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Water architecture: the fluid boundaries of building

Water is a natural wonder, a life force and an endless source of inspiration: Its presence and form challenges architects to create fascinating designs and in modern architecture, it even serves as a topographical design feature in its own right. In these projects, architecture and water flow together in unique and impressive ways.

Svart hotel by Snøhetta: Sustainable water architecture

The Svart project by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta is a powerhouse in the polar circle: It is the first hotel designed to produce more energy than it consumes. The name of the building – which means “black” or “blue” in Norwegian – is a reference to the distinctive colour of the Svartisen Glacier that looms spectacularly over the eco-hotel

From the coastline of Holandsfjorden in the municipality of Meløy, the circular hotel seems to float above the water on wooden posts.

Svart was designed in keeping with local architectural practices to maximise sustainability. The design was inspired by the A-shaped wooden frames used to dry fish (“fiskehjell”) and the traditional fisherman’s houses (“rorbue”) found all over the region.

The building has also been designed and optimised to minimise its environmental footprint. Large solar panels on the roof produce a significant proportion of the hotel’s self-generated energy supply.


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Sustainable water architecture: the Svart hotel generates its own energy. Source: Snøhetta/Plompmozes

V&A Museum in Dundee: A man-made cliff that moves with the tide

On the riverbanks of the Tay in Scotland, two contorted concrete and steel pyramids rise out of the water against the tides. The new V&A Dundee design museum is reminiscent of the natural cliff faces of the northern Scottish coast; it was this awesome natural landscape that inspired Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who designed the latest addition to the world-famous Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) family.

When the tide is high, the three-storey riverside building appears to float on the water; its concrete walls absorb the waves. In the centre of the museum, a glass wall provides unobstructed views of the river. From the foyer, a staircase leads to the exhibition spaces; observant visitors will notice the tiny fossils encased in the natural limestone used in the steps and flooring. On the top floor, the museum offers over 1100 square metres of space for temporary exhibitions dedicated to Scottish art, culture and history.

look inside a scottish art and fashion museum
Museum in scotland at the sea
Water Architecture: 5 Amazing Waterside Buildings

Invisible bridge in the Netherlands: Walk through water without getting your feet wet

The team of architects at Belgian firm RO&AD have seemingly managed to achieve the impossible: Their submerged footbridge in the Dutch province of Brabant allows walkers to traverse a path through the water without getting their feet wet. The Moses bridge between the riverbanks was constructed as part of a redevelopment project at the historic “Fort de Roovere”, which dates back to the 17th century.

From a distance, the heads of people crossing the bridge are just visible above the water. On closer approach, the narrow bridge emerges from the water and ascends the bank. The invisible construction is protected against moisture and weathering by a natural high-tech material: It is built from specially treated accoya wood, which will not rot as a result of exposure to water. There are flood trenches on either side of the bridge to ensure that the water level remains constant and to prevent the bridge from flooding, even in heavy rain.

Crossing the Moses bridge in the Netherlands. Source: Dutchified / YouTube

Harbin Opera House: When wind and water shape architecture

Embedded in the sump landscape surrounding China’s Songhua River, the Harbin Opera House by MAD Architects is an architectural reflection of the monsoon climate in the region. The opera house in the northern city of Harbin is at one with its environment, seemingly organically shaped by the wind and water. Along the white, streamlined aluminium facade, sharp edges rise from the soft contours. On paths that appear to have been sliced into the building, visitors can ascend the hill-like structure.

At the summit, the climb is rewarded with views of the city skyline and surrounding areas. Inside the opera house, the glass walls and ceiling of the spacious lobby are layered with a pure white honeycomb structure, casting ethereal snowdrift-like shadows around the space. The smaller of the two theatres has a large panoramic window behind the stage, connecting the platform to the outside world. This glass wall also serves as a natural backdrop during performances.

Harbin Opera House. Source: The Fourth Dimension / YouTube

The Wave: Sculptural homes that reflect the landscape

In the Danish town of Vejle, five bright-white sculptures rise from the banks of the fjord. Designed by architect Henning Larsen, The Wave residential complex forms a row of repeated waves, inspired by the adjacent fjord and surrounding hills. The flowing, organic building fuses with its environment to become an element of the landscape in its own right.

By day, the white concrete waves are artistically reflected in the water. At night, the wavy profile takes on the appearance of an illuminated mountain range.

With over 14,000 square metres and nine storeys, the five Wave buildings house 105 luxury apartments in total.

The Wave buildings in Denmark. Source: Gunnar Lund / YouTube

City of Arts and Sciences: Futuristic water architecture

The “City of Arts and Sciences” in the south-east of Valencia is a visionary, almost other-worldly construction. This culture and leisure complex was developed by Santiago Calatrava, an architect known for his experimental water-inspired designs. The “city” is built on a two-kilometre long plot on the former riverbed of the Turia, which was drained in the early 1990s. The 350,000 square metre complex is now home to a series of incredible steel, concrete and glass buildings, which are visually connected by man-made bodies of water.

The Oceanogràfic is Europe’s largest aquarium – and a true marine architecture gem. Mirrored surfaces reflect the water, and the curved roof is reminiscent of the motion of the waves. With four concert and event halls, the Palau de les Arts opera house is the largest building on the complex. Its rounded contours lend it the appearance of a futuristic cruise ship, moored at the harbour with its bow facing the land.

When contemporary designers allow themselves to be guided by the environment and natural elements, water architecture can enrich our landscape – as proven by all of these visionary projects.

City of Arts and Sciences. Source: For 91 Days Travel Blog / YouTube

Do you know of any other buildings where architectural design has become one with water? Let us know in the comments!

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