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You Only Walk This Way Once: Anthony Acciavatti Interviewed by Vere van Gool

The following interview with Anthony Acciavatti was first published by Volume Magazine in their 48th issue, The Research Turn. You can read the Editorial of this issue, Research Horizons, here.

The Ganges River is India’s largest and most densely populated water basin. A lifeline to millions of people and carrying enormous celestial significance, the river is also severely polluted and suffers from dramatic droughts and floods. Vere van Gool spoke with Anthony Acciavatti to discuss the decade he spent navigating the Ganges and the new reading he was able to construct of this sacred river.

Vere van Gool: How did your journey begin?

Anthony Acciavatti: I’ve always been interested in the relationship between rivers and cities. It’s something of a romance really. I grew up not far from the Mississippi river and after doing some mappings of the Tiber river in relationship to the city of Rome, I came back to the States and finished my undergraduate thesis where I was looking at the Atchafalaya basin of south New Orleans, designing from the scale of mosquito habitats to the regional hydrodynamics of the Mississippi. While working on my thesis, I became very interested in looking into a large river system and noticed that the Ganges hadn't been mapped in about fifty years. All I could find were statistics attesting to its unprecedented levels of human density, agricultural production, and annual rainfall. So I wrote a Fulbright proposal in 2004, saying: if you give me a year, I will walk the land and create what I called a dynamic atlas of how the monsoon radically transforms this area every year.

Kumbh Mela: A Temporary (But Not Instant) City for 2 Million

Among the many complex interactions between humans and water in the Ganges river basin, perhaps none is more awe-inspiring than the religious festival of Kumbh Mela, which every twelve years hosts the largest single-purpose gathering of people on the planet, with an estimated 2 million temporary residents and 100 million total visitors in 2013. In the following excerpt from his book "Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India's Ancient River," Anthony Acciavatti recounts the history of this spectacular event, as well as the smaller annual Magh Mela - and explains why even though it is temporary, the huge tent settlement that supports these festivals is not the "instant city" it is often described as, but instead a microcosm of settlement patterns across the whole Ganges.

Dangling at the tip of the Ganga-Jamuna Doab, where the Lower Ganges Canal system terminates, the city of Allahabad overlooks the confluence of the Ganges and Jamuna rivers. While the Jamuna, to the south of the city, runs deep and narrow, the Ganges, to the north and east of the city, runs shallow and wide. Where these two rivers meet (and a third mythical river, the Saraswati), is known as the Triveni or Sangam, the most sacred site within Hinduism.

Every twelfth year, the sleepy university city of Allahabad is transformed into a colossal tent city populated by millions of pilgrims for the Kumbh Mela (literally Pitcher Celebration). And it all seems to happen so fast. After the deluge of the southwest monsoon (June-August), the waters of the Ganges and Jamuna slowly start to recede. A city grid is tattooed into the banks and shoals of the Ganges. Tents and temples pop up in October. Pontoon bridges stretch from one bank of the river to the other and pilgrims begin to arrive in January. Then come reporters and camera crews from all over the world, who come to document the life of what must at first appear to be the world’s largest Instant-Mega-City: a temporary tent city with the major infrastructure of a metropolis.

Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India's Ancient River

Few geographies in the world nurture such a rich and complex imaginary as the Ganges River Valley. The heart of Indian Culture, and home to over one quarter of India’s population, the Ganges is one of the most fertile and infrastructure-heavy river valleys in the planet. Its many physical, historical and spiritual natures defy a single interpretation: always in flux, source of life and destruction, and venerated as a Hindu Deity, the Ganges fully embodies the complexities and excesses of the Indian Civilization.

In “Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India’s Ancient River,” Anthony Acciavatti orchestrates a magnificent portrait of the Ganges River Basin, and its continuous reinvention as a test-bed for infrastructural innovation. Through the hybrid genre of the Atlas-Almanac-Travelogue, the book unfolds the many nested spatial and temporal scales that characterize this highly contested territory. Those captivated with the planetary urbanization of water will find in this book a timely and relevant volume of encyclopedic ambition and exquisite design.

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