Water has been made more or less invisible in our cities; we tend to take it for granted: Jane Withers
In a conversation with Firstpost, Jane Withers spoke of her relationship with water, the importance of using design to find holistic solutions to environmental problems and of the indigenous systems civilisations of the past used to harness the power of water.
Leading design consultant Jane Withers was in India for the Hyderabad Design Week.
She presented a prototype of Loo Cafe x Water Loop, a water sustainability project.
Loo Cafe x Water Loop is designed along the lines of the Wonderwater Cafe tested in London, Milan, Helsinki and Beijing.
As a leading design consultant, curator and writer, Jane Withers works with organisations across the world to shape strategies and initiatives which are defined by design and to address challenges across social, political and cultural boundaries.
With extensive experience in issues related to water, Jane was in India to participate at the Hyderabad Design Week, where she presented a prototype of Loo Café x Water Loop, a water sustainability project designed on the lines of the Wonderwater Café tested in London, Milan, Helsinki and Beijing.
In a conversation with Firstpost, Jane spoke of her relationship with water, the importance of using design to find holistic solutions to environmental problems and of the indigenous systems civilisations of the past used to harness the power of water. Edited excerpts follow:
It is a hugely important and topical issue globally, and there is a lot of work to do as so many of the ways we use and abuse water today no longer make sense for a water stressed future.
What triggered your passion for water, around which most of your work centers?
In fact, water is only one strand of my studio’s work — as curators and design consultants we work on a lot of different areas where design can help shape and inspire change. That said, I am passionate about water and it's a privilege to be able to work in a field I love. I find water and its shape-shifting behaviour endlessly fascinating on many different levels.
I read about your travels to Bath, UK, and how it made you determined to ‘bath(e) around the world’…what did your travels across the world teach you about ancient civilisations and their ability to leverage water as part of their cities and culture?
I find it fascinating how much more visible and celebrated water was historically than it is today. We have made it more or less invisible in our cities and tend to take it for granted.
There’s an extraordinary legacy of architecture and design associated with water all around the world. The Greek geographer Pausanias concluded that a fountain was the hallmark of a civilised city. As well as fulfilling practical needs, water often has a spiritual and social dimension in urban life. The hammams of the Ottoman Empire are a good example of this — as magical places of ritual cleansing, relaxation and social gathering.
How do you think ancient India has used its water bodies, for example through its construction of stepwells etc…and have you had a chance to visit any of them?
India’s stepwells are extraordinary, and I find it very interesting to see how their architectural importance and the social and religious dimension helped position water at the centre of the community. I've visited stepwells and tanks in Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Hampi. In Hyderabad recently, I was fortunate to meet the group of architects and activists behind the Hyderabad Design Forum who have been responsible for rediscovering and documenting forgotten stepwells in Telangana.
Considering that parts of India are alternately affected by droughts and floods, how can this situation be alleviated?
These are complex issues and dependent on the local environment. But one aspect that has a lot of potential is rainwater capture. At the moment we largely let this free resource flow away, often causing serious flooding. It is interesting to see architects beginning to reimagine rainwater capture.
You are collaborating with the Loo Café team; how can we use them as a model for clean sanitation?
The Loo Cafe x Water Loop concept is proposed as a model for free public toilets that can also help raise awareness of water issues and conservation We were impressed by Ixora’s successful Loo Cafe concept and their model for providing free public toilets maintained by revenue from the café and thought this could be an interesting opportunity to showcase sustainable practices.
The concept was commissioned by the British Council and developed in collaboration with Anupama Kundoo Architects; the idea is to make a low-cost modular design that celebrates water and makes connections between human and environmental systems. It is at once a functional toilet, a welcoming public space and a place to prompt engagement with water and sustainability.
Can Loo Café bring about a change in India, vis a vis water conservation and public defecation?
It is early days yet, but we are hoping that the Loo cafe x Water Loop can offer a viable model for introducing low cost public toilets that also helps raise awareness of water issues. The idea is that it should be a framework for pioneering different ecological sanitation systems.
Can design and water collaborate towards sustainable solutions? Can you share an example where that has been done?
In the Ancient Design Features film on terracotta we made recently for the British Council, we feature Ant Studio and their work on terracotta and evaporative cooling. This is an ancient practice that had been more or less phased out but the terracotta installation in the Deki electronics factory shows that it can be an effective low-impact alternative to costly air conditioning as well as a beautiful installation
Is it possible to use/bring back indigenous methods of harnessing water bodies? Would they work in 2019?
It is not necessarily about reviving indigenous methods but rather using them as inspiration, a catalyst for innovation. Designers reintroducing terracotta for drinking water, to help shift away from bottled water and combat plastic pollution, is a good example of this.
Individually, how can one try and reduce one’s water footprint?
As food is such a large part of global water use and an individual’s water footprint, what we eat can make a real difference. I try and think about the impact of foods I choose on local and global water environments and try to choose foods with lower water footprints.
What projects occupy your time currently?
A project I’m particularly excited about is a book we are just finishing with the textile designer and colourist Giulio Ridolfo and Nordic textile company Kvadrat. Giulio has an almost alchemical approach to colour and it’s been fascinating to see how he brings a poetic dimension to industrial textile manufacture.
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