Photography: Benoît Derrier Stockholm’s Riddarholmen, as seen from City Hall tower.

“All great cities are on water.” It is a simple truism, like “form follows function,” yet water matters so much to how we build and plan, and how we survive and thrive. The link between successful cities and how they relate to water is fundamental.

What is more elemental to life than water? Water, too, is essential to the building arts. Beyond the basic premise that roofs and walls have always been constructed to protect their inhabitants from aqueous gremlins, water is to architecture as coffee is to the body. Beyond sustenance, water is as much a part of the aspirational nature of architecture design as, say, proportions or expressions of power.

Cities grow up around disruptions in transportation, but there is a tremendous difference between the ones that work well with transportation, and the ones that do not. There is also a marked difference between a manufactured inland city and its coastal sire; compare Brasília to Rio de Janeiro, or Canberra to Sydney. That difference is water. Try to think of an exciting, life-affirming metropolis—London, Lisbon, Cape Town, Shanghai, Istanbul, or Stockholm—that does not embrace its amniotic origins. The liquid attractions of a spiritually uplifting place remain long after waterborne commerce has ceased to be the place’s reason for existing. One wonders, however, if planners in St. Louis and Buffalo would be better off if they paid more attention to the Mississippi River and Lake Erie? Venice, alas, is literally drowning from too much water (and too many tourists who come to experience the waterlogged Serenissima). The maritime heritage of a port such as Boston remains one of the Hub’s big draws; we are extremely conscious of the city’s relatedness to its harbor, even if the clipper ships are but a distant memory.

The reason that all great cities are on water is really quite simple: It’s commerce, yes, but is also the fact that we do not want to be separated from our primordial habitat. We are genetically coded to respond to water economically and emotionally; it is useful, soothing, and mesmerizing. That it is also dangerous and frightening offers an insistent and sublime duality.

So forget geopolitical treatises or studies of intermodality. Worthwhile architecture ultimately requires the romantic spirit that water provides as the wellspring of life, whether the lake in the Garden of Eden, the Nile River, or New York Harbor. Architecturally, as in everything else, water is destiny.

Learn more about why water impacts our daily lives at topicarchitecture.com.