OCEAN OF WETNESS
A PLATFORM FOR DESIGN
THE SUBJUGATION OF WATER
Ocean of Wetness originates in a concern for the domination of water by land. Like so many binaries, the divide of land and water is unequal. Water is placed in a subservient position, confined by a line to waterbodies and made to serve land by supplying it, draining it, making it, generating energy for it, and today, providing it with a waterfront for real-estate development and consumption. Water crossing this line is held to be in violation of both its delineated body and adjoining land. In instances of flood, this violation is even considered natural and the damage caused by it is labelled a natural disaster, forgetting that the line is a human invention. In other words, water is made to appear ‘naturally’ prone to violence. It is hardly surprising that ‘managing’ water has evolved into a professional, systemic, and increasingly contentious undertaking while so much is invested in making the line a natural feature. It figures in the coast, the riverbank, and the water’s edge with little acknowledgement of the act of separation that brings these places into being.
With water expected to become more ‘difficult’ with climate change, plans are underway to reinforce the line with walls, levees, and other barriers, thicken it with ecotones and land-uses that accommodate in time the uncertainty of water in space, or simply redraw it on higher ground. These solutions will work until, that is, water defies them. They perpetuate a landcentric imagination that sets water up to be non-compliant, unpredictable, and violent, yet somehow controllable.
WATER TO WETNESS
Rather than seek justice for water in its relationship with land or turn the land-water divide on its head, Ocean of Wetness advocates a shift in the place of human habitation from a surface of land and water to ubiquitous wetness: wetness that is everywhere before it is made land and water somewhere. Land and water here, are not givens in nature; they are products of design on either side of an asserted line, a line that then unites them in a difference that favors land. It is the first act of a design practice that is as extraordinary in its reach as it is ordinary in everyday life.
Ocean of Wetness calls this unseen design practice into question by drawing attention to the act of separating water from land. In the process, it broadens our understanding of who designs to include those from fields of inquiry that in one way or another shape a land-water surface on the ground, normalize it in experience, and frame it to cohere in the imagination, fields such as geography, history, earth sciences, ecology, philosophy, engineering, and social sciences. They not only contribute to its design; they also reinforce it indirectly through the many analogical forms of the terra firma-aqua fluxus divide, such as settlement and flows, formal and informal, certainty and indeterminacy, space and time, masculinity and femininity, urban and rural, colonizer and subaltern, form and process.
Ocean of Wetness operates through studio, research, and activism.
STUDIO in an Ocean of Wetness
The studio is a pedagogical format and mode of inquiry by which designers draw an idea into the realm of the possible. They use it, on the one hand, to distinguish an idea that is possible from one that is fantastical and, on the other hand, to push frontiers of the possible against limits of the real in a bid to be inventive yet effective. By repositioning design to begin with the act of separating water from land, Ocean of Wetness expands the definition of who designs and therefore who can benefit from studio inquiry. It includes not just those who see themselves as designers, but people from across disciplines, professions and interests in and out of academia.
Ocean of Wetness is committed to extending the reach of studio inquiry (of varying durations) to academics in the humanities and sciences, to students and teachers in schools, and to professionals and administrators whose work impacts the build environment. It will be driven to engage material conditions of wetness, develop means to articulate its presence, and speculate on possibilities that ubiquitous wetness affords.
RESEARCH in an Ocean of Wetness
Research is a form of design practice, particularly when it changes how places are imaged and imagined and consequently studied and planned. Ocean of Wetness pursues the reimaging of places, taking issue with their dominant presentation in maps and plans. The line by which representations assert the land-water divide is drawn in a time when water appears containable and not when it is precipitating, evaporating, transpiring, and generally behaving in ways that defy delineation. Those familiar with the hydrologic cycle, which depicts the extended presence of water transitioning through states and places, will understand this to be a moment of the cycle in which waterbodies can be delineated and thereafter treated as residents of a place while rain, snow, and fog are made visitors.
Ocean of Wetness asks if places can be constituted in another moment of the water cycle, like precipitation, for example, when a city on a river, island in the sea, or lake on a plateau cannot be taken for granted. In such moments, new vocabularies of place become possible.
ACTIVISM in an Ocean of Wetness
Ocean of Wetness is concerned for people who inhabit wetness in ways other than by separating water from land. They demand more room for understanding than is afforded by the current paradigm of habitation. We refer specially to peoples of the tropics who until recently were colonized by European powers and today remain in developing mode. Waterbodies here, flood devastatingly, run dry, are terribly polluted and increasingly contested. The frustration with managing these waterbodies spills into the discursive forms of the terra firma-aqua fluxus divide which like the land-water divide refuse to hold here with the informal seeping into the formal, the rural invading the urban, indeterminacy weakening certainty, time confounding space, and so on. The blurring is all too easily reasoned as chaos, underdevelopment, exoticism, informality, or otherness. Yet it could very well stem from people engaging wetness in unique ways, ways that are forced to operate in cracks and interstices and in tension with a ‘mainstream’ that persists in normalizing a surface of land and water. The resulting dissonance is debilitating. And while it is more evident in the developing world, it is increasingly seen in the developed world, particularly in times of disaster.
By opening the land-water divide to question, Ocean of Wetness deepens the ground of understanding. In a world torn by divergences such as development and environment, infrastructural projects and resistance movements, haves and have-nots, Ocean of Wetness initiates a third way in an expanded public realm.
Action Sites in an Ocean of Wetness
DRAINS TO RAINS: reimaging and reimagining Philadelphia
The City of Philadelphia has made a pioneering effort to move from an infrastructure of drains to one that holds and soaks rain. It is now time to ask if this shift from drains to rains can be paralleled with a change in imaging and imagining Philadelphia. The story of this city, its portrayal in texts, images, maps, and plans, continues to be cast on the ground of William Penn’s 1681 plan strung between the Delaware and Schuylkill river systems as drains of a continent. Ocean of Wetness proposes an alternate visualization of Philadelphia structured by a multiplicity of raindrops in place of a hierarchy of flows, a diversity of dispersed and situated beginnings in place of a singular origin and center, a plurality of strategic design projects in place of a master plan.
BANGALORE’S LOWGROUNDS: recovering a place on the Deccan Plateau
The lowgrounds of Bangalore make room for more than a rain-driven wetness; they provide a place to absorb the uncertainties and elasticities of a monsoon culture. Today, these lowgrounds are being consumed by a hydraulic imagination. They are built upon with development served by water brought through pipes and pumps from monsoon-rich rivers of the Western Ghats many miles away and several hundred feet below. It is an infrastructure that has brought with it devastating floods, paralyzing political conflict, increasing scarcity, and growing uncertainty. Ocean of Wetness aims to recover Bangalore’s lowgrounds and rain-imagination, doing so strategically to not just meet water demands, but to also recover the resilience that these grounds afford habitation.
OCEAN OF RAIN: returning Ganges to Ganga
Ganges and Ganga are names often used interchangeably to refer to a river. Ocean of Wetness takes a different view. It suggests that Ganges is a river and Ganga is rain, places experienced in different times of the hydrologic cycle with very different consequences for reading India’s past, understanding its present, and envisioning its future. In a time when the Ganges is one of the world’s ten most endangered rivers and when the government is considering making it the spine of a mega-project to link India’s rivers, which critics say will destroy ecologies and undermine peoples, Ocean of Wetness presents Ganga as an alternative. It promises new possibilities not just for India, but for the entire monsoon belt where rivers flood devastatingly, run dry, are terribly polluted, and increasingly contested.
TURNING THE COAST: orchestrating the meeting of rain and tide in Virginia
In the face of sea level rise and the increased frequency of hurricanes, the east coast of the United States has become a ‘battlefront’ between land and sea. The image of the meeting of these two entities across a line goes back to European explorers and settlers, led by maps and settlement practices. Ocean of Wetness proposes a re-visualizing of the coast in the tidewater country of Virginia structured not by a line between land and sea, but by a multiplicity of gradients that run perpendicular to it, reaching to varying distances, gradients activated by flora, fauna and human practices that thrive on the relative meeting of rain and tide. Rain and tide in place of land and sea lays the ground for a time-based approach to designing the coast.
SOAK: Mumbai in an estuary
Mumbai experiences devastating floods each monsoon. These floods are seen and treated as drainage problems of an ‘island city’ with an edge to the sea. It is a practice that positions the sea as well as monsoon to be outsiders, with the latter being made an increasingly unwelcome annual visitor, instilling fear of floods each season. Ocean of Wetness continues what was begun in 2009 by the exhibition SOAK, working to change the image of Mumbai from an ‘island city’ that confronts the monsoon and sea as outsiders to an ‘estuary’ in which the monsoon and sea are residents. It seeks to make a place structured not by island-like land uses but multiple temporalities, not by a drainage system of flows and flood but by a rain system of holdings and cultivations.