Taking the Waters


One of my favourite scenes in Federico Fellini’s haunting autobiographical movie ‘Otto e Mezzo’ (Eight and a Half) is set in the early 1960s in Montecatini Terme, a spa town in Tuscany. Guido Anselmi, the philandering film director suffering from nervous exhaustion played by Marcello Mastroianni, comes to Montecatini to ‘take the waters’ and seek relief from creative block. There is a genteel elegance to the florescence of Belle Époque pavilions and altar-like bars where socialites, nuns, impresarios and tottering aristocrats flock to take the potent spring waters. In a spectral dream sequence a water nymph dressed as a chambermaid appears before him, offering a crystal-clear glass of purifying spring water. As Mastroianni drinks we witness the water’s rejuvenating effects—at least on his quasi spiritual, quasi erotic reveries. In a later Dantesque dream sequence, a procession of toga-clad figures descends into a vaporous inferno where Guido is summoned to see a cardinal in a steam bath. 

Otto e Mezzo plays on the multiple associations of water in religion and spirituality—with cleansing (washing away sins) and renewal (the water of life) —and gently reveals a rich water culture that is largely lost to us today.

Suffused in hydrological fantasy and water in its different liquid and vaporous states, Otto e Mezzo plays on the multiple associations of water in religion and spirituality—with cleansing (washing away sins) and renewal (the water of life)—and gently reveals a rich water culture that is largely lost to us today. I find the film fascinating not just because of the insight into a glamourous heyday of thermal spas and Italian film culture, but also the belief in the magical healing powers of water and the rich and nuanced understanding of its different characteristics. At a time when we need to radically rethink so many of the ways that we use this quotidian and extraordinary liquid, Fellini offers a glimpse of a different water consciousness, a reminder that water was once much more celebrated and enjoyed than it mostly is today.



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.


With the advent of modern refrigeration vernacular terracotta technology has largely been overlooked, but now it is being given new currency as a low-fi alternative to electric cooling. Doshi Levien’s Matlo, proposed as an alternative to the office water cooler, gives contemporary form to traditional storage jars. Ceramic water filters are also widely used to make water safe to drink in regions without access to treated water. Potters for Peace’s open source design for a clay pot filter is made of local clay mixed with sawdust or other combustible materials like corn or rice husks. When the pots are fired, the clay remains porous, but as water drips through into the storage vessel, its micro-texture blocks contaminants. Additionally, a layer of colloidal silver is applied to capture pathogens small enough to pass through the clay pores. Tests have shown that colloidal silver-coated jugs eliminate 99.88% of toxins found in raw water. As well as drinking water, there is also a new spirit of inventiveness in applying ancient terracotta air cooling technologies. Delhi-based architects Ant Studio are experimenting with a cost-effective, eco-friendly cooling system that circulates water over clay cones. The system was initially developed as a sculptural installation to cool air heated by generators to suffocating temperatures in an electronics factory. It functions on many levels, as well as minimal electricity use (for the pumps) and water (it is recirculated), it is intended to help revive the dying ancient art of pottery that has been overtaken by newer technologies. 

Historically, the material most commonly associated with water storage is clay.

There is a long history of silver’s association with water because of its taste as well as antibacterial qualities; philosopher and aesthete, Ludwig Wittgenstein was partial to the clean cool taste of water from a silver beaker. Rock crystal is another precious material associated with water, Pliny the Elder believed it to be ‘eternally frozen water’. In the Fatimid period in Egypt (AD 969–1171) rock crystal vessels such as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ewer, which is carved from a single piece of rock crystal, were used exclusively by rulers, and crystal cups are mentioned in the Qur’an as one of the items the Believer has to look forward to in Paradise. The clear quartz was revered for its hardness, clarity and cooling properties, its supernatural powers split light into the colours of the spectrum and energised water. Over the centuries, many magical properties were deemed to be associated with objects made using rock crystal. An individual’s craving for water was said to be reduced simply by procuring a vessel made of rock crystal, and rock crystal glasses were supposed to shatter on contact with poisoned liquids, or cause the liquid to change colour, which is perhaps why they were so popular with rulers. Such ancient objects connect to new age beliefs in the power of crystals to energise water for therapeutic remedies.


Another area of water lore enjoying renewed interest is natural methods of purification. In collaboration with food designers Arabeschi di latte, we have staged a series of playful water tastings as a way of provoking thinking about water’s qualities. In the tasting developed as part of our Water Futures programme at design hub A/D/O in New York we explored vernacular practices and growing research into nature-based alternatives to expensive proprietary filters.05 Charcoal is one of the most familiar—historians have found evidence that charcoal filtration was used in ancient Egypt, and activated charcoal sticks, known as binchotan charcoal, have been used as water purifiers in Japan at least since the 17th century. The black sticks have an incredibly porous surface, which attracts contaminants found in tap water, and as well as filtering the water, the activated charcoal also infuses it with minerals. Moringa seeds are believed to be one of the most effective natural materials for purifying water. Various studies conducted since the 1970s have confirmed their ability to remove suspended particles from water with high levels of cloudiness (turbidity). The seeds are antimicrobial and act as a natural coagulant, binding to suspended particles, bacteria, and toxins in water, causing the contaminants to sink to the bottom so clean water can be poured off for use in emergency situations. Researchers working in the Tule Valley in Mexico have found that dried cilantro (coriander) could provide an inexpensive alternative to activated carbon filters. Coriander absorbs heavy metals through biosorption, the physiochemical process of organic materials (commonly plants) absorbing heavy metals from contaminated water into their cellular structure. Other plants, like dandelions and parsley, may also provide similar capabilities. 
Such ideas resonate with contemporary designers exploring ways to enrich the design language around drinking water. In the project ‘Charcoal’, designers Formafantasma worked with one of the last charcoal burners in Switzerland to make charcoal by the slow-burning of wood in a charcoal pile or kiln. One of the oldest human crafts, the designers play on the tension between an ancient Swiss industry that was banned in the 20th century due to deforestation and rising CO2 emissions, and charcoal’s beneficial use in healthcare and water purification. Their subsequent project ‘Still’,06 produced for the Viennese company Lobmeyr, is a collection of vessels and filters pairing copper with crystal and activated charcoal to improve the taste of tap water. The fine craftsmanship and subtle religious references invest a sense of ritual around the daily process of water purification. 
 While such ideas certainly aren’t intended as solutions to the water crisis, they do invite us to resensitise to water. Clearly, as well as poisoning the planet, the convenience of plastic water has made us lazy, and disconnected us from rich and ancient water understandings—a new water consciousness is a vital strand in shaping a more sustainable future.