Left: FACADE OF POUHON PIERRE-LE-GRAND, SPA, BELGIUM. COURTESY OF: JEAN-POL GRANDMONT. Right: RAIN BOTTLE (2014) BY NENDO. COURTESY OF: NENDO.
There are plenty of reasons to decry our toxic drinking water culture and addiction to the plastic bottle. Most obviously there is the catastrophic impact on the environment. Or less visible horrors, like plastics leaching from the bottle into supposedly pure drinking water and into our bodies. But there are also other subtler impacts such as the reductive effect on water culture and how we drink and think about water. Clearly many of the systems and habits we’ve developed in the last century—from shipping bottled water around the world to flushing drinking water down the toilet, to name just a couple—make no sense for a water-stressed future. But as well as the massive systemic changes needed urgently if we are to meet the needs of a growing global population, we also need to change our mindset. With the convenience of water on tap we take it for granted, we’ve lost an innate connection to this essential natural resource, and a rich design culture around it. As we turn away from plastic water, this is a good time to reimagine daily water rituals and consider how ancient vernacular practices might inspire a more sustainable water culture. What follows is a few snapshots intended to reveal some of the fascinating and beautiful objects and spirit of inventiveness in many ancient water cultures, small touches that are beginning to inspire a new water consciousness.
Naturally, the starting point has to be water itself. With industrialised H2O on tap, one of the things we have lost is an appreciation of water’s different characteristics and qualities. Montecatini’s renown rests on four sulphurous springs famed at least since Roman times for the treatment of the liver and digestive system. Mastroianni’s miraculous tonic was most likely drawn from Tettuccio spring, a water used for hydroponic therapy and considered to be ‘light’ and slightly hypnotic, perhaps it really was the catalyst to Guido’s fantasy life. The Belgian town of Spa in the Ardennes forest is where the common noun for ‘spa’ as a health cure originated from, which was then later applied to other towns to denote thermal waters. It is sometimes claimed that it stands for Salus per aqua (healing through water). Today, the one-track train station is overshadowed by a massive bottling plant churning out the red and blue capped plastic bottles of anodyne mineral water for supermarket shelves. In fact, this is a neutered version of the real stuff that bubbles out of the peaty forest soil in a region where there are at least 200 natural springs. Spa’s most famous spring is Pouhon Pierre-le-Grand, named for the Russian tsar Peter the Great who made the town popular and prosperous after his visit in 1717.01 To drink the real Spa water today you step inside an imposing 19th century octagonal cupola and sip a goblet of the pungent, mildly effervescent water, rich in iron and charged with mineral salts that tastes acidic, ferrous and invigorating.
With piped water we have lost this sense of water as a living element seeping out from deep within the earth, cascading down from icy mountains, condensing in the chill night air, and raining from the heavens—let alone the incredible efflorescence of different mineral waters with as many different tastes, characters, moods and colours as stone or soil. A decade ago in the exhibition ‘1% Water & Our Future’, co-curated with Ilse Crawford at Z33 in Belgium, we collected a ‘1% Water Archive’ of different fresh waters that was intended to draw attention to the very small amount of the world’s potential fresh water that can be used for human needs and to celebrate its differences. The 300-plus bottled water samples collected by the local community included rain water, river water, holy water, puddle water, and pond water, water from a paper mill, from a fridge, a water bed and a radiator, water from the Ottoman cisterns in Istanbul, a holy well in Ireland and a spring in Poland. Over the months of the exhibition, some of these waters bloomed with algae and insect life, others fumed, effervesced, and turned noxious and stale. A paean to the diversity of waters, the archive revealed water as a living element, each one with its own unique fingerprint, and showed how reductive (and misleading) our modern view of H2O is, as a clean, clear, chemically standardised fluid. In ‘Rain Bottles’,02 designer Nendo reflected on rain and its many nuances in Japanese—a language that has dozens of words for precipitation depending on the conditions and time of day. The installation consisted of 20 different acrylic bottles, each imagining a different type of rain. Thick vertical strands symbolise a torrential downpour called ‘niwaka-ame’, while different types of fine drizzle are shown by thinner lines. “By exhibiting 20 different kinds of ‘rain’, we hoped to express Japanese culture’s unique relationship to nature and the depth of this relationship,” Nendo said.
With industrialised H2O on tap, one of the things we have lost is an appreciation of water’s different characteristics and qualities.
As well as different natural waters, historically there was a rich culture around the storage, preservation and transportation of this essential resource. Pre-plastic, many different materials were associated with drinking water: terracotta, copper, glass, horn, silver, rock crystal, leather and gourds to name just a few, were all understood to impart different qualities and health benefits to water. As we search for alternatives to plastic, some of these ancient ideas are being repurposed.
Historically, the material most commonly associated with water storage is clay. Clay jugs have been used for filtering and cooling water for centuries in India, Africa, the Mediterranean, and Central and South America among others. In the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, there are numerous examples of terracotta water vessels, from flat medieval pilgrim’s bottle to Cretan amphora, from Iranian ewers to Latin American Boteros. This widespread use of clay is partly down to its ubiquity and low cost—the plastic of the pre-plastic era—but also its suitability for water storage. Before the refrigerator became the universal cooling machine, water was kept fresh in unglazed terracotta, and water poured out of traditional unglazed clay jugs tastes cool and sweet. The clay’s porous character allows water to evaporate, absorbing heat as it does so, thus keeping water below ambient temperature. The hotter and drier the climate is, the more the temperature will drop. In ‘The Hard Life’, a fascinating analysis of a collection of pre-industrial everyday household objects in the Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon, Jasper Morrison describes the thoughtful design of a modest water pitcher with a very narrow neck to help cool water in a hot dry climate.03 In certain cultures, the use of terracotta became highly refined. One of my favourite ritual water objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum is a group of madly elegant 18th century Mexican Boteros.04 The exaggerated dimpled form of the jug was designed to increase the surface area of the vessel thus enhancing evaporation through the thin walls of unglazed terracotta. The incredibly fine smooth red clay called Bùcaros de Indias is gently aromatic and infuses a delicate flavour to the water. It also serves to settle the stomach like modern kaolin-based digestive medicines. Nearby, delicate 17th century clay beakers used to flavour water at banquets, were also thought to purify polluted water and even detect poisoned liquids.