Water in architecture and water spaces: look, touch, feel


The paper focuses on how the presence of water – either as a feature or a function – enriches the design of public buildings, and how this relationship is perceived through sensory human experience. Four case studies are used. Case study one is the Roman bath complex at Bath, Avon; case study two is an early Modernist design of a glass pavilion by Bruno Taut; case study three is an example of a Post Modernist piazza in New Orleans designed by Charles. W. Moore; and case study four is the contemporary design of a thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland by Peter Zumthor. In each case there will be an analysis of the architectural design including aspects such as symmetry and balance, colour, texture, materials, form, and scale. Findings will include how water is used in the design space and its effect upon the human senses.

The study expects to see a strong relationship between the presence of water and the surrounding design of the building. Furthermore, the study hopes to establish a difference in the relationship between the sensory experience of the two case studies where water is used as an aesthetic feature and has no practical function compared to the two baths where water is used to bathe in. The studies are ordered chronologically to enable clear identification of the evolving architectural differences between the ancient bath building, and the two twentieth century examples. Investigation aims to explore the potential of water as an instrument to aid the architect's attempts at creating illusion. Aspects such as colour, and representation of form will be analysed in the two twentieth century examples.

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The study will culminate with the contemporary innovation and dynamism so supremely represented in the work of Peter Zumthor. In this fourth and most important chapter the work aims to identify how contemporary developments in architectural design – in comparison with the older case studies – expands and enriches the relationship between water and the human senses.


The data for this study was collected through documentary research. Chapter one draws from Barry Cunliffe's Roman Bath Discovered as a primary source and archaeological context.The baths went through several stages of development before they were abandoned: this study will use the simple plan of the first stage as an example to avoid any confusion. Because of the age of the case study it is not possible to replicate with certainty the exact nature of the sensory experience of using the baths. Therefore some suppositions had to be hypothetical based on the archaeological and architectural evidence used. Throughout the dissertation I will draw on Veronica Strang's book The Meaning of Water (2003) which provides a useful insight into the nature of the element in discussion. In the study of Bruno Taut's glass pavilion the sensory experience will also have to contain a hypothetical element based on documentary research as the pavilion itself no longer stands. For chapter four, internet sources were used in conjunction with journals and books to locate a firsthand account of the sensory experience of Peter Zumthor's baths. As a fairly recent design of a relatively unwritten about architect it was difficult to locate a diversity of sources for the baths so the chapter will draw mainly from articles both from internet sources and from publications.

The first chapter will look at the Roman Baths in Bath, Avon. It will explore the relationship between the architectural design, the materials used, and the human senses, focusing on the original plan of the baths in their first phase as depicted by Cunliffe (1971). This chapter will introductory to the study as it will bring into discussion aspects such as the relationship between the interior and exterior of the building as perceived through human sensory experience, and the atmospheric effects created by thermal waters which will be explored more thoroughly in the final chapter. It will evaluate aspects of the Roman design such as symmetry, colour, and decoration and how these might have enriched the bathing experience.

Chapter two uses the case study of a glass pavilion, imagined by the poet Paul Scheerbart, and designed by Bruno Taut in 1914. The ornamental structure was designed to be exhibited at the Werkbund exhibition and was demolished soon after. The water feature is centrally placed, designed to reflect the changing light through the multicoloured glass panels of the surround. Its vision of a Utopian form of architecture using glass prisms provides a unique contrast to the functionally aesthetic Roman baths. It will be used to develop the idea of architecture testing the boundaries between the perception of interior and exterior and between public and private space. The presence of the water and its interaction with the light from the pavilion's coloured glass means that these concepts are explored through sensory experience. Using relevant source material this chapter constructs an independent interpretation of Bruno Taut's design, focusing on its inner circular form and tiered space.
In Chapter Three the case study used will be the Piazza d'Italia built by Charles W. Moore between 1974 and 1978 for the Italian community of New Orleans. The Post-Modernist design is characterised by Moore's ironic interpretation of historical forms of architecture placed around a fountain in the shape of Italy. The study provides a useful contrast to the previous examples – it raises questions of how symmetry in architectural design affects the sensory perceptions. The focal point of the structure is the water feature which serves as a paradoxical unifier and separator of the experience. Furthermore, this example brings into discussion the concept of a more complex relationship between the human senses and water in architecture which will culminate in the final chapter.

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Chapter four concerns the thermal baths at Vals, Switzerland, designed by Peter Zumthor in 1996. This last and most important chapter aims to bring together aspects of the three previous examples through analysis of a contemporary design. The focus will be on Zumnor's imaginative interpretation of the use of water in a natural environment. Research into his combination of technical innovation and sensitive perception hopes to establish how water can be used in contemporary architectural design to enrich the sensory human experience. Study will also focus on aspects of the design such as the careful attention paid to achieving balance and unity – through features such as the combination of different materials used. Features of the earlier case studies – such as the ambiguity of form in Moore's piazza are discussed in light of Zumthor's design of the baths' interior. Finally, the study will assess how successful Zumthor's example is in uniting traditional concepts in a contemporary space.

The Roman Bath Buildings at Avon, Bath.

During the first century AD the Temple of Minerva and the baths were built at Bath over a thermal spring. As part of the building process an enclosed reservoir was constructed with the point at which the water poured into the drain being open with a flight of large steps from a platform above, allowing visitors to get close to the source of the water. The opening through which the water was accessed boasted an impressive archway 'creating the impression of the steaming water flowing through the mouth of a cave from the centre of the earth.' (Cunliffe 1971, p.26).

The original entrance hall boasted three massive windows through which could be seen the sacred spring and the altar beyond. The Great Bath would originally have been covered by a masonry vaulted ceiling also with large windows in its second tier plate xxiv cunliffe. Roman glass was translucent so the baths would not have been lit as well as an open air pool. This means that there would have been no views from the windows and little sun, resulting in minimal interaction between the experience of being inside the building and the conditions outside. It appears that the lighting of the establishment took second place to the organisation of space within the interior. Aside from the Great Bath the block contained two smaller chambers – the calidarium (hot room), and tepidarium (a warm acclimatising room) (Rook 1992, p.23-4), and another smaller swimming bath now known as the Lucas bath. (Cunliffe 1971, p.45).

High vaulted spaces covered the thermal waters of the Great Bath to allow the steam to rise.As Macdonald says of this style of Roman roof, 'the chief key to the kind of sensory reaction or emotional response evoked by these buildings was the capacity of their concave shapes to induce an impression of expanding or rising hollowness.'(1982, p.176) The perception of space inside the baths would indeed have been altered as the bather left the small heated changing rooms and entered the area of the Great Bath. The warm bubbling water, with the cooler tranquil space above would have created two contrasting, yet complementary, sensory experiences. This design meant that the activity of the water environment could be enjoyed while the eye followed the path of rising vapours, travelling upwards to the still serenity of the domed roof. Allowing the eye to travel, while bodily remaining in the same place would have been an integral part of the relaxation process. The height of the ceiling would have also added to the ambience by causing sounds to echo. White limestone surrounded the bath which would have been smooth to the touch, and excavated evidence suggests that statues and other shrine-like images decorated the interior, with a fountain in the centre. It is possible to imagine how the continually changing state of the waters would have played upon the surrounding surfaces of the decoration, appearing to produce variations in colour and texture.

As Veronica Strang says in her publication on water: The mesmeric qualities of water are of particular interest in considering sensory perception and the creation of meaning. Schiffman (1996:101) notes that the eye is automatically drawn to flickering or moving stimuli, and Gell (1992) and Morphy (1991, 1992, 1994) have shown that shimmering or visually exciting patterns can stimulate affective responses in many different cultural contexts. The shimmer and brilliance of water provide visual stimuli that are quite different from those of most objects. The visual interest of inanimate objects is gleaned by the eye actively tracing the form and colour and detail. With water (…) the eye is presented with a luminescent image it cannot 'hold'. Instead, it must simply absorb all of the rhythms of movement and the tiny shifts and changes. (2003, p.51).

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As in contemporary swimming baths it is likely that the Romans would have enjoyed sitting beside the water to watch the play of light and absorb the atmosphere. From the remains found at Bath it appears that the design included viewing areas: the bath itself lay in the centre of an aisled hall 109ft long by 67ft wide, divided into a nave and two side aisles, or ambulatories, by continuous arcades framed with pilasters and entablature like those in the entrance hall. Each ambulatory was provided with three exedrae, a central rectangular recess with semicircular ones on either side, each framed by piers supporting arches in harmony with the main arcades. (Cunliffe 1976, p.45).

These recesses, placed within a symmetric plan, would have provided places for people to sit and view the baths, while the continuous arcades would have led the line of vision around the interior, with the effect of there being no beginning or end. This continuity of form in the main area reflects its function as a unifying space in two ways: one, architecturally linking the four different areas of the building, and two, providing a public space befitting of the social function of bathing itself which brought people together.

To aid the concept of bathing as a social and a sacred experience certain features were designed to appeal to the human senses. The floors and walls were decorated with mosaic patterns in different colours; contrasts of colour being common in Roman architecture (Macdonald 1982, p.176), and as part of the roof structures there stood tall columns in the decorative Corinthian style. As a sacred place, dedicated to Minerva, the healer, visitors were tempted to throw offerings into the sacred water of the spring in hope of their wishes being granted. The act of parting with money or something dear is a ritual made possible by the spring being situated beneath the main entrance hall. Excavations in 1878 by Mann discovered valuable offerings including pewter ornaments, a gold earring, and a pin with a pearl attached. (Cunliffe 1976, p.28). The presence of the water source provides an enticement to the baths within, and moreover the motion of the spring beneath would have created a rich bubbling pool easily transforming the solid masonry and concrete walls into an aesthetically pleasing yet functional space.

The architecture of the baths building appears to have been entirely devoted to the ritual of bathing itself which occurred inside. As Michael Wheeler says in Roman Art and Architecture (2001):
you went to the baths in great numbers to talk to and about your friends and to work off the night-before. But one thing you certainly did not do; you never glanced at the untidy complex of domes and gables outside as you entered. It was the inside of the building that mattered, with its towering wall-spaces that stretched the minds of architect and sculptor and gave a sense of well-being to patron or client. (p.16).

The experience of bathing was completed in a series of stages. The bathers first entered the dressing room to change, then after being anointed with oil proceeded to the series of main bathing rooms that varied in temperature (net ref. 1). In the calidarium bathers had their bodies scraped of oil and perspiration, before entering the frigidarium (cold room), where there was a small cold pool. The bather then entered the Great Bath. The Romans had no quantitative measurements for temperature, (Rook 1992, p.13) and despite the use of the walls as heating in conjunction with under floor heating there would have been relatively little control over humidity compared to contemporary bath complexes. Walls would have been damp from capillary moisture seeping up through the porous building materials and from condensation when warmer humid air came into contact with colder surfaces. This meant that the light and heat of the bath might have varied according to how many other people were using it at the time. Certainly, these baths were designed to look their best when full of people – when the waters were moving and the steam rising and breaking in the space above.

The baths were unique in that they provided a highly esteemed environment (baths were often owned by emperors) where personal ritual could be conducted in a public space – which only the presence of the water would allow. The baths were 'people's palaces, providing a cultural focus where everyone could enjoy luxury on a regal scale every day.' (Rook 1992, p.20). It is not difficult to imagine the many different smells – of different scented oils, steam, and hot bodies. The baths complex was a wealth of money, leisure and sensual experience, and the different materials used in the design reflect this. In the hall of the Great Bath lead lined the pool which met with the limestone beside it. This contrast of material was continued throughout in the broken forms of mosaic pattern interspersed with bronze objects such as a bronze sluice in the north-east corner of the main bath. (Cunliffe 1976, p.45).
As expected there appears to be a close relationship between the design of the baths at Avon and the sensory experience of the spring water which was both a functional and an aesthetic feature.These two aspects appear to have been integral to one another and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between architectural design and the human senses alters in the next case study where water within the glass pavilion is present purely for aesthetic reasons.

The Glass Pavilion designed by Bruno Taut for the Werkbund Exhibition, 1914.

This case study looks at the interplay between water, light, and the senses in the early Modern Expressionist design of Bruno Taut's glass pavilion. The construction was commissioned by poet Peter Scheerbart who dreamed of a 'soaring glass architecture' as a freeing up of architectural design. (Crasemann Collins 1962, p.12). It was a fourteen-sided prism roofed by a dome with blue, green, and gold glass panels which reflected the sky. (Ward 2001, p.65). Inside was a seven-tiered chamber whose walls were made of glass panels lined with glass mosaic, and a circular staircase – an 'unreal, unearthly flight of stairs that one descends as if through sparkling water' (Pehnt 1973, p.76). On the lower level there was a rotunda with a pool and water cascading down layered steps so that the travelling sound of water would have echoed up to the highest tier. Taut claimed that the structure had been designed in the spirit of a Gothic cathedral. As Kenneth Frampton (1994) says, 'In effect a 'city crown', that pyramidal form postulated by Taut as the universal paradigm of all religious building, which together with the faith it would inspire was an essential urban element for the restructuring of society.' (p.116).

This comment is reflected in the use of water as a symbolic unifier in two ways. Firstly as a physical presence that mirrors the refracted light from the glass panels, creating a harmonic balance between floor and ceiling and a sense of unity within the structure, and secondly as something that all living things and people need and understand as an essential part of life – an essential ingredient if you like of Taut's Utopian ideal. When standing at the top of the water cascade it was possible to see upwards through the circular space in the middle to the arching space of the upper tiers beyond. This provided a visual contrast between the fluid downward movement of water and the arching pyramidal form of the roof above. Further visual delights were to be found in the wealth of colours used in the design. The cascade of water travelled over pale yellow glass, 'terminating in a recess of deep violet in which pictures were projected from a kaleidoscope.' (Pehnt 1973, p.76.) The presence of the water served to unify people's experience of the light into one visual component.

Because this construction was not designed to be a permanent structure it did not need to meet the heavy physical demands of wear and tear. Thus it is more aesthetically pleasing than the roman bath building, which in many ways was more functional.The aisled hall of the baths had a basic rectangular form surrounded by solid stone masonry which gave the building a sense of permanence. In contrast, the circular form of Taut's skeletal structure would not have stood by itself: the upper hall was domed with different coloured glass panels set into reinforced concrete ribs and relied on the stiffening effect of the panels for stability. The aesthetic function of the arched roof has not changed since the time of the Roman baths at Avon; in both structures the opening out of the roof provides space in which the mind is set free to experience the sensual delights of the interior. Yet what differs in Taut's pavilion is the temporality of the structure. The height creates a paradoxical feeling of temporary permanence – a brief feeling that one is almost liberated from the confines of earthly structures into the realm of the sky – while the presence of the running water beneath reminds the viewer that they are still on earth.

In a 1928 essay on 'The Aesthetics of Architecture,' Bruno Taut spoke of his 'love for clean smoothness' (quoted from Ward 2001, p.56.) This philosophy is echoed in design of the pavilion where the light which is cast down through the glass surrounds hits the lower tier and is immediately washed away and diffused by the running water. As Strang (2003, p.50) says, 'the most constant 'quality' of water is that it is not constant, but is characterised by transmutability and sensitivity to changes in the environment.' Thus it is possible to picture the experience of the pavilion: the senses being continually stimulated by the changeability and echo of the water, the shifting light through the glass and its reflection in the water, even the smell of the humidity – all of which are simultaneously and subtly changing according to the nature of the conditions outside. It is not hard to imagine how a glint of sun might suddenly have transformed the pavilion into a thousand glimmering pieces. Furthermore, the seven tiers allow the spectator to control their sensory experience by moving as close and as far away from the changing light patterns as they desire. Differing levels which induced different experiences was not a feature of the design in the Roman baths but a parallel can be drawn between this aspect of the pavilion and the galleried hallway of the baths where the public could view the spring beneath.

In the comparison between the two case studies so far, the ritual of bathing with its associated sensory delights becomes replaced by the ritual of aesthetic and sensory appreciation alone – without the water having any practical function whatsoever. It provides an essential focal point, detracting attention away from what would otherwise be a cold empty space. As Strang (2003) says of the properties of water: Physically, it is the ultimate 'fluid', filling any containing shape and, equally easily, shrinking and disappearing into the earth or evaporating into the ether. It has an extraordinary ability to metamorphose rapidly into substances with oppositional qualities, that is, the highly visible, concrete solidity of ice, and the fleeting dematerialisation of steam. Each state is endlessly reversible, so that this polymorphic range is always potentially present. (p.49).

It is this changeability and potential of water that enables the pavilion to function as a dynamic public, yet personal, building. The tiered levels above allow room for private contemplation in a public space. It is clear that the function of the water differs to that of the Roman baths, however, the aesthetic experience in both fulfils a maxim quoted by Walter Gropius – that 'art is none other than the transformation of supramundane thoughts into objects of sensory perception.' (quoted from Pehnt 1973, p.35). In terms of the baths at Avon and Taut's pavilion, what could have been an ordinary 'mundane' experience – the act of bathing, the observation of an ornamental structure, – is transformed by the design of the building in conjunction with the presence of water and its effect on the senses into something extraordinary.

The circular form of the interior creates a bubble where the spectator becomes isolated from the outside world; the changing light and the movement of water creating a sense of timelessness. As Simon Urwin (2003, pp.125-6) says: every body has around it what might be called a 'circle of presence' that contributes to its own identification of place. When a body is in relationship with others, their circles of presence affect each other. When a body is put into an enclosure or cell its circle of presence is also contained and perhaps moulded.

If this is true then the sensory experience of the individual in the pavilion would be shaped by the circular presences of the tiers and the water below culminating in a rich and lasting personal experience. In the roman bath building we see a fine contrast to this experience – where the functional aspect of the water would have caused Urwin's 'circles of presence' to be broken down so that public and private space become one. Indeed Taut himself stared that he demanded 'no distinction between public and private buildings.' (quoted from Jencks 1985, p.61).

As a final point for the case of the pavilion, it is worth considering the very structure itself and the space it contains. Its function – although not practical like the baths – is to provide an intermediary place between the exposure of the outdoors and the confines of the indoors, a space out of time. The use of different coloured glass creates a fascinating interplay between light and water while creating an enclosure without the feeling of being enclosed. This brings up interesting issues relating to the boundaries of interior and exterior which will be looked at in greater detail when comparing these studies to Zumthor's work later on. The next case study explores an open air piazza the design of which provides a stark contrast to Taut's pavilion. The chapter aims to identify the evolving complexity of the relationship between architectural design, water and the senses – moving on now to an example built in 1974.