From playful indoor pools to tranquil exterior fountains to soaring waterfalls and grand lakes of enormous proportions, architecture throughout the centuries has engaged with water in endlessly innovative ways. Sometimes serving aesthetic purposes, but just as often acting as centers of activity or promoting sustainability, water features can take countless different forms and serve multiple different purposes. Below, we synthesize a series of water features espoused by innovative contemporary architectural projects, ranging from single-family residential homes to vast commercial complexes.
Indoor and Outdoor Pools
While the swimming pool is a common feature of residential homes in warm climates, some architects have been able to push the boundaries of the conventional format of the pool. SPBR Arquitetos’ Weekend House in Downtown Sao Paulo elevates its pool to maximize sunlight, ensuring that the tightly packed neighboring homes don’t overshadow the essential feature. On the ground floor of the retreat, additional pools of water serve a luscious indoor garden, ensconcing the main living space on the central floor in natural features on either side. Wiel Arets Architects’ Jellyfish House similarly sports an elevated pool, cantilevered out from the main house and sporting an infinity edge. With a glass bottom floor and panoramic window at its attached edge, the pool filters sunlight into the house and onto the space below, creating fluctuating reflections of blue light. These designs challenge the traditional concept of the sunken pool and interact uniquely with light and nature.
Architects of commercial aquatic complexes have pioneered innovative pool designs as well. Dominique Coulon & Associes’ Swimming Pool Extension in Bagneux sports a horizontal porthole at the bottom of its children’s paddling pool, similarly filling the adjacent area with blue aquatic light. A large appended terrace serves as a beach in the absence of the actual natural feature. Meanwhile, Mikou Studio’s Feng Shui Swimming Pool combines a relatively traditional pool design with dot-like glass skylights and undulating wooden slats on its walls to reference the principles of Feng Shui.
Known to connote both tranquility and a sense of grandeur depending on their scale, indoor waterfalls offer enormous creative potential to innovative architects. Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport, designed by Safdie Architects, sports the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, supplemented by a series of smaller cascading waterfalls and terraced gardens. On a similar scale, asap’s Emperor Qianmen Hotel is linked across its many floors by a series of interconnected water features. Starting with a pool cantilevered above the rooftop, the water alternately flows out in waterfalls or rains down, passing through a series of interior channels and watering hanging plants through artificial rainfall. The water ultimately finds its way to an indoor waterfall, which plummets into an underground spa.
On, Around, and Through Water
Some structures, rather than incorporating water internally, embrace existing landscapes and build on, around, or through larger water features. Alvaro Siza and Carlos Castanheira’s Building on the Water places the offices of an enormous chemical plant atop the vast artificial reservoir serving the complex. Built in a white concrete and glass aesthetic that embraces light and reflectiveness, the curvilinear form of the structure reiterates its sense of natural fluidity and challenges traditionally orthogonal industrial architecture.
MUDA Architects, in contrast, designed their Garden Hotpot Restaurant to wrap fluidly around a lotus pond, the white roof simultaneously emulating the thin stream of steam floating from a hotpot dish. With no walls, featuring only a roof supported by thin columns, the restaurant is deeply integrated into the environment, the lotus pond playing a central role in the experience.
Through the creativity of RO&AD Architecten, even the relationship of bridge to water is reimagined, with the aptly named Moses Bridge cutting through the moat it crosses. Waterproofed wood walls shield the submerged pedestrian bridge from the water, and from afar it is almost invisibly engrained in the landscape.
Exterior Water Features
Exterior water decorations are another more traditional water feature, and can grace even the most banal residential and commercial structures in the form of fountains, channels, and miniature waterfalls. Luis Barragan was a noted proponent of such features, famously stating that “In fountains, silence sings.” His Lover’s Fountain in Mexico City embraces this mantra, combining the serenity of water with his characteristic colored walls and clean lines. A more contemporary example of serene water landscaping, Smiljan Radic’s Winery at VIK, sports a vast sloping plaza of thinly running water cut with low walkways. Throughout the plaza, pieces of a sculptural installation by Radic and Marcela Correa only add to the tranquility. With a similar sensibility, IAPA Design Consultants’ Zhao Hua Xi Shi Living Museum integrates exterior pools of water into the very fabric of the complex, with low shaded seating areas looking out onto the tranquil landscape.
While these landscape features utilize still pools or fountains of water for primarily aesthetic purposes, other architects have integrated the water itself for functional use. In some cases, such as in the aforementioned Jewel Changi Airport, water features serve the dual purpose of natural cooling. Brazil Arquitetura notably pioneers a method of using water to better waterproof flat roofs, preventing leakage in a way that even the early pioneers of modernism could not (both the Villa Savoye and Farnsworth House leaked). Similarly, Collective Urbano’s Carpa Olivera utilizes the tide of the sea to fill its pool, keeping the walls just low enough to allow waves to spill over. Both a sustainable and low-cost option for a public social space, the pool is punctuated by a sculptural spiral slide and playful pop jet fountains.
Finally, and perhaps most famously, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building pumped water from the lake atop which it sat, shooting it out as a fine mist that enveloped the metal structure in a thick white cloud. A deliberate challenge against the high-definition technicality of the contemporary architecture of the period, the Blur Building transformed the water it used rather than leaving it there to be looked at.
These innovative projects, motivated variously by serenity, grandiosity, sustainability, or beauty, are nonetheless linked in the creativity with which their architects approach water. The best projects consider the quality of water itself, from its movement, to its fluidity, to the way it reflects and interacts with light. Ranging in scale as well from personal swimming pools to soaring waterfalls, these projects reveal that innovation has no size.