Interview with Herbert Dreiseitl on Designing with Water

Herbert Dreiseitl, International ASLA, Principal of Atelier Dreiseitl, discusses his firm’s unique combination of art and sustainable water management practice. Dreiseitl explains how designers can use innovative, small-scale sustainable water management projects to inform broader policy and regulatory approaches. These demonstration projects are needed, the leading waterscape designer argues, for creating a larger paradigm shift in the way cities use and manage scarce water resources.

Atelier Dreiseitl works at a variety of scales. At the very large scale, the firm is developing Singapore’s entire central watershed master plan. “The project is really about thinking about the entire island, a huge city, and its vision of the future. It’s about making the city more independent and less reliant on other countries for their water resources. At the moment they need a lot of water from abroad, coming in via pipeline from Malaysia, which is actually typical for any major city. From a broad perspective, what is needed for the future is more harmony, partnerships, intelligent and better use of the resources. With a holistic approach, the large amounts of tropical rain that currently flows out to sea can be taken and used in a different manner.” 

Creating a new approach to the management of water resources in Singapore involved gaining the support of the private and non-profit sectors, as well as citizens. “This is not only a technical solution. It’s involved with the politic and people. The government has been very supportive of this and they created the ‘ABC Water Guidelines’ to get people, and public and private sectors on board together with their thinking. The letters ‘ABC’ is an acronym: ‘A’ for Active; ‘B’ for Beautiful; and ‘C’ for Clean.”

On a smaller scale, Atelier Dreiseitl has revitalized communities by creating interactive, human-centric waterscapes. In Hannoversch Münden, Germany, Dreiseitl designed a small project on a historic site. “There is a city square in a town that is more than a thousand-years-old. When we started, it was a bus station, where people were going in and out. Now it’s a totally pedestrian walkway area. Now, there is a water feature, which is interactive. The water feature is a piece of art. We capture the sounds of the city using microphones and this sound is then transformed into vibrations on plates under the water. These plates create different ripples and textures in the water. To express this vibrancy, we use lights to reflect these hot spots of movement.  Light is directed at the water and its patterns are then reflected onto different building facades. Suddenly, the backside of the town hall has enormous and interesting light textures. These reflections are influenced by the people’s movement if they step into the water feature, and they can they leave their own ‘trace’ here. It shows the flexibility and creativity and dynamics of water, which can be interactive.”

These smaller projects are important — they are showcases and provide examples of how sustainable water management practices and water-efficiency technologies work in reality.  Innovative, small-scale sustainable water management practices can influence policy and regulatory approaches on a broader scale, argues Dreiseitl. “Small-scale projects are good for creating a sense of hope. They are good learning experiences that plant the seed for something bigger. As innovations, it’s important to learn out of failing. On a broader scale, it’s very important that we discover ways to recycle water, and treat water so it can be renewed. Again, as an example, I mention Singapore, a city that is at the forefront of new water technology. However, they are smart enough to know it’s not only about technology. It’s also about aesthetics. The emotions must come in. People need to have a feeling, an understanding of what happens. That’s where we can come in to make cities more beautiful. I am not just being altruistic. Function and form and aesthetics really need to get together, and can  complement each other, or even encourage progress.”

In a recent discussion on the Sustainable Sites Initiative, Jose Alminana of Andropogon said current water infrastructure is unnatural. “Drains are unnatural,” and water infrastructure should be further decentralized so it’s more like a natural system. Alminana added that transmission lines for waste water cost five to six times more than wetland systems, and produce C02 emissions on top of it. When asked how urban water infrastructure needs to be re-thought, Dreiseitl argued: “Cities and urban areas have to change their systems into waterscapes. Waterscapes are living systems that provide a living, cleansing process like nature. The value of what a river gives a wetlands through cleaning the water is enormous! If we take the intelligence of nature and bring it back to cities through very smart technology back to the cities, we can re-create this. The water body in a city is like an organism. It has different ways of interacting. Water has to be decentralized, brought to the surface, and integrated into what we actually see. What we see is what we take care of.”

Read the full interview

Image credit: Singapore Watershed Master Plan, Atelier Dreiseitl

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