By Homa Parmar
Let me walk you through
As a graduate student in architecture, my master’s thesis deals with finding effective approaches to the collection, restoration and redistribution of water for communal revival. In this fast-paced world, the global water crisis is of pressing concern. My quest for understanding the spatial relationship of people in the presence/absence of water led me to pursue two student research grants – The Riz Knowles Award and the Dean’s support for student research. The grants presented me with an opportunity to travel through the Netherlands in spring 2020, studying how water has influenced Dutch communities. It was an opportunity for me to learn about the architectural spaces and the water-centric urban design approaches implemented in Dutch cities serving the local communities.
I was looking forward to spending my two weeks in the Netherlands, exploring numerous water districts, academic institutions like the Institute for Water Education and Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), interacting with the locals, absorbing the culture and, not to forget, feeding my soul with all the sweet and savory Dutch delicacies. Little did I know, the Covid-19 pandemic would accelerate to the point where I would have to rush back to the States in no time . . .
Descending into the Netherlands
It all began with my descent towards Amsterdam as I caught the first glimpse of the city’s aesthetic appeal. It fascinated me that a considerable portion of the landscape was covered with water. The amazing landscape was shaped by narrow water streams flowing across the lush green farmlands that seemed to never end. In the distance, I could see the embryonic, undeveloped dunes guarding the coastlines, preventing the river water from flooding the place. I watched the sudden change in weather from a bright sunny day to dark and overcast in literally less than 6 minutes. With a third of the nation situated below sea level and a total of over 6000 km long waterways, water clearly is in the DNA of the Netherlands.
Living with water the Dutch way
Sitting in a cozy corner of a local cafe in Delft, 45-year-old Gerrad casually shared, “It was like a constant battle, between our people on land and the water surrounding us. Sometimes, we won, sometimes the water did. But in most cases, we adapted. Over the years, the battle has been eventually put to rest”.
“Small is beautiful” – following this concept, the unique and distinct identity of the Dutch cities was influenced by the existence of the beautiful canals that spread across the city. By allowing the water to flow and develop its course, canals have remained vital for all kinds of local upkeep and transport.
Over the centuries, land acquisition in Dutch cities took place with the incorporation of canals, drainage, polders and dykes. Because the land is quite flat, it was cultivated first, and later construction followed. It is wild to see how people live in narrow row houses, made with simple construction techniques and local materials like bricks and wood. Besides canals, windmills hold a historical prominence in Dutch culture.
In order to learn more, I visited Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Kinderdijk and Geithoorn that house a collection of well preserved historic windmills with breathtaking views. The windmills were no doubt an inherent part of people’s lives before the industrial era. The Dutch use of windmills go as far back as to the 11th century, serving multiple purposes from pumping water out of lowlands to grinding grains for personal use.
COLLABORATION, EXPLORATION and ADAPTATION are the keys to surviving cohesively with water.
Biking along the dykes, contemplating the scenic views of canals, windmills and the landscape for hours became an everyday evening routine of mine for two weeks. From multiple visits to IHE Delft and conversing with water authority officials, I understood the attitude of “never again” adopted by the Dutch after the 1953 storm water surge and increasing high water levels that had destroyed Dutch lands. Implementation of the integrated system of rivers, canals, windmills, dykes, polders and float plains continue to keep the Dutch fields sustained and dry. The impressive pattern of “Water flow and holdings” made it evident that the Dutch are top notch in integrated water management systems and are improving by each passing day.
Water-centric urban place-making
While canals are the lifeline of the Netherlands, public squares make the soul of urban cities. It’s interesting to see how layers of water canals, narrow streets and urban squares overlap, presenting a unique character of Dutch cities. The nodal intersection of narrow streets, opening into wide-open ornamental space usually serve as open market squares, offering public platforms for mass interaction. Either side of the canals, strolling through the edge, the sight of Dutch men and women riding around ringing their bicycles just warms your heart. Well, after riding the bicycle myself, I can truly see why people prefer riding over driving.
Walking through the Sunday markets at Dam square and Waterlooplein in Amsterdam and the flower market at the Munt square, it was indeed clear that the true identity of the place is out on the streets. Looking down at the ground from the high view of the clock tower, the market square in Delft, was populated with locals, walking/riding bicycles all around randomly passing through market square escaping into the connecting streets. Some indulged in taking pictures while others enjoyed the ambiance while relishing their favorite meal from restaurants overseen by the tower. People did look like ants disappearing in the connecting narrow streets. A special mention to the Nutella dipped waffles from the local weekly markets – they were delicious!
Among all the places I visited, Rotterdam turned out to be the guinea pig of sustainable implementations for modern Dutch worlds. The city exhibited the Dutch’s innovative approach to building resilience in climate-changing scenarios. Water square in Benthemplein provided a sense of community to the densely populated neighborhood, with an urban square holding three large rainwater collection ponds. The ground surface serving as a recreational platform in the dry months was an example of the city’s attempt at water-centric urban design owing to Rotterdam’s heavy rainfall. Another example is of the ZOHO rain letters serving as the signboard for the neglected business district of ZOHO, acting as a rainwater buffer collecting water from the roofs of neighboring buildings. Apart from these two, it was fascinating to walk in the 1000 sq. meter urban farm at DakAkker, more than 20 feet above the ground, justifying the “farm in the sky” concept of the design.
Writing a thesis in quarantine
With only 2 days remaining for my trip to end, the coronavirus hit hard, and I had to travel back to the states overnight. Travelling across 5 countries and 6 cities in 24 hours, I managed to take one of the few last flights from Amsterdam to New York.
After a crazy return, including staying in isolation for the following two weeks, I had ample time to reflect upon and translate what I learned during my travels into my master’s thesis. I plan to design a water-centric urban node for Dahiwandi,a rural Maharashtrian village of Marathwada district, India. Owing to the warka water towers, I am trying to design a similar functional tower acting as fog catcher to store water for drought seasons.
The various levels of intersection of the towers in the urban node and community is an interesting exploration for me. I am making use of Rhino and Grasshopper to study the change in spaces in the presence of water, once it’s captured by the water towers. On a large scale, an integrated system of water seers, polders, drain trenches, swales, filtration pits and traditional stepwells will be incorporated in the community to ensure flow of water through natural gravitational force.
By exploring the building materials like sun dried adobe bricks and porous concrete tiles, along with locally available mud, bamboo and stones, my thesis aims to design a self-sustaining community in a water-scarce region to ensure that it can be resilient to the changing climate scenarios.