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Water architecture: the fluid boundaries of building

Water is a force of nature and an endless source of inspiration. Its dynamic substance and appearance has challenged architects to create fascinating constructions.

For many modern buildings, it even serves as a topographical design feature in its own right. Let's take a closer look at projects where architecture and water flow together in unique and impressive ways.

Svart hotel by Snøhetta: sustainable water architecture

Norwegian company Snøhetta has developed a true "powerhouse" in the polar circle: the so-called Svart is the first hotel to produce more energy than it consumes.

The name of the building – meaning “black” or “blue” in Norwegian – refers to the distinctive colour of the Svartisen Glacier that looms spectacularly over the eco-friendly hotel. From the coastline of Holandsfjorden in Meløy, the circular hotel seems to float above the water on wooden posts.

Paying homage to the region's rural traditions, the team of Snøhetta kept in line with local architectural practices. The Svart's design reflects the A-shaped wooden frames used to dry fish (“fiskehjell”) and the fishermen’s houses (“rorbue”) that can be found all over the countryside. One major goal was to minimise the environmental footprint. To that end, large solar panels on the roof provide a significant part of the hotel’s self-sufficient energy supply.


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

V&A 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. The new V&A Dundee design museum is reminiscent of the scenic cliffs on the northern Scottish coast. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma drew inspiration from this landscape for the latest addition to the world-famous Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) family.

When the tide is high, the three-storey building appears to float on the water while its concrete walls absorb the waves. At the museum's centre, a glass wall offers an impressive view onto the river. From the foyer, a staircase leads visitors up to the main venue. Observant visitors will notice the tiny fossils encased in the natural limestone of the steps and flooring. On the top floor, the museum spans across more than 1,100 square metres with temporary exhibitions dedicated to Scottish art, culture, and history.

look inside a scottish art and fashion museum
Museum in scotland at the sea
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Invisible bridge in the Netherlands: walking through water with dry feet

The architectural team of RO&AD in Belgium have seemingly achieved the impossible: their submerged footbridge in the Dutch province of Brabant allows you to traverse a path through the water without getting your feet wet. The Moses bridge between the riverbanks was constructed as part of a redevelopment project at the historic “Fort de Roovere”, dating back to the 17th century.

From afar, the heads of people crossing the bridge are barely visible above the water. At closer range, the narrow bridge emerges from the water and ascends the bank. Its invisible construction remains protected against moisture and weathering thanks to a natural high-tech material: carefully treated accoya wood which does not rot when exposed to water. Flood trenches on either side of the bridge ensure that the water level won't rise too high, even during heavy rain.

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

Harbin Opera House: architecture shaped by water and wind

Embedded in the swampy landscape around China’s Songhua River, the Harbin Opera House by MAD Architects looks like a physical embodiment of the region's monsoon climate. Seemingly shaped by the natural forces of wind and water, it becomes one with its environment. Along the white, streamlined aluminium facade, sharp edges stand out against soft contours. Visitors can ascend the hill-like structure on paths that appear to have been sliced into the building.

The steep climb is rewarded with breathtaking views of the city skyline and surrounding areas. Inside, the opera house opens up to a spacious lobby. Its glass walls and ceilings are layered with a white honeycomb structure casting ethereal snowdrift-like shadows. The smaller one of the two theatres has a large panoramic window behind the stage, connecting the platform to the outside world. This glass facade also serves as a backdrop for performances.

A truly impressive sight inside and out: the Harbin Opera House. Source: The Fourth Dimension / YouTube

The Wave: sculptural homes molded after the landscape

In the Danish town of Vejle, five bright sculptures rise from the banks of the fjord. Architect Henning Larsen designed a residential complex that appears like a row of repeated waves, inspired by its pitcuresque surroundings. With its flowing, organic shape, The Wave blends into the natural scenery.

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.

With over 14,000 square metres and nine storeys, the five Wave buildings house more than 100 luxury apartments.

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

City of Arts and Sciences: futuristic water architecture

The “City of Arts and Sciences” in south-east Valencia is a visionary, almost other-worldly construction. Santiago Calatrava, an architect known for his experimental water-inspired designs, came up with the concept for this culture and leisure complex.

The so-called “city” stretches across two kilometres on the former riverbed of the Turia, which had been drained in the early 1990s. With 350,000 square metres, it now hosts an arry of steel, concrete and glass buildings connected by man-made bodies of water.

The adjacent Oceanogràfic is Europe’s largest aquarium – and a true marine architecture gem. Glass surfaces reflect the water, while the curved roof mirrors the motion of waves. With four concert and event halls, the Palau de les Arts opera house is the largest building on the complex. Rounded contours make it seem like a futuristic cruise ship moored at the harbour.

All of the projects presented above show how water architecture can enrich our landscape – each in their own unique way. As contemporary designers allow themselves to be guided by the environment and natural elements, we're excited to see what the future holds.

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

Have you seen any other buildings close to or inspired by water? Let us know in the comments!

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