Rivers have long been considered as Earth’s arteries, serving as the essence of urban communities as human settlements developed their shelters and crop beds around them. Centuries later, riverside architecture remained vital as these areas expanded beyond residential typologies, and harnessed dynamic mixed-use developments and public functions. As valuable as they may seem though, these landscapes come with the risk of unexpected floods, increased water levels, or complete droughts, which has forced architects to design built environments that are able to respond to these abrupt changes. So how were these settlements built in the past, and how has today’s urban densification and technological advancements influence the way they are built?
10th millennium BC - 6th century BC
The ancient architecture of the Tigris–Euphrates region is considered as one of the world’s firstly-built permanent structures, with notable accomplishments like the development of urban planning and courtyard houses. Historians believe that the Sumerians were the first society to ever construct a city (Uruk) with streets, markets, temples, and public green spaces, all of which were a planned product of the area’s particular geography and economy. Although the city’s high temple complex stood as the core around which the urban planning developed, the city’s canal served as a key feature of where the gardens, harbor, and agriculture areas were placed. The city’s belt of irrigation land included small hamlets or districts, and a network of roads and canals which connected it to the city, and created some of the first garden landscapes in history, which were outlined by these water channels. And although streets were well-spread across the city, canals were far more important than roads for transportation. In addition to cultural and economical functions, river canals led to the integration of fountains in that region, as historians discovered an ancient Assyrian solid rock basin carved from small conduits near Comel River. Riverside structures were often built with sun baked bricks, mud plaster, or stone, and were occasionally wrapped with colored stone, terracotta panels, or clay nails, depending on their function.
3rd Millennia BC
With great value to hierarchy and power, ancient Egyptian Pharaohs wanted to make sure that funerary and religious buildings withstood generations, so temples, tombs, and monuments were built on lands far from the Nile to avoid being affected by the river’s severe floods. Although the dry and hot climate of Egypt allowed mud brick structures to withstand deterioration, most towns were lost numerous times due to being built on the cultivated area of the Nile Valley. Temples close to the valley were built in parallel to the bank and elevated on a Mastaba to lower the risk of being damaged by floods. Nubians, which are the inhabitants of the central Nile Valley south of Egypt and the north of Sudan, used the Nile to develop unique architectural characteristics, such as the Nubian vault, an arched volume built with local materials that inspired the construction of houses with vaulted roofs. These structures were composed of a mix of clay, water, and straw, which were all locally sourced from the Nile and its surroundings.
(7500 BC– Discovered by Europeans in the 1500s AD)
Known as the world’s second longest and largest river in the world by volume, the Amazon river’s basin includes the majority of Brazil and Peru, large parts of Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and a small part of Venezuela. Annual floods that take place in the lowland areas on each side of the river and its streams resulted in rich soils. However, due to its hill-like topography, most settlements were rarely devastated by floods as they were built on the elevated surfaces. Its vast span allows for diverse environments: more than two-thirds are covered with a rainforest, whereas the northern and southern margins consist of a dry forest and savanna. Early human settlements of Amazonian communities were based on low-rise hills to facilitate trade with Andean civilizations through the terrains of the Andean headwaters. Shell mounds and artificial earth mounds are considered as the earliest evidence of habitation in that region. Archeologists estimate that “pre-Columbian” settlements were able to develop social stratifications that supported almost 100,000 natives, which was achieved by selectively cultivating designated lands using fire. By repeatedly burning these areas, the soil became richer in nutrients, creating a dark soil named terra preta which offers fertile land that’s adequate for agriculture and complex structures. Fast forward to the 1500’s, colonial settlements from Europe were established along the banks of the river to pursue trade and religious preachings among the indigenous people of the rainforest. And during the 20th century, the Amazon attracted local and international human activities that threatened its complex ecology by removing large parts of its lands and introducing foreign bodies.
Today, the relationship between architecture and water has evolved. Whether it’s rivers, canals, lakes, or the sea, urban densification combined with climate change and rising water levels have provoked a different approach to how these areas are developed. Leading architects and urban developers have called for a shift in mindset by proposing ways to work around rivers and canals instead of seeing them as a problem, as seen in the first part of the docuseries Architecture and Water: A River Runs Through It. With that approach in mind, several architects have turned water banks into dynamic and appealing public spaces to establish a balance between the built environment and fluidity of water.
Zaha Hadid Architects’ Niederhafen River Promenade, which sits on the Elbe River between St. Pauli Landungsbrücken and Baumwall in Hamburg, highlights the modernisation and reinforcement of the city’s flood protection system. In 1962, storm surge floods destroyed thousands of homes and caused over 300 fatalities, which forced the city officials to develop a barrier with a height of 7.20m above sea level at the Elbe at Niederhafen to protect the city against floods. ZHA’s design serves as a major attraction for tourists as it sits on one of Hamburg’s most important public spaces, re-connects its river promenade with the surrounding urban fabric of the city, and protects the city from extreme high tides.
As a means of “enhancing the connectivity of the public waterfront, reinstate natural habitats, elevate the standard for urban waterfront resiliency, and transform the way New Yorkers interact with the East River", Two Trees Management, Bjarke Ingels Group, and James Corner Field Operations proposed River Ring, Williamsburg’s waterfront project. The master plan, which was recently approved by the New York City Council, features 3 acres of public open space, a first-of-its-kind protected public beach and in-water aquatic activities, a development of on-site wastewater treatment, and mixed-income residential buildings.