Water will be the greatest shaper of our environment in the next century. That might seem like a truism, but I do not hear many architects or artists speaking to this fact. At best, they are salivating about the possibility of large public works projects in which they might find themselves a role along with the engineers and builders charged with creating urban protective armor in the form of sea barriers, levees, dykes, and other constructions with high visibility. The disconnect between architecture and water became evident this month in the images of flooded Central European cities, where water lapped around the lower stories of baroque structures.
A more fundamental approach lies in figuring out what to do with water mainly by giving into it: make peace, not war, as they used to say. All over Northern Europe, from the Thames estuary to the Rhine and the Elbe, politicians and designers are looking at deltas and alluvial areas that have become built-up areas and wondering whether they can be turned back into floodplains—in some cases, especially in the Netherlands, they are already doing so. Water-retention ponds are now mandatory parts of many developments across the EU.
I recently visited Florence, Italy, where, in the heartland of what we think of as one of the most refined examples of urban culture, the biologist and artist Carlo Scoccianti has been turning the agricultural areas in the Arno valley into earthworks that serve as habitats for migrating birds, local flora, and wildlife, water retention fields, and works of art. He calls his project Artlands, and he finances it with money from the Tuscan regional government and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
What sets Scoccianti’s work apart is that he insists he is neither an engineer nor a landscape architect, but an artist who is working with recognizable form to create appropriate ecosystems. Earlier this month, we trudged from a small country road only a few kilometers from the Duomo into what was once a field used for what the artist calls “bad agriculture”—intensive, large-scale, and driven by the use of pesticides. The Tuscan region now sees it as a water-retention area, useful for managing the increase in scale and frequency of the Arno’s floods. As we wound through weeds and the remnants of old orchard, with the evidence of urban sprawl all around us, we curved into a view of a project Scoccianti calls Casting the First Stone.
The work consists of half a dozen circular mounds surrounded by shallow water. Scoccianti designed it according to the required water capacity, but also to be shallow enough not to attract ducks, which in turn would bring in hunters, but only waders. He also wanted it to be a visible sign of the beginning of a new effort (the Italian meaning of the phrase that is the project’s name). He acknowledges his debt to the American land artists of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Robert Smithson, and the desire to create a recognizable form with visual power to make people aware of the situation.
Other projects in Artlands include another retention pond dotted with artfully placed islands and concrete pillars, which are perhaps ruins of a past civilization or building blocks of a new one. You can view what you might call anti-duck-blinds that frame views not unlike those of romantic paintings. Scioccanti designed the maintenance sheds as openwork metal frames packed with loose stones in which certain lizards and birds might nest and plants might grow. A line of stones marches up to the crest of nearby rubbish dump, capped and landscaped, to mark the place and remind viewers over ancient stone fences.
Each of these projects is both useful from a flood control and ecological perspective, and beautiful as a designed landscape. What they need now is a connection between the half dozen projects. In that manner they would become truly useful ecosystems, and would let us visit them on an aesthetic and natural voyage of discovery. That duality is important: Scioccanti understands his work as fundamental science, but also knows that it will only work if it is also a form of propaganda and knowledge transfer.
Having just contemplated the familiar but strangely overwhelming size and complexity of the Duomo in Florence, I took hope from Casting the First Stone: Some day Scioccanti’s work will help generate the same sort of ingenious and beautiful architecture that came out of Brunelleschi’s inventions.