The winning proposal for this year’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1 Young Architects Program in New York recalls the image of Armilla, a city imagined by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, made solely of plumbing infrastructure, in his Invisible Cities (Harcourt, 1974).

“The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: It has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, and overflows. … You would think the plumbers had finished their job and gone away before the bricklayers arrived.”

Cosmo, the PS1 design submitted by Andrés Jaque’s Office for Political Innovation (OPI), bears a striking similarity to Calvino’s vision. Composed of a towering constellation of interconnected pipes, tubes, and liquid tanks, Cosmo is an architecture without walls or surfaces, focused solely on the propagation of water. The installation will be a kind of proof-of-concept demonstration of a mobile water purifier that can be deployed in a variety of global settings. It is hardly an expected piece of mechanical equipment, however, but rather a clever spatial synthesis of multiple construction languages: infrastructure, landscape, shelter, and theater.

Jaque’s design builds on the office’s previous work of making improvised structures with repurposed industrial components. The firm’s 2012 Escaravox project consists of parts of a center-pivot irrigation system covered in shade fabric. Located in a large plaza outside of a historical slaughterhouse in Madrid, Escaravox provides an inviting gathering space and its integral audiovisual systems enable amplified public performances. The office’s IKEA Disobedients and House in Never Never Land projects also demonstrate this resourceful approach of assembling unexpected constructions from off-the-shelf components.

In Cosmo, Jaque intends to take this method a step further by using the technology of optimized irrigation systems not only to create novel architectural constructions, but also to facilitate the systems’ original purpose of hydration. Cosmo will be a movable artifact that purifies some 3,000 gallons of graywater every four days by circulating it through a series of controlled ecosystems, each of which performs a different function: filtration, purification, and oxygenation. Comprising clear tubes and suspended acrylic tanks, these ecosystems will be supported by a structure of thin steel pipes and cables. Two sets of mobile platforms covered with irrigated gardens will undergird the installation, and a suspended polymer mesh will glow whenever the water in the system has been purified.

This motley assemblage is designed to have far-reaching implications. “Our interest on working reassembling components from the catalogs of centered pivot irrigation systems—as if they were ready-mades—is based on the fact that those components can be found all around the world, and therefore Cosmo’s intelligence will be available for inexpensive reproduction there where the information reaches,” Jaque said in an email. This practical approach to utilizing local resources is similar to Shigeru Ban, FAIA’s reliance on contextual materials like paper tubes, canvas, and beer crates for the construction of emergency shelters. In this case, improvised irrigation structures also have the capacity to be moved to targeted sites.

In just a decade, as Jaque cites in his project summary, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in countries or regions that lack adequate water supplies, according to the estimates by the United Nations. The vital resource has become the subject of increased scrutiny within the design and engineering fields, as water consumption is closely related to issues of human settlement and diet. For example, 85 percent of the global population today lives in the driest half of the planet, according to the UN, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates that climate change will only increase water stress in these regions. In addition, our rapidly growing appetite for meat and dairy products requires much more water than traditional starch-based diets—for example, producing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef requires about 15,000 liters (3,963 gallons) of water, compared with 3,500 liters (925 gallons) for 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice. Agriculture, in general, is the largest consumer of water, the UN says, using about 70 percent of all freshwater globally. How ironic it is, then, that the PS1 installation will make an environmental statement in the form of a construction made from standard components for crop irrigation.

Environmentally, Cosmo’s fundamental contribution is the exposure of water both as a physical material and as a dwindling resource. Water conveyance is often hidden within buildings and under street networks, but in this case, Cosmo “ ‘unblackboxes’ the process by which the water is piped and transformed,” Jaque says. Not only will the pavilion de-pollute water, but it will do so in a way that makes the entire process easy for the public to see and understand. In addition, the project will have a life online. The OPI is developing an application that will allow online visitors to check on Cosmo’s progress throughout its installation.

Ultimately, Jaque intends to politicize matters of environmental awareness through architectural means. “I do think that nowadays many of the main issues our future depends on cannot be responded [to] just with words or stances,” he says. “They require new designs capable of reinventing our societies. … We are moving from the politics of dispute and statements, to the cosmopolitics of design.”

In addition to making an earnest statement, Cosmo will also be fun. Designed as a visually striking party artifact, the hydrocentric pavilion will welcome crowds into the cool shade of its tempered gardens during hot summer days, its biochemical skin illuminating whenever its water purification process is complete. The effect of this wall-less, liquid-infused architecture will likely be akin to Calvino’s Armilla, which he describes in Invisible Cities: “In the sun, the threads of water fanning from the showers glisten, the jets of the taps, the spurts, the splashes, the sponges’ suds.”