the world along a “political equator” where informal and formal economies converge.  Cruz concluded his talk by discussing possible ways to move forward and specified the importance of new modes of economic and community driven organization in those contexts. For him there is a growing need for designers to think politically about water in border cities, where social and environmental degradation go hand in hand.

In the presentation by Walter Hood — Everyday water:  Common Sense — the audience was introduced to wide variety of projects of Hood Design. Many wonderful examples like the Portland Creek restoration project, the Berkley project and many others, served to explain principles such as curb and gutter, sweet water, etc.

The panel presentations drew to a close with Herbert Dreiseitl’s lecture — Working fluid — where inspiring ideas and approaches to water management, water art and water planning guidelines where discussed. With Herbert’s lecture, the audience had a chance to think about the properties of water and the creative processes that Atelier Dreiseitl has worked on for over three decades.

During the discussion led by Nancy Levinson, the speakers discussed how water could be a way of rethinking ownership and talked about the integrated processes of socio-political interactions that can be engendered through water design practices.

The next group of presentations revolved around the topic of imaging and imagining water. Lindsay Bremner spoke about shipbreaking in Bangladesh and how it pans out, from the Bay of Bengal to the rest of the world.  According to Bremner, 97% of the steel industry in Bangladesh comes from Shipbreaking, now a crucial part of the economy of the region.  Peter Hutton screened his 15 silent film “Study of a River, at Sea” and Nataly Gattegno presented the Aurora Project, an exhibition / installation that derived formal and experiential media interfaces from a study of the Arctic region…

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