Water and structures.

Swiss Expo’s Nuage sculptural lake structure and the North Sweden’s Ice Hotel

Last summer the Swiss 2002 Expo’s exhibited a unique sculptural lake structure, Nuage, designed by New York architects Diller and Scolfidio. Here we explore the potential for waters fluidity integrated into structural form, and look at how water made solid, in the guise of Northern Sweden’s annual Ice Hotel may reflect a growing architectural interest in the new possibilities for building with water.

by Oliver Lowenstein

Along the coastal road close to where I live, a cloud sits, right at the edge of the sea and land mass. It envelops the cliffs, the shoreline path and accompanying road, so that, looking up all that can be seen is a sunny haze out the other side. No one appeared to be giving neither much thought or much concern, it was one of those beta level natural phenomena which the human species travel through neither giving much thought or concern, unlike the wind in the trees of a force nine gale or a beautiful deep red and ochre sunset, or for that matter, a very clear rainbow.

The cloud rolling around its cliff top perch brought back memories of a visit in autumn 2002, to Switzerland’s Expo 02, and its big highlight set-piece, an extraordinary, somewhat baffling structure Nuage, or Cloud. Nuage extended calmly out into the western tip of Lac de Neuchatel beside an urban town’s lakeside space usually reserved for gentle walks and evening promenades by the residents of Nuage’s host town. Yver De La Bains.

Yves De La Bains was one of four towns in Switzerland’s comparatively lesser-known Three Lakes region, an hour or so north of Geneva. Together the four towns acted as a distributed site for the first Swiss Expo for fifty years. Each town had been provided with huge, attention grabbing and visually arresting buildings and sculptural structures for visitors from near and far to come to gawp at, and wander around, either within, through, or usually, under. Up the railway line was Neuchatel itself, with a wooden spherical dome, home to the Expo’s rather spartan environmental contribution, plus, floating at the shoreline a series of massive pod shelters, host to a variety of exhibits. Further north still was the Bienne installation, this time hugging Bieler See shoreline, a vast atrium, with open roofing towering over the groundspace, housing sound galleries framed within timber gantried nose cones, accessed at one end by a long slithering pencil thin bridge which took twenty minutes to walk across. Actually sitting in the midst of the third lake, Lac de Moriat, offshore from the fourth of Expo’s chosen towns, Murten Morat, France’s reputedly revered Jean Nouvel had created a floating steel hulk, a ruddy metallically rusted red cube, to be approached and landed on by boat. Nouvel, yet another architectural man in black, holds up the deconstructionist end of modern architecture in romance France.

There was something Post Modern about EXPO.02, not only the sharp angularity, and blitz of bright colours adorning many of the buildings, but the fact these were temporary structures, reflecting the spectacular but replacable razzle-dazzle aesthetic of so much Post Modern Architecture of the last decade. It would all be gone once the Expo circus left town. As to Nouvel, another, this time, permanent, building, the recent City and Cultural Hall, in Luzern announces itself brazenly. The hall is another part of where the Post Modern turn in architecture can find itself; the buildings impregnable fortress-factory of steel lattice work, feel on the edge of being fascist in their aesthetics.

If public and professional visitors were whetting their appetites on Nouvel’s steel cube, or Bienne’s futuristic pods it was Yverdan’s strange floating apparition which led the pack, and really caught the eye of both public and press alike, at home and abroad, at this the sixth Swiss National Expo. In a round up of the year in architecture, the man from the London Financial Times wrote that if 2001 was defined by New York’s twin towers reduced to a pile of smoke engulfed debris, then perhaps 2002 could be seen as the year of the cloud. Indeed, early on, the architects the New York practice of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio came to describing Nuage as an inhabitable cloud. Despite this Nuage was very much a cloud of human creation.

Walking up the gangway path onto Nuage, what struck me is how different the experience is to that of being immersed in a fog of cloud. While most people find mist and fog something to put up with, albeit at times bleakly atmospheric, at others a merely unpalatable way of getting soaked, Nuage traded on the novelty of its thousands of water nozzles to recreate a delicate film of spray, for visitor after rain-coated visitor passing through the gantry-like steel rigging, and up the open, unprotected stairways to the viewing deck. These visitors were apparently completely at ease with the mundanity of what was being experienced, spray induced dampness on clothes and skin as they made their way through the wafting cloud of spray being gently blown back onto the lakes shoreline. Once safe on the leeside of the cloud’s vaporous trail, visitors looked back over their shoulders at the windblown water heading inland, as well as the dramatic craggy hillsides which tumbled down to the lakes shorelines, and out onto the gleaming surface of the lake itself.

This whole aspect of Nuage felt odd. What humans experience in nature as primarily incidental experience – getting lightly soaked – generally something to be complained about, could be dressed up and sold as something which had become a unique ‘must see’ experience. Water here was a potent appendage to the experience industry. Indeed there is a case to be made that Expo’s Nuage is part of a new emerging chapter in the relation between where the man-made built environment meets those parts of the natural environment which encompass the landlocked part of the waterworld; rivers, streams, waterfalls, rivulets and lakes. Through the augmentation of completely new and hitherto unseen technologies, waterworks completely new in character and form are beginning to become possible. This interface between culture and nature takes on two forms, utility and pleasure, but the range of what could be done has always been relatively limited. Until recently human intervention into waterways consisted of managing, that is re-channelling the courses of rivers, streams and other tributaries, for the sake of safety, ease of transport and communication and bringing access to water where it was needed. This also includes constructing man-made canals and other watercourses, and diverting flood plains into lattices of channels. River water has long been regarded as pleasurable in and of itself, while historically the range to which water has been put to creative ends has been limited to the quasi-monumentalism of pumping water into fountains and other landscaped panoramas. If these are a different category to water as utility, Nuage is a related if distant twenty-first century cousin to the culture of water sculpting. Fountains and other sculptural uses of water are Nuage’s closest structural relation since each is wholly reliant on man-made technology for the spectacle, and in each, water is a, if not the, central element of the spectacle. In their sculptural, and architectural dimension, each contains a complementary point of focus. With Nuage, however, the level of complexity, with its thousands of computer controlled nozzles, places the exhibit far from the relative simplicity of a fountain sculpture. Not only this but since the spray is at the edge of turning into vapour, there is a phase transition, between the liquid and the gaseous being enacted.

Nuages technology is cutting edge, though strikingly orthodox. The rig is made of steel; the structure is made up of a sixty by a hundred by twenty metres metal construction. Woven into the shards of criss-crossing steel, from a few metres above lake level are tiny nozzles, spraying countless minescule drops of lake water from 31400 jets The high-pressure spraying is carried out by high-grade steel jets with minature apertures only 120 microns in diameter, the water being forced at a pressure of 80 bars onto fine needlepoints, which sit directly above the apertures and are apparently atomised into innumerable tiny droplets 4 to 10 microns in diameter. These droplets are so small that most of them remain suspended in the air. When sufficient jets are installed in a specific volume, they saturate the air with moisture and create the effect of mist or, in this case, the effect the designers, completely hip to post-modern indeterminacy, have titled blur. The high-pressure spraying technology ensures that the fleeting sculpture is visible in all weathers, whether raining or sun-drenched.

From the Yverdans les Bains shoreline the rig is lost in the pall of mist which is floating in towards the land. You take your first uncertain steps onto a long, thin ramp, visitors, and walk its hundred metre length before arriving on a large open-air platform at the centre of the fog mass where the only sound to be heard is the white noise of pulsing water nozzles. These computers are continually adjusting the strength of the spray according to the different climactic conditions of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction. As a consequence the fog mass changes from minute to minute, creating long fog trails in high winds, or rolls out when temperature drops.

Blur was the original working title of the project and chimes with the overall Post Modern aesthetic of the project. The very moistness of Nuage’s cloud also overlaps with current post-biological concepts of the fluidity of the new moist new media, as contrasted with aridities of clunky old new media. Continually talked-up by the media design community moistness and flow are key features in the trajectory set by those hoping to uncover a fully formed new paradigm in their designs for new media’s latest future. Not for nothing was the big European media design conference-shindig, Amsterdam’s Doors of Perception entitled Flow. With water metaphors increasingly common in contemporary cultural lingua franca, Nuage arrives as a building of its time, metaphor made into physical, albeit temporary, form.

The blurred focus of Nuage also springs from a further source of 80/90’s uncertainty, the emergent sciences of chaos and complexity, and from these the emergence of a building culture which attempts to reflect and use these sciences as the basis of their architectural aesthetic. What seems unclear is how much the architectural community who gravitated towards chaos, Eisenmann, Gehry and others saw the non-human natural world as a continuous plenitude of these sciences in living action. And within this water is an primary exemplar as a way into observing the chaotic discontinuity of a form.

A central part of Chaos’s prehistory can be found in the Catastrophe Theory work of French mathematician, Rene Thom. Catastrophe theory was a qualitative method for modelling discontinuous phenomena, including water. The theory models the states of nature as smooth surfaces of equilibrium. When the equilibrium is broken, catastrophe or discontinuity occurs. Thom showed that in natural phenomena controlled by no more than four dimensions, there are only seven possible equilibrium surfaces, hence only seven possible discontinuous breaks, ie only seven elementary catastrophes. The names for these seven are: fold, cusp, swallowtail, butterfly, hyperbolic umbilic, elliptic umbilic, and parabolic umbilic.

These seven forms or discontinous catastrophe’s can be found in water, Assuming water flow as having four dimensions, length, width, depth and rate of flow, when changes in these dimensions occur because of changes in the shape of the streambed and variations in the amount of rainfall, discontinuities will be brought on. For example, if the width of the streambed begins to narrow very gradually a fold will appear in the water’s shape. If both the rate of flow and the depth of the stream increases, the water may jump into the air as if jumping over a cusp.
However the four controlling dimensions change, there are only seven basic “figures of regulation” for the water’s behaviour. So catastrophe theory provides a formal understanding of events or changes from states of equilibrium, for instance discontinuous phenomena, but it has not been helpful in approaching turbulence, which is where Chaos theory has proved itself most effective.

How might architecture and the built environment work in ‘flow’ with this non-human ‘waterworld’, both in theory and practice to create, celebrate and learn from these fluid environments, while at one and same time informed by growing scientific knowledge of natural phenomena far from equilibrium? Nuage, with its appeal to the post modern blur represents building in a post chaos and complexity informed world. But blur is many things, often related to the rush and inattention of city life and urban space. And Nuage’s use of water is different, even it relies the same handmaiden as the emergent sciences of chaos and complexity; computer technology. Nuage infers chaos in how it channels water from one phase transition to the next, water in cloud. But, then, so did the steam engine.

Even so Nuage is a unique construction, of its architectural moment, but also part of a larger cultural undercurrent of revived attention to the absorbing qualities humans can find in water. There is scant evidence of buildings integrated with the medium, there are any number of analogous waterborne experiments coursing through contemporary culture. Does this make a movement, a wave perhaps, resurging through the arts, creative world of makers, of if it is as it has ever been, a small group of people in every generation always and equally drawn to water? Whether the new chapter Nuage could inaugurate is short lived or the beginning of a run on structural projects which make active use of water, implementing elements of current technology remains an open question. What is perhaps even more interesting is the potential for Nuage type permanent structures as part of our ongoing built environments, in towns or cities, yet within the emergent environmental design movement of the twenty first century. Certainly the potential and interest for diversifying water beyond straight forward function seems to be there. Where not so long ago design of water pathways into urban and to a lesser extent rural settings was based around the pragmatics of access and transportation; from water cities such as Amsterdam and Venice to Monastically originated canal systems, such as Northern France’s Venice Verte orchard arteries. Today the uses can be as much aesthetic as entertainment focused as it is practicality. Water, this already increasingly a medium for interest, could continue to grow as a medium explored for its potential for artistic and commercial value, rather than those, which are purely utilitarian.

At times such ends can manifest in surprising ways. For example, and by way of contrast in Sweden’s northern reaches, outside the steel town of Kiruna, the small village of Jukkasjärvi, is host to an equally unusual project: the Ice Hotel. Built each autumn from new blocks of ice, this building reverses the phase transition implicit in Nuage. Rather than liquid to gaseous, the Ice Hotel makes the physics of water solid in its state. A nakedly commercial venture, the Hotel is nonetheless another marker of how water is gradually increasing in being countenanced as usable as a medium for design.

Ice Hotel is eleven years old, and has grown rapidly as a business from its beginnings in 1989. Each year, once the temperature has dropped well below the freezing point, between late October an November, builders begin using snow canons to pile on snow over a 60 metres vaulted steel shell, up to five metres high. After two days the vaulted shell is removed and repositioned, and ice columns are put in place. These columns have been stored since the previous year in a freezer storage space just off to the side of the main Ice Hotel site. The columns are themselves carved from ice cut from the adjacent frozen river Torne, producing crystal clear material. The construction continues through December and the Hotel finally opens each January.

The completed igloo is a warren of corridors running perpendicularly off a main hallway. On each side of the corridors are rooms, each with a customised ice sculpture, carved by a dedicated band of ice artists. These sixty rooms are used by intrepid or foolhardy overnighters who bag down on wooden bedding and suitably Viking fur covers. At the oversized igloo’s epicentre is a bar, a deal made inevitably with Absolut, which is there for those staying to while away the time. Outside are further cabins and lodges where visitors can either stay the during the night, or risk the ice hall. During my visit, opinions seemed to differ as to how much people actually enjoy, rather than endure, the night in their neck of the warren of rooms. To package the visit as a complete experience the Hotel offers any number of other activities such as teambuilding, fishing, wilderness adventures, to snow-mobiling, dog sledding, and reindeer safaris. Its novelty has brought the reach of tourism to the far north, a place where the snow and ice have historically kept visitors to a minimum. Now the tourists arrive by the plane load, flown into Kiruna airport, and bussed to the hotel for the three or four day Ice Hotel experience, before departing again having been there, and done that. Another child of the experience economy of today’s tourist industry, much of the Ice Hotel is seriously kitsch. Yet it has demonstrated how ice itself is a strange and rich medium. While I was exploring the igloos passages, shards of light broke through from the buildings exterior, bringing out the most beautifully translucent quality which stopped me in my tracks. At night when the ice was lit with coloured artificial lighting there was an uncommon peace to the pillars and interior walls.

Although the Ice Hotel is not an architectural experience, it does demonstrate human ingenuity with this strange material from the natural world. Whether it improves on nature is another matter, but with tourism expanding exponentially, expect the Ice Hotel franchise to likewise expand in northerly climes. There is talk of another Hotel in Canada, as well as a plan as of early 2002 to build a mock Shakespearean Globe theatre from the material. Along with the hotel it will melt each year come the thawing springtime of April, only to return again, remade, in the late autumn months.

Both Nuage and Ice Hotel demonstrate, albeit in wholly different ways, the increasing interplay and exploration between contemporary technological know-how and the one element which has been used by man in diverse ways down through the ages – water. From tidal mills to weirs, to canal systems and steam engines water is the more versatile of the two elements which can be put to structural use; the other being earth. The resurgence of interest in water is occuring across the creative field. There are many disparate experiments happening in the arts in recent years, such as Land artists using ice and water as medium and subject matter. The flow and other water metaphors are increasingly part of the currency of descriptive language, with aquatic ballets and phase transition performance pieces, it isn’t surprising that something similar is being expressed within the terrain of the built environment. The monitoring control of water made possible by computer systems and the possibilities of a deepening sophistication on how to interact with water will continue to grow. Allied to research in emergent scientific disciplines of complexity and chaos studies, a whole new dimension of the emergent architectural movement may be in the process of unfolding. If Nuage and Ice Hotel are wholly hi-tech expressions of this phenomenon, they do not exclude the possibility of the development of lower tech structural concepts which embrace both complexity and emergence through the medium of water. All in all, it seems likely that water will play an increasingly visible and apparent role in how we envision and create our surrounding environments in the coming years.





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