Water occupies a billion and a half cubic metres of our planet, in its oceans, rivers, atmosphere and ice, and underground. Human existence is literally surrounded by water. Our relationship with water begins even before we enter the world, prenatal life being developed in suspension in its foetal nook. Human beings are fated to come into existence announced by a pouring of water. Moreover we are but water anyway, indeed made of water – which accounts for about 70 per cent of our bodies. When we talk about the relation between water and human beings, we evoke a primary context that casts us into the past of our biological and historical genesis. Space for human habitation has been constantly occupied on the basis of the necessities and experiences of water. Nor can we deny that our representation of time is unfailingly steeped in symbolisms of water: the river of time, the stream of life… The history of the human community tells us of its birth and evolution through daily contact with rivers, seas and water sources: the water that protects, preserves, nurtures and unites, but also the water that threatens, separates, creates thirst and destroys. We have plastic, formidable images of life experienced wherever humankind has engaged in a daring, sometimes fatal close combat with the predominant liquid element: Dutch polders wrested from the sea and reclaimed to create fresh scope for human life and endeavour; Venice, the fabulous city that is neither land nor sea, but land joined in matrimony with the sea; the colossal dams that loom halfway between resources and threats; the rivers in flood that carry whole centuries of civilisation with them; or the liquefaction of arctic permafrost into mud which forces Eskimo communities to abandon their habitual settlements. Good water, bad water, or maybe just water? Water wears its gamut of apparel as blessings or misfortunes, promises kept or broken. The public icon of this compound demands that it always be judged according to a double bind, without fixing its fluid ambiguity once and for all. But then how can water, the ancestral element once believed to be the matter and first principle of all things, be expected to sacrifice the whole of its fluid, fleeting and uncontrollable nature to our all too human needs? If we focus only on our habitual representation of water, we see that among all its physical states we identify it with its liquidity. And not by chance. For liquidity is what lets water be anarchic. Water can assume ever-changing forms, without having to settle for any particular one. It can circumvent obstacles without hindrance, gliding sinuously over the bodies encountered in its path. Which brings us to an extraordinarily decisive aspect: the liquidity of water irrepressibly contrasts the static structure of solid bodies. In the dialectic between these elements, between structure and dispersion, fluidity and position, order and anarchy, it is the liquid element that seems at present to prevail, finding its way into massive bodies to slowly corrode their atomic bonds. This is basically the phenomenon of the fusion of solid social bodies, which Zygmunt Bauman has been talking about for over twenty years. And it is what we can experience, through a very significant example, in the proliferation of floating homes to be found in numerous city ports in the US and Canada. As the sophisticated evolution of old river barges, houseboats are hybrid structures, somewhere between the house complete with all optionals, and an actual vessel. The people living on it can float off somewhere else when they feel like it, while sticking completely to the principle of the liquid element and of the dispersal of strong linkages. To mould, contain and adopt is the principal process of the historical relation between humankind and water. And today all this points primarily to its liquidity. It is said that, faced with floods when the Blue River burst its banks, the Taoists proposed the building of very low barriers. In this way the big river could be free to follow its natural downward flow. The transfiguration of water from a sacred element to an economic object came about in contrast to the idea of the infinite possession, availability and exploitation of this resource. But is this idea still a topical one today, or is it not perhaps largely if not entirely valueless? Redefining the limit between land and water, liquid body and solid body, flow and structure, nature and artifice, is an issue to be tackled by those concerned with the organisation of spaces and structures for the social life of the inhabitants of this earth. Flavio Albanese
Issue 905 of Domus features some of the possible manifestations of the relation between humans and water.