Wayback Wednesday: Talking Water

James Garland’s design for a water feature at the Hearst Building explores sound. Photo by Chuck Choi.As part of our Wayback Wednesday series of posts, celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, we’re highlighting some of our favorite features from FORM’s print edition. Today, we’re sharing an interview our editor-in-chief, Alexi Drosu, conducted with James Garland, the founder and president of Fluidity Design Consultants, a firm specializing in water design. Below, he talks with Alexi about what drew him to water design, his sources of inspiration and how his approach has evolved over the years. He also touches on the future of “green” water design, a subject that has increasing and urgent relevance to those living in regions facing drought conditions of historic proportions.

What drew you to water design?

While doing my internship under Charles Moore, I was asked to freelance with a water design company. Water is very alluring, with special challenges and a seemingly endless opportunity for making mistakes. Between its beauty, significance, design potential and physical sciences challenges, I was captivated. In my mind, I crystallized in my thirties no longer as an architect but as a water designer.

Tell me about the evolution of water design and how it has affected your practice.

At the Alhambra, water was one medium of a multidisciplinary environment that included poetry, architecture, and landscape. In Rome, the great sculptors did fountains in sculpture. In the mid 1980s, there was the rediscovery of how zesty and visceral water is. Interactive experiences culminated at the big fountain at the Bellagio, a real highpoint in water as entertainment. Today, we’re trying to integrate a deep connection with architecture and art, still have the richness of the water of Rome, the refinement of the water of the Alhambra, and the superlative control of the entertainment era—we are trying to bring it all together.

What water features have affected you?

I saw the Alhambra and I was amazed at the level of mastery revealed in the tiny jets, the making of little ripples, the poetry of the reflectivity of the pools, the perfect proportions of the water and the spaces, even the architectural reveals. It’s not just the impressiveness of the idea; it’s how you get there.

Tell me about the sound of water.

There are famous mistakes you can make with sound. In the natural world where you have a beautifully lively stream, you hear high frequencies, low frequencies, medium frequencies. [It’s] the ultimate model for acoustics because it engenders a psychological response. It’s not just the sound, but [also] the changing sound. Something that changes is much more captivating than something that stays the same. The glass cascade for Norman Foster at the Hearst Building was an acoustical idea. Water does not just flow over the glass; it actually moves the flow rate from left to right. It sounds like a constantly changing natural event.

What are some of the innovations you are working on?

For the lobby of an office building in New York City for SOM, there will be a taut screen of silent, brilliantly sparkling water, with a transforming, silvery flow character. For a Design Center in Houston, we’ve created a black reflection pool with rectangular voids that periodically open up in the pool’s surface—later closing, from which glassy fans of water will stream up and back into the pool And in Cairo we are working on a rather grand aqueduct riddled with delightful flaws to leak beautifully.

Change seems to be a consistent theme in your work?

It’s a keystone idea for us. Motion design, transformation, the change of sound, the change of form. In Abu Dhabi, we are working on a program of ‘movable fountains’ for a multi-purpose space. There is this almost random composition so [it] is a constantly changing tablet. It seems that Dubai offers designers much freedom of imagination. It used to be that Dubai was a wonderful place to work because you could build a dream. Today, Dubai is not just a place to build dreams. It’s become a destination of the spectacular. You can’t just do something great; you have to do something stupefying.

Do you often play around with the medium of water?

It’s very rare. People say, do you want to do something with oil? Do you want to do something with mercury? These other mediums are interesting but they aren’t innocent. Why were fountains ever invented? The fountain has a purpose. It’s there to renew and refresh the visitor psychologically and in this renewal to get perspective on your life and your place in the world. Not all fountains do this, but the good ones all do.

What kind of materials are you using?

We look at materials, effects, technologies, [and] new products all the time. In the studio, there are little things everywhere, something we’ve looked at, tried to make something out of. It doesn’t always work but you’d be surprised how often we have success. We did a giant water feature in Dubai made of glass beads. They’re 80 feet tall and hang in a giant space and when the sunlight hits them they make prisms. We’re working on a new project in New York City and they wanted to do something that was visually amazing and made no sound. We did tests [using] differentscreens, made out of stainless steel and woven on these huge looms.

What will we see when it comes to “green” fountains?

There are a number of things we do today to be environmentally responsible and using rainwater is one of them. There have been ideas about using fountains [as] the chilling system for a building. Water features use a lot of energy, [so] our best technique is creating strong displays that don’t need the energy. We are reducing water waste and energy consumption, and we are moderating purification chemistries to be more sympathetic with the environment. But using solar panel, geothermal, even some kind of cell system—that’s all in our future.


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