WATERSCAPES: Planning, Building and Designing with Water

Edited By Herbert Dreiseitl, Deiter Grau and Karl H.C. Ludwig. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhauser, 2001

Landscape Forum International, No 13. 2002

Book Review by Matthew Tucker and David Yocca


For those who know Herbert Dreiseitl or his work personally, Waterscapes: Planning, Building and Designing with Water is a much-anticipated reflection of an artist and his studio’s dedication to the imaginative and meaningful re-integration of water and society. While certainly a handsome profile of the Atelier Dreiseitl studio work, Waterscapes goes deeper than just a coffee-table picture portfolio. More accurately, the book is a collaborative monograph on the re-valuation of water to create enriched and sustainable landscapes. This core theme is presented through Dreiseitl’s persuasive preface where he clearly reveals a passion for the aqueous link between people and their communities:

“Twenty years ago, when I started working with water in public spaces in towns and on housing estates, my first projects were fountain designs for squares in towns and country communities.  However satisfying this experience may be for a sculptor, it left me a feeling of unease. I was particularly dissatisfied with one common idea: water as a decoration in the townscape, a pleasant toy for artists and architects, but a superfluous one sometimes- and this is said while all the essential water management in town, like for example rainwater removal, drinking water provision and sewage disposal, is dealt with functionally, scarcely visible and without any aesthetic sense as part of the engineers’ domain.”

Waterscapes is loosely arranged into six sections, each consisting of an introductory essay followed by projects selected to reflect the essay theme. If the sections are viewed as distinct chapters, the reader may find the sections too vague to carry the traditional, chapter-based jurisdictional themes. For example, it is often unclear how the essays and projects refer and support one another. Yet, this is not to suggest that the significance of either should be immediately diminished or dismissed.  Rather, if one approaches the contents of the book in an integrative manner-perhaps a manner more similar to the Atelier Dreiseitl approach- a synthetic, three-layered organizational structure of Waterscapes becomes apparent.

The first “layer” consists of over 30 projects collectively constituting the bulk of the book. Each project has a brief essay that presents a concise summary of the project.  More interesting are the story-like commentaries that go beyond project summarization, seeking to communicate the project’s contextual contours-the relevant history, policy, or concept- that conditioned and shaped each project into an extraordinary place for people.  This informal, narrative style allows for a rhetorically-relaxed read, which effectively widens the appreciable audience. In conjunction with the essays, each project is properly illustrated through conceptual sketches and technical drawings, as well as site construction and as-built photographs.  Together, the essays and images are effective in presenting a transparent glimpse into each project.

Interspersed throughout the project backdrop are six essays forming the second “layer” of the book.  The essays are written by Dreiseitl and four additional colleagues- Robert Woodward, Wolfgang Geiger, Wolfram Schwenk and Detlev Ipsen- along with members of the Atelier Dreiseitl studio. The essays create contemplative pauses within the book, which effectively provide the rhetorical and theoretical context of the work, largely absent from the shorter project essays.  With topics such as “Water is Universal” and “Towards a New Water Culture”, these essays place Atelier Dreiseitl work within the larger framework of contemporary social and environmental issues. Appropriately, Woodward’s essay leads the book by providing a thoughtful description of the ephemeral qualities of water that are woven throughout the remainder of Waterscapes.  Woodward argues that seeing, knowing, and appreciating these qualities are necessary to the creation of meaningful waterscapes. He emphasizes the multiple contextual factors that contribute to the character of water in the landscape, such as: movement, lighting, wind, sound, color, and depth. These versatile qualities of water are explored and understood by Dreiseitl, constituting his perceptual toolbox for inspirational deployment in waterscape design.

How these ephemeral qualities are exposed as cohesive functional and artistic elements within the landscape is a matter of tectonics- in essence, the third “layer” of Waterscapes.  The book provides the project-based technical evidence of how the designs are formalized. Throughout the book, technical drawings, water budgets, photographs of site materials and details, along with a description of the AD studio process, all acknowledge the importance of tectonics to each project’s process and fruition.    It is the observation of water’s processes and conditions combined with proficient experimentation and technical craft that is immediately evident in Waterscapes and the collective work of Atelier Dreiseitl.  Here, the conceptual and rhetorical are brought to form.  Considering no less a charge than re-positioning the value of water in society, it is here, at the most visible and human scale- through detail, technique and craft- where there is the highest risk for failure. In the earlier work, tectonics resulted in forms of ornamentation, and thus risked upsetting the balance of how much conceptual weight projects can carry before they become overburdened with trite symbolism.  The more recent work shows elegant maturation-such as the watercourse at the Herne-Sodingen Academy or the comprehensive water system at Potsdamer Plotz. These projects manipulate scale, detail and material in a manner that facilitates-rather than represents or illustrates- the phenomena and function of water in the landscape. 

Although it is truly impossible to understand the absolute thoroughness, elegance, and beauty of Dreiseitl’s works without actually seeing them in person, this book is successful at communicating three foundational layers of the Dreiseitl approach- the contextual, the conceptual and the technical. Looking past the occasional awkward grammar due to the translation between German and English, the book will appeal to design professionals as well as the interested public as an inspiration on how to integrate water into the landscape in beautiful, functional ways. 

Perhaps most impressive in all of the elements Dreiseitl displays in this monograph is the talented creative process that is focused upon the scalar condition of water: from global and watershed-scale strategies to the elegant detail a storm sewer lid. Dreiseitl’s subject in Waterscapes is no less than a call for a paradigmatic shift in how we, as design professionals and as citizen participants, qualitatively value and prioritize water in our developing relationship with landscapes. The book is about observation, understanding and appreciation, all centered around the belief that water should transcend its current status as a rejected liability or superficial adornment; allowing water to become an inspirational phenomenon central to the relationship between people, their well-being, and our collective living environments.