Architecture and Water (Part 1): A River Runs Through It

The first of a three-part documentary series asserts that water management is as much a political issue as it is an urban planning one.

This is the first of a series of short documentaries, produced by the Architectural Review and the Old Royal Naval College, exploring the relationship between architecture and water. Whether it’s the ocean, rivers or canals, water is poised to be a burning issue as climate change, rising sea levels and increased urban densification change the way we live.

“In the 20th century, the car influenced the way in which town planning was established. Water is going to do the same thing for the 21st century,” says Robert Barker, founder of London-based Baca Architects in Architecture and Water: A River Runs Through It.

The first in this three-part series looks at the relationship between London and the Thames River. Architecture critic at The Telegraph, Ellis Woodman, takes us through the challenges and opportunities presented by living near bodies of water. Leading architects, developers and urban thinkers present what’s at stake, calling for a shift in mindset to accommodate and work with river and canals rather than see them as a problem.

As Caroline Bacle, director of the documentary Lost Rivers, puts it: “Instead of an industrial model or a Victorian model of getting water out of the city as quickly as possible in pipes, we can keep it in the city and use it as an asset.” This calls for floodable spaces to take the pressure off the river and buildings that can handle moisture either by working with it or repelling it.

“If the Thames was what made London the world’s first global city, could it also be the means to make it the world’s first resilient city?” asks Tom Holbrook, director of Cambridge-based architecture and urban design studio 5th Studio.

As the central “artery” of London, the Thames provides both access and the chance for improved and repurposed public spaces. The 2012 Olympics was a huge catalyst for development on the river, especially on its various canals and tributaries.

The film also reveals that water management – like decisions about infrastructure, urban planning and land appropriation – is a political issue. The commentators ask whether the city’s relationship with its rivers is being determined by engineers, property developers and city authorities, without opening it up for public debate. A little-known fact is that in the past some of London’s rivers were seen as a nuisance and diverted to underground tunnels. Raising them to the surface again could benefit both residents and the community at large.

Parts 2 and 3 of "Architecture & Water" will be featured over the next two consecutive Fridays.