WATER SQUARE, when architecture interacts with nature

What if architecture and urban spaces could react and communicate with the climate changes to which they are subjected? We can have an interesting answer to this question if we redefine the connection between water and the city. As citizens, we are used to infrastructure hidden from our eyes, for example, underground tanks, and water collection basins. Rethinking this link means trying to redesign these structures, perhaps integrating them with multifunctional spaces and activities for the neighborhood. The answer already exists and is called Water Square. Here are two effective, useful, but above all, aesthetically pleasant, examples.

The first project is the Benthemplein Water Square or Waterplein (water square in Dutch), located in Rotterdam. Completed in 2013, the intervention was presented for the first time at the International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam (IABR) 2005, where the theme was precisely the relationship between water and cities. The project has a double function: to generate quality for the environment and the community by showing the result of public investments for water storage. After 2005, De Urbanisten, the studio behind the intervention, developed the idea through a participatory process with the municipality, the neighborhood community, and the local activities – two high schools, a church, and a gym. The result of this path is an urban intervention with three basins for rainwater, two smaller ones that collect water whenever it rains, and a deeper and larger one that is activated only when it consistently keeps raining.

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After the rain, the water from the two smaller basins flows into an underground infiltration device and, from here, it gradually ends up into the groundwater. Thereby, the groundwater balance is kept at the right level and can also cope with dry periods. This also helps to keep the city’s trees and plants in good condition, and consequently to reduce the urban heat island effect (more here). The water of the deep basin flows back into the open water city system after a maximum of 36 hours to ensure public health. When it’s dry, the square is a real party: the first pool has a sloping bottom and is suitable for skateboarding and wheel sports. The second basin features two smooth horizontal levels, perfect for dancing. The third, on the other hand, is a real sports field suitable for football, volleyball, and basketball, but also a large theater, thanks to the arrangement of the bleachers. The project was also enriched with new flower beds and trees to ensure more intimate spaces sheltered from the sun, where everyone can relax.

An interesting intervention that shows us how to use a natural element to give identity to a neighborhood and generate new spaces for the community. However, if we want to take another step forward, we mustn’t limit ourselves to “show” hidden infrastructures but also create new ones. This is what the Dutch studio MVRDV did with the Tainan Spring project (more here). In this case, the intervention involved the transformation of a former city-center shopping mall into an urban lagoon. This is surrounded by young plants that will develop into a lush jungle, reconnecting the city with nature and its waterfront. The mall’s underground parking level has been transformed into a sunken public plaza that responds to the seasons: the water level rises and falls in response to the rainy and dry conditions, and during hot weather, mist sprayers reduce the local temperature to provide welcome relief to visitors.

As we have seen, the water square is undoubtedly an interesting typology that can give new life to urban neighborhoods. Due to its characteristics, it’s a multifunctional place, able to activate different programs and create valid alternatives to the rhythms of large cities. In a period marked by climate changes, once again architecture and design show us a way to rethink the spaces we live in in a more sustainable way, through the use of nature as the main element of the project.

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