The diversity of water

Landscape architecture is a rich and complex discipline. As well as being capable of creating architectural forms and structures from natural elements, it also employs the almost infinite range and diversity of nature. And water has a unique position among the natural elements.

The relationship that humans have with water is complex, ambivalent and ever oscillating between too much and too little. Water is the foundation of life, yet it also contains an element of danger – it can instill fear and awe and drought or floods can also kill. Working with water as a design element has involved and always will involve this field of conflict, while still flirting with the evocation, memories or technical possibilities that water brings.

Water is a much-loved design element which can be developed in a variety of ways. This is demonstrated by an almost infinite number of designs and realized examples that reflect either the inspiration of natural landscape or artificial technological methods.

Designing with water is very individual practice influenced by a variety of factors. These include a specific handling of the element of water, the actual site, the role it plays as an architectural element in space, the functions the element needs to fulfill, its various sensory aspects, as well as the symbolic power that water can express.

Designing with water

Creating a design using water deals with its unique dynamism, the level of reference (or visual relationship) between the designed element and the viewer, the time-based experience and the formal treatment of the containing borders (such as a bank or the edge of a basin). A water design cannot be created on its own – it is one part of an architectural complex and exists within a complex spatial and thematic relationship.

The site plays a vital role in determining the effect of a designed element. The same fountain trough appears very differently from site to site – placed in the middle of a cobblestone square, in a courtyard surrounded by walls, in an overgrown bush garden or in an open landscape. The site and its individual qualities, its overriding relationships, historical layers and spatial formal context are essential to a coherent concept and the designed qualities of the water element.

There is great design potential in these supposed restraints. With enough financial resources almost anything is technically and creatively possible – a freedom that can result in arbitrary and interchangeable designs. It is important to search for distinctive ideas that make sense in regard to design, and not only to budget, to engage committedly with the site and its potential, and using this experience to develop individual images and sustainable technical solutions.

Urban structures can supply important points of reference. Significant pathways or neighbouring architectural use can predetermine the site of a water element. Overriding prerequisites, such as rainwater management or basic design plans begin influencing the formal outcome as early as the concept stage.


Functional requirements and specific goals can be achieved in a design involving water by using clever combinations and arrangements. In addition to the many aspects of water supply and removal, there are also those of recreation and sport to consider.

The original function of fountains was to supply drinking water. The development of a comprehensive public drinking water system replaced the original function of public fountains as a town or city’s water supply. Today they serve purely decorative purposes.

Collected precipitation and spring water can be used to irrigate gardens and plantations while water can also be important for recreation and sport, particularly in public parks. Given the right conditions, existing elements can be developed and integrated into an outdoor installation. One example is the English Garden in Munich, Germany, during the planning phase, von Sckell creatively integrated the existing Eisbach into his design concept by adding waves and a landscape-like course. Today, in addition to being recognized for its formal qualities, it is a popular bathing and surfing area.

Water can also serve as an impeding barrier – wide, deep moats such as those surrounding castles can replace walls or fences. They have a similarly obtrusive function yet do not interrupt the visual relationship between different areas of grounds. In contrast, elevated animated fountain blocks or water walls work with obstructing views. They form a protective façade that conceals undesired functions and elements the sound they create can also pleasantly block out noise from a neighbouring street.


Water is rich in symbolic value and has powerful religious roots. This phenomenon has developed over the centuries and is still true today, even if it is at an unconscious level. Depending on context, the form and movement of water can represent serenity, vitality or wealth. It is a cross-cultural symbol of life and temporariness. Water not only literally ensures survival, it also symbolises human intellect and spirituality. The moon, water and femininity are closely related in terms of symbolism.

Many elements posses – beyond the purely functional level – a unique characteristic to which the design should specifically respond. Vegetation, for example, can introduce the factor of time as a fourth dimension. In harmony with the seasons, plant growth and changes in colours and shape will transform the look and mood of a landscape design, year after years. Water’s unique characteristic exists in the diverse ways it can be experienced with the senses.

Designing with water is more expressive if the sensory experience is integrated into the concept and recontextualised. It is difficult to say which of the senses is most or most intensely stimulated by water. But ultimately a harmonious, well balanced interplay is the key to a successful composition.


Darkness robs water of its optical power of attraction, quickly turning it into a dark, impenetrable surface. A lighting concept specifically created for the design can animate water at night and dramatise it with specific light.

Light hitting the surface of the water from the outside creates a soft reflection on the otherwise dark plane. The intensity of the reflection depends on the light source’s brightness, the distance between the light and the water surface, the colour spectrum and movement on the surface of the water. Colours may also be added by the light source, but they look paler and less saturated when reflected.

Intense luminosity can be achieved by placing light sources inside the water. Depending on the brightness of the lighting, the distance to the surrounding fixtures and the water’s transparency, reflections may be able to illuminate the entire body of water. The different angles of refraction emanating from an illuminated body of water with movement on the surface produce a constantly changing structured pattern, and project a play of light and shadow onto the surrounding environment.

Innovative applications

“We have noticed an influx of items that enhance and improve the already tried and trusted products, such as stainless steel deck lids which replace the common brown lid found on most swimming pool weirs,” says Ian Hopkins of Pool Spa & Filtration. “Furthermore, laminar stream jets which don’t splash, allowing for bigger and better features but with smaller bodies of water, highly polished stainless steel spheres in various sizes for water feature or statuary feature application and interactive control of various water jets, are new innovations which we have noticed.”

Dominic Symes from Hi Temp Solar Heating travels to Thailand frequently and has noticed the emphasis on relaxation techniques using water massage therapy. “The Singapore Changi airport has an interesting Oasis Garden where water features are used to relax long haul travellers in transit,” he notes.

Hopkins believes that more and more architects and interior designers are looking at incorporating the element of water into their designs? “By being more aware of what is available in the market and working closely with companies that develop new ideas into working products and by consulting specialists in that specific field, water is being utilised more as a design element,” he says. “The more we learn the art of controlling water in ways that hasn’t been seen before, or improving products that have served us so well, the more people will want to incorporate water in their designs. Water is no longer just wet, but with modern technology and understanding, there is a greater freedom of life and movement – it is through the command of technology that we win the freedom to be creative.”


* Hi Temp Solar Heating – 021-557-0298
* Pool Spa & Filtration Supplies – 011-793-1381

BOX PIC: Pools8.jpg
Information from the book Basics: Designing With Water by Axel Lohrer, published by Birkhauser. ISBN: 978-3-7643-8662-7

CAPTIONS: Pools 1-7.jpg NO CAPS. ALL PICS TO HAVE: Pic courtesy Kingfisher Landscaping