Designing with water has slowly disappeared from our collective drawing board. Today water is used as a resource, something simply to be manipulated, extracted – a subjugated object. Using examples past and present, this article looks at our society’s modern relationship with water and its inherent physical, social, and ecological power.
Shannon watershed with minor watersheds. Produced by Michael Fingleton. Source: EPA
Water is no longer a source but a resource: Ardnacrusha as a concept remains a nearly 100-year-old renewable resource, providing maximum 2% of Ireland's electricity. The Shannon waters are completely changed.
“Water is everywhere before it is somewhere. It is rain before it is rivers, it soaks, saturates, and evaporates before it flows.”
— A. Mathur and D. Da Cunha, Design in the Terrain of Water (2014) 
The Ardnacrusha Dam was one of newly independent Ireland’s first projects of national importance. It had infrastructural and symbolic significance for a newly sovereign country undergoing major socio-ecological change. Built between 1925 and 1929, the scheme was conceived by Thomas McLaughlin, an Irish engineer at Siemens-Schuckert in Berlin. Costing a fifth of the country’s GDP, upon completion it was capable of meeting the entire energy needs of the burgeoning nation, transforming the electrical supply and capacity of the new state . By harnessing the power of the River Shannon to produce electricity, water was seen as a source, at the forefront of Irish infrastructural design. The dam’s cyclical nature was intertwined with the region’s watershed. As modern Ireland blossomed, Ardnacrusha represented the ‘social revolution’ moving across Ireland .
In the years following this major development on the River Shannon, designing with water has lost its relevance in our consciousness, in Ireland and further afield. A new, toxic, subject-object relationship with water emerged, based on water as a resource, something simply to be used, extracted, manipulated – a subjugated object. Following the green revolution, a nation of small farmers surviving by caring for their personal holdings were replaced with a cohort of larger agricultural producers focused on land colonisation, growth, and profit. Agricultural inputs accumulated alongside increasing production outputs: our natural fertile soils were industrialised. In doing so our rural rivers and lakes became the receptors of the excess of our industrial agricultural economy, our toxic dumps.
A parallel cultural shift during the 20th century was the urbanisation of our rural population, not only to the larger metropolises, but also simply to our many “rural” towns and villages. These urban centres geographically concentrate wastewater, focusing ever larger amounts of pollutants - from urban run-off or poorly dimensioned water treatment facilities - in specific areas. Our urban watercourses and groundwater sources are polluted by those of us living above them; according to Irish water we lose close to 50% of our piped water to infrastructural leakage every day . Rivers and lakes, watercourses and groundwater sources - in short our entire watersheds - have been heavily degraded. Today only 50% of Irish rivers are of satisfactory ecological health. These rivers and lakes are merely points of revelation, the watershed surrounding them the points of human pollution . Water is no longer a source but a resource: Ardnacrusha as a concept remains a nearly 100-year-old renewable resource, providing maximum 2% of Ireland's electricity . The Shannon waters are completely changed.
Again, at a point of great socio-ecological change, determined not by independence but by future human and non-human co–existence, new references with water must be established. Conceiving of water as a source rather than a resource will determine not the electricity we produce, but instead how much life we can sustain. Crucial to this is our understanding of the entire water cycle and how we interact with water as an object rather than a subject. Water retention, permeable living surfaces, closed loop water cycles, wastewater recycling, and general watershed protection are all part of how architects, landscape architects, and urban and territorial designers should be developing our watersheds.
Ardnacrusha dam was a systemic solution to a local question. The consideration of the immediate ecosystem was relevant to the treatment of the whole. In attempting to create energy for an entire nation the height of Lough Derg, further up the River Shannon watershed, was crucial – only through controlling this could the dam function . Today’s issues require even more systemic and ecological answers. Projects should not be limited by administrative boundaries but by geographical, topographical, natural extents, going beyond political borders to consider the boundaries of the watershed.
The Ardnacrusha dam was a key moment in Irish design; we must reignite our sensibilities to water. The dam strives to work with water, but it stops short of considering the entire ecosystem it inhabits. We must become ecologically literate. Our relationship with water as a system must change, where it flows, floods, gathers, filters, dissipates, percolates: how it moves through our watersheds. Giving space to water means giving space to health both human and non-human: our uisce beatha.
Conceiving of water as a source rather than a resource will determine not the electricity we produce, but instead how much life we can sustain. Crucial to this is our understanding of the entire water cycle and how we interact with water as an object rather than a subject.
Future Reference is a time capsule. It features opinion-pieces that cover the current developments, debates, and trends in the built environment. Each article assesses its subject through a particular lens to offer a different perspective. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact email@example.com.
Future Reference is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
1. Mathur, A., Cunha, D.da and Mathur, A. (2014) Design in the terrain of water. United States: Applied Research + Design Publishing.
Alice Clarke is an architect and researcher based in Zurich, Switzerland. After graduating from TU Dublin she worked for Grafton Architects before returning to study for a MAS in Urban and Territorial Design at EPFL and ETHZ. She is now part of the Chair of Architecture and Territorial Planning in ETHZ and works for architecture consultants Zirkular. She is co-founder of the research and spatial design collective BothAnd Group.
Michael Fingleton is an architect and teaching assistant. He studied in both UCD and Hochschule Liechtenstein, receiving his degree in Architecture from UCD in 2011, completing a project on the transformation of a canal into a new piece of post-industrial infrastructure. In Liechtenstein, he was involved in the publication of the ‘Atlas of Urbanscape’ under Angelus Eisinger. In 2022, he completed an MAS in Urban and Territorial Design at the EPFL and ETHZ, where he is now involved as a teaching assistant to Prof. Paola Viganò.
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