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A Water-Wise World

May 14, 2019
Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi (photograph by Giorgio Benni)
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By Claudia Trezza.

Exposing fossils “to give a sense of geologic time,” creating a salmon habitat in the waters adjacent to an Olympic stadium, and evoking “an ecosystem that had been absent for some time” were but a few of the phrases used last week by the architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi to describe how water, light, movement, and a multidisciplinary approach have shaped their projects across the globe. A keynote lecture by the two partners of the architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi—both current Residents at the American Academy in Rome—kicked off a two-day symposium titled “Water and Culture: A View from Rome” that addressed on how water has shaped cities, cultures, and laws from the Roman empire until today.

Attendees of the April 17 and 18 events, organized at the Academy in collaboration with the Italian energy company Enel, listened to Weiss and Manfredi talk about the often-complicated decisions and compromises required to weave their projects into the existing historic landscapes and ecosystems. Their approach, they explained, represents a clear break from the traditional binary thinking of the natural versus the artificial, and what Weiss called “the tail end of utopian urbanism.”

In Seattle, the two architects erected the Olympic Sculpture Park that extends over train tracks and other “complicated terrains,” creating gardens and bridges as well as a salmon habitat along the waterfront. At Hunter’s Point in Queens, New York, they turned an abandoned industrial area just across the river from Manhattan into a waterfront park that protects and vivifies wetlands so that visitors “literally feel like they are walking on water,” said Weiss.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology, the walls protect the interior from ultraviolet rays while simultaneously creating a mirror effect that turns the building “inside out,” allowing passersby to see “the incredible research that goes on here,” said Manfredi.

Weiss and Manfredi have contended with the problem of water shortage across many projects. Their buildings need to collect and conserve water and use it to beautify their building. For the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, they devised tilting landforms to collect and manage water. In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a sophisticated water-exchange systems heats and cools the interiors and distributes rainwater to the gardens and along the multiple roofs, each of which featuring different flora. The idea, said Weiss, was “reflecting the time of the year by what grows on its roof.”

At the United States Embassy in New Delhi, pools capturing monsoon rainwater “control and manage light” reflecting buildings, providing a cooling effect to government functionaries and offering “an homage to the local gardens” of the Indian capital. But Weiss said that Rome was “the city that saw the potential to move water, to move souls.” It is here where she and Manfredi gain inspiration for “architecture, infrastructure, ecology, and art to weave together newly enduring watermarks.”

The following day, a group of architects, designers, economists, and engineers spoke of the law, the history, and the “hierarchy of water,” as Katherine Rinne described it, of how the water system in Rome was built for water to trickle down from springs and aqueducts into drinking water fountains for nobles, for the public, for animals, and then for washing. Speakers included professors Cynthia Bannon, Kathy Gleason, and Paolo Squatriti.

The discussion centered on the social concerns that influenced the decisions about water management in Rome. Greg Aldrete talked about how Rome dealt with the regular flooding that engulfed the city, sometimes with apparent indifference—especially from the elites whose homes were strategically located on the higher altitude hilltops to avoid damage. Other times, though, and sporadically, they responded with antiflood strategies such as diversions, embankments along the river, and elevating ground levels.

Yale University professor Frank Snowden sought to tear down the myth of what Benito Mussolini sold as his “greatest domestic battle” against the Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria through mosquitos, which was present in the Pontine marshes north of Rome at the time. The Fascist leader, Snowden explained, used sophisticated political instruments to form an army of Italians from all over the country to organize what Mussolini depicted as “an assault to nature” to fight the parasitic “invasion” while at the same time giving jobs as part of a supposed industrial and social revolution. The Pontine project turned out to be a rural public-health failure, as malaria returned to the marshlands only a few years later.

Several architects participated in a panel discussion with Julia Czerniak and Annalis Metta, professors from Syracuse and Roma Tre Universities respectively, as well as the environmental economist Edoardo Croci and Carlo Pignoloni, a mechanical engineer with Enel. They spoke of the ecological and social value of infrastructure and architecture projects as they pertain to water conservation and climate change. “Climate is changing, landscape is changing,” Metta said, adding that nature was adapting to problems of water shortages and excesses. “Are we ready to change as well?”

From a socioeconomic perspective, Croci explained the need for cities to cooperate with each other to find ways to mitigate the effects of increasing temperatures and precipitation and rising sea levels. Pignolini described the many projects of Enel that take into consideration new concepts of climate efficiency, as well as social efficiency, with local communities playing a role.

Concluding the conference, Lynn Lancaster, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge of Humanities at the Academy, mentioned being particularly struck by the phrase “think global, do local” as it was used during the discussion to capture the idea of taking the big principles of water efficiency and conservation to develop context-specific projects that are tailored to local community needs and traditions. Or, as Academy director John Ochsendorf commented at the end of the day, the challenge facing scholars, professionals, residents, and larger communities built atop places shaped by water is how they can work together to “reclaim this watershed” and “let the natural cycles back into the cities.”