Sunday, September 22, 2013

Romancing Water

This was published in my column "cubes of words" in Design Detail  volume1, issue 4, August 2013.
Follow the link: [pages 117, 118]

B Shashi Bhooshan
Romancing water

Water is the essence of life. It manifests in myriad forms. It delights, it is meaningful, it plays important ritual roles in all cultures, it is fun, it is cool, it warms, it is cruel, it destroys, it makes and breaks life. It is forceful, it is placid, it is deadly.  The purposive, semiotic and experiential, ritual relation we have with it is reflected in every culture, a lot of music, poetry, art and architecture. We reacted to it as reflecting surfaces, as wonderful drops reflecting world, as music of waterfalls, spraying water jets, as cascades and fountains, as foggy screens to create cloud like amorphous floating illusions of buildings, as pools for swimming, as special baths, Jacuzzis, cascades and fountains enjoying its basic experiential quality. 
Our fundamental understanding of water is of its ‘flow’. When you drink water, you are conscious of its flow down inside you, when you swim you know it , when in wading water you feel , when you see waves,  waterfalls, and rivers you feel is the nature of flow. Imagine yourself caught in a heavy downpour; you know flow on the head and shoulders down to the torso wetting every part on its way down to the legs and the foot and to the earth.  You would experience it even if you don’t enjoy it. Every child enjoys it, it is joyful; every farmer who works on rain would love it. It is perhaps the way we understood water experientially and learned of its cycles and its appearances in nature. Will you get the same feel and awareness, when it flows from a tap? Those who have had a swim in the natural rivers ever or a bath in natural streams would know that water flows and touches our body so differently and delightfully than in the most expensive baths of our times. Every leading manufacturer of bath fittings are vying with each other in enhancing the experience in closed or even private open bath rooms with artificial jets, digital controls, showers with remotely controlled embedded music. Would this experience give a personal knowledge of water? 

Natural phenomenon to experience

Water is a phenomenon of nature and a utility.   We studied its chemistry, physics, biology and devised technologies for collecting, extracting, conserving, purifying to convenient standards and norms, packaging and even marketing and selling it. We have created laws on its use, developed notions of ownership; our water, their water, our bathing Ghats and theirs, and now my water under my property and my rain over my roof.  We have also semantically and culturally and religiously classified some water more pure and some dirty. In all  that, water has been objectified. Have we forgotten the value of experiential knowledge of universality, the phenomenology of it which makes our consciousness aware of its cycles and its central position in nature intrinsically? Have we forgotten its real nature of ‘flow’?
Our dependence on it has made us to settle in places where water was available. Most cities and villages had been located near water bodies. The size of the settlement depended directly on the size of the water source. Technological developments of collection and transportation of water, pipes, aqueducts etc, has freed cities from dependence on an immediate water source. Cities today are depending on not just water, but on the technologies connected with it- transportation, desalination, harvesting, storing and leak proofing, distribution- and the economics, politics and sociology-selling and billing and haggles of administration.

Objectified commodity and a resource

It is no more just water; it became an object and a commodity.  It is considered resource and fancily a basic ‘infrastructure’. Use of water means social status. How often you bath ceremonially or ritually or for pleasure, matters.  Control of it is a source of power in society. Water has moved from the notion of a basic phenomenon to an object of desire and luxury. Objectification and consumerisation of water happens in more than one sense.  We believe that greater the use of water, higher is the standard of life.  There are large investments made in research and technology and innovations to cater its consumer economy.
German philosopher Heidegger pointed out two extreme use of water that differentiates its understanding; one as a river flowing and other as flow of river as a source of power.  Heideggerian phenomenology looks at the experience of a thing, like water, as the real appearance and the knowledge and understanding. Looked at as a source of power, that understanding changes.  Ramon Barbazza, a Philippine philosopher scholar points out that water is no more understood in its natural way, but as a resource.  As a thing which has a cost and a price, it divides, as everything else today. 

Sun temple. Modhera, Gujarat. an architecture enhancing water experience. Now hardly used. 

Public exposure to water in public places would enhance our relation and understanding of it.

 Architecture of water

To liberate water from being a mere object or resource,   the experience of it in a natural way has to be brought back. Can architecture and urban design do that? As architecture today is slowly substituting sensual sensitivity with cerebral virtuality, how will water be used and manifested in the future? Digitalising touch is still far away though.  Will it be like flowing water on a surface, digital control of its flow, and jets  on surfaces making an illusory floating cloud like foggy form for a building, buildings or cities floating up from lakes or submerging in it, hexagonal bubbles of water stitched up together to form a watery cube ? As in the past and recent architecture. Would the primordial experience of water be evoked this way? Is it necessary for the coming generations to understand water that phenomenological way at all? Or to find answers of life and nature from consumer economy and experiences and education it can provide?  And to digitally evoke a virtual flow; of water, of life?