OOZE’s Antidote to The Water Apocalypse

Imagine swimming in New York’s Newtown Creek - one of the most polluted sites in the U.S. after two centuries of sustained industrial and sewage-based contamination. Now imagine every other New York street transformed into a self-sustaining, eco-wetland that recycles local wastewater. Eva Pfannes and Sylvain Hartenberg, the innovative co-founders of the Rotterdam-based architecture firm OOZE, are proposing just that — a revolutionary vision with huge potential for social and environmental impact, developed as part of A/D/O’s Water Futures Program, called Every Other Street.

“One guy in Rio was telling us: ‘Give me the quality of your water and I will tell you how healthy your community is,’” recalls Hartenberg. “Water is actually a mirror of human and urban [health].” The two began focusing on water as a fundamental feature of built environments while erecting a water treatment art installation along the Emscher River in Germany back in 2010 with the artist Marjetica Potrč. Then water infrastructure became something they couldn’t unsee — a vital but obscured function of the city now made visible.

In their view, most cities are in a state of corporeal disarray: “Like all the organs are outside the body, displaced, rather than integrated within,” Pfannes elaborates. This isn’t the first time Pfannes has used a vivid bodily metaphor to illustrate a larger point about how cities operate: for example, she compared a good liver flushing out toxins to a good citywide wastewater treatment solution. Cities need to grow and evolve, be adaptable and sustainable — like bodies — to thrive, she continues.

Both Pfannes and Hartenberg are good conversationalists and conscientious listeners, a capacity that is deeply embedded in, and a learned byproduct of, their research and design methodology. Past projects in Chennai, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have each involved extensive on-the-ground community-building with dozens of residents, academics, activists, and local bureaucrats involved in every step of development. Their practice is almost sociological in implementation, with a similar theoretical reverence for placemaking involved; for every physical commons OOZE Architects design, they hope to create a parallel political one. By turning wastewater infrastructure from “an abstract thing into an experienced thing,” they invite citizens to take part in a conversation on how cities function.

 In Chennai, India, a flood- and drought-prone climate prompted the two to reexamine the city’s system of freshwater collection. Building on Chennai’s already-existing temple tanks, stepwells adjacent to longstanding Hindu temples, Pfannes and Hartenberg imagine a sustainable, closed-loop system in which new and old temple tanks serve as repositories for floodwater and rainwater, taking stress off of the city’s rapidly-depleting deep-well aquifers. Like with projects in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, their designs are bright, playful even, exuding an optimism that invites audiences to engage in otherwise daunting, macro-scale water issues.    

At the heart of the duo’s ethos is a resolve to generate a new type of decentralized metropolis and to present architectural solutions to systemic infrastructural problems. “All cities have an internal logic that needs to be challenged,” claims Pfannes. “That is particularly true,” she adds, “when it comes to sewage treatment and fresh water intake, as, globally, most water management infrastructures are one breakdown away from large-scale crisis.”

When it rains in New York, rainwater and sewage flow into the same system, polluting what could be a source of freshwater for the city and contributing to the likelihood of contaminated runoff in the event of a flood. With the Every Other Street project, Pfannes and Hartenberg suggest collecting rainwater for household and business use, and then transforming every other city street into an absorptive surface. These would range from porous pavement to constructed wetland that mimics natural wetlands to break down and recycle rainwater as it becomes waste — a closed water cycle on a massive scale. “Constructed wetlands are simple by design,” Pfannes explains. “Sand and gravel make up a bottom layer of soil that collects the wastewater, while marshland plants and another layer of gravel on top naturally purify the water.”

Hartenberg and Pfannes have integrated the constructed wetland technique into most of their city-based waterwork designs and, as they point out, it provides a compact solution to other urban issues, such as providing more public green space, helping to mitigate air pollution as plants absorb excess carbon dioxide, and providing a natural cooling mechanism for the city. “That was the [...] revelation,” says Pfannes. “To understand that nature can do the job; we just have to give it the space to do it.”

Which brings us back to a wider point on why both architects think the Every Other Street project, a plan to intersperse wetlands on every other street corner, makes sense for New York. Residents, though, are less concerned with wastewater infrastructure than with the rising sea levels and flooding caused by climate change. So why not design an initiative around that?  “To build walls to deal with the rising sea — it’s not working on the source or the reason. It’s protective. [...] We are trying to make a systemic change in the beginning.”

But will this holistic approach, if implemented, be enough to save the city? In light of the U.N.’s alarming report on the acceleration of climate change (if industrial carbon output continues at its current pace, by 2040, a 1.5°C rise in global temperature will damage most ecosystems irreparably), the topic turns to personal coping mechanisms for the looming crisis. For the OOZE co-founders, working directly with people, and building mutually beneficial relationships with collaborators who are also stakeholders, provides a hearty antidote to fatalism.

“Once we interviewed a guy from the state water company in Rio de Janeiro,”  Pfannes recalls, “and during the interview, he almost started to cry because he understood that the situation is so hopeless and it’s so bad.” Hartenberg jumps in: “But he worked all his life to try to change it.”

My heart sinks, thinking of this Brazilian water company employee trying to fix a broken system his whole life— only to fail. But Pfannes and Hartenberg see something different: They see someone who cares, and with that, the possibility of someone who might succeed.


Text By Meredith Lawder

Images Courtesy of OOZE architects: Eva Pfannes, Sylvain Hartenberg, Jesse Honsa

Curated by Jane Withers

Blue Tank fabricated by  Zach Serafin Designs