Water-Inspired Architecture: Fluid Structures of the World


Ah, water. 

Although hard to explicitly describe, humans have a deep connection to water. Being near ‘blue spaces’ – the ocean, coast, rivers, canals, even fountains – can spark many happy, calming emotions and boost mood and wellbeing. 

In recent decades, as the built environment continues its rapid expansion, stressed-out city dwellers living in highly dense and populated areas have started seeking refuge in nature.

A growing number of studies tell the benefits of blue spaces and how people who live or vacation near coastal environments experience better health in general. 

As researchers begin to look more into the benefits of living near water, so do architects and designers who look to incorporate more of this dynamism in their creations. The innovative designs that combine water in architecture show the fluidity of buildings and blur the lines of these rather opposite elements. 

Water-inspired architecture comes in different forms and opportunities are infinite. When architects embrace water as an inspiration, there are noticeably four motivations and directions to follow – serenity, grandiosity, sustainability, beauty, or, really, all of the above. 

Here is a list of six architectural projects that combine architecture with the flowing and absorbing beauty and elements of water:

Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, USA – by Frank Lloyd Wright

Water-Inspired Architecture: Fluid Structures of the World | CUBICOON

Photo source: Unsplash | Tim Wildsmith | Blending into nature but still able to show captivating artistry; the best face of Fallingwater showing the hanging terraces and highlighting the beauty of the waterfalls it seems to be resting upon

Designed in 1935 by distinguished American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann family, Fallingwater is a masterpiece embodying the concept of architecture and nature working harmoniously together. 

Quietly sitting, or seemingly floating, atop a waterfall, Fallingwater encapsulates Wright’s theories on organic architecture which believes that natural life and architecture should each be improved by coexisting peacefully. Both elements are equal in cultivating and bringing forth the hidden qualities and beauty of each other. Even at that time, Wright proved he is a visionary in this art and how architecture should fluidly integrate with nature. 

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other.” – Frank Lloyd Wright 

Falllingwater's staircase in the first floor

Photo source: ArchDaily | Unique feature below the first floor that gives residents direct access to the water below

Located in the mountains and surrounded by acres of natural land, Fallingwater, aptly named, seemed to grow from the landscape and hover over the waterfalls. The terraces suspend above the falls, highlighting the beauty of the water while blending into the colors of the boulders and the woody backdrop. 

Nature also visits the interiors through a central fireplace that features parts of the natural cliffs from where it rests. Serving like a sheltered cave in the rugged landscape, expansive corner windows are incorporated to welcome in the southern light and the water’s rushing sound. 

An interesting, playful detail is a hatch on the first floor leading to stairs that give access to residents directly to the streambed below. 

The Blue Planet Aquarium (Den Blå Planet) in Copenhagen, Denmark – by 3XN

An aerial view of The Blue Planet Aquarium’s whirlpool structure

Photo source: Nordic Design | An aerial view of The Blue Planet Aquarium’s whirlpool structure

In 2013, 3XN completed The Blue Planet Aquarium, one of the largest structures of its kind in Europe. Right at the entrance, one can tell that the inspiration behind this architectural design is to offer its visitors a captivating experience of life under water. 

Water narrates the design – from the whirlpool-shaped exterior, the elements relating to water on its wings, the flow of people inside, and to the giant enveloping aquariums featured in it. It’s even built on the waterfront, near the airport, where its distinctive structure will be visible from the approaching planes above. 

“Our wish was to bring our visitors all the way down to the world of the fish,” said 3XN partner Kim Herforth Nielsen. “The design of The Blue Planet is based on the story about water and life under the sea. We visualize the construction as a whirlpool which draws visitors into the depths to the fascinating experiences waiting among fish and sea animals from all over the world.”

From the outside, the unique structure sparks curiosity and ‘pulls’ (like a whirlpool) visitors in. It is made up of five curved wings, joined together in the center, each one varies in size and shape leading to dramatic changes in its appearance depending on the angle of the viewer.  

The facade is protected using diamond-shaped aluminum shades, reminiscent of fish scales, following the glistening surface of the water and reflects the changing colors of the sky. 

Water-Inspired Architecture: Fluid Structures of the World | CUBICOON

Photo source: Pixabay | StudioKlick

Water-Inspired Architecture: Fluid Structures of the World | CUBICOON

Photo source: Max Pixel | The entrance to Den Blå Planet showing the smooth shape of the structure’s longest wing, looking like a wave, and an outdoor pond to pique visitor’s anticipation

Each wing holds a different underwater attraction. Visitors walk along the edge of the longest wing, featuring a large outdoor pond which gives a hint of the aquatic adventure that awaits inside. As soon as they enter, they are welcomed into a large circular foyer as a central focal point with access to any of the five wings. 

With a handful of choices before them and no fixed routes, traffic is reduced in the more popular spots. Furthermore, with 7 million liters of water for 53 aquariums of diverse designs, the visitors are given a multi-sensory life under the sea.

Harbin Opera House in Harbin, China – by MAD Architects

Water-Inspired Architecture: Fluid Structures of the World | CUBICOON

Photo source: Unsplash | Patrick Sun

Like a silhouette, the Harbin Opera House emerges from the wetlands and marshy landscape of China’s northern city. Seemingly sculpted from wind and water, its serpentine and curving structure is an architectural reflection of the region’s frigid, wet climate and surrounding untamed wilderness. 

The curvilinear facade references the topography and waters circling around the area, blending seamlessly with nature. While the white aluminum panels that wrap the structure provide poetic contrast – having a tough, hard, ice-like exterior but, with also being a smooth white-colored surface that can softly camouflage itself into the snowy surroundings during winter. 

An aerial view of the Harbin Opera House during winter

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | In the frigid winters, the Harbin Opera House perfectly camouflages itself under and beside the frozen landscapes

The entire structure covers approximately 79,000 square meters and comprises a grand theater that can sit 1,600 and a smaller, more intimate performance hall for an audience of 400. Beside it is a large open, public plaza for outdoor performances, giving visitors a panoramic view of nature and a chance to admire this stunning architectural feat. 

“We envision Harbin Opera House as a cultural center of the future – a tremendous performance venue, as well as a dramatic public space that embodies the integration of human, art and the city identity, while synergistically blending with the surrounding nature,” said MAD Architects studio founder Ma Yansong.

The Harbin Opera House

Photo source: BubbleMania

The futuristic and undulating signature style flows fluidly from the exterior to its interiors. As visitors enter, they are welcomed into an expansive ice-white day-lit lobby with enormous glass panels spanning the wall, arched windows and latticed ceilings. Inside, the most mesmerizing element is the large mass of wood, made from Manchurian Ash, which encloses the grand theater. 

This wooden element becomes the perfect source of warmth in the structure’s rather icy overall look. It follows through to the inside of the grand theater and envelops the stage and seats all the way to the ceiling. MAD architects said that the sinuous and flowy massive wood sculpture is designed to emulate “a wooden block that has been gently eroded away”.

The interiors of the grand theater looking very warm, and a stark contrast to the white outside

Photo source: ArchDaily | The interiors of the grand theater looking very warm, and a stark contrast to the white outside

As a bonus feature, the architects incorporated another outdoor space atop the main theater. Visitors can go up on granite steps found on the structure’s main tentacles and get spectacular views of the skyline. MAD Architects believe in treating architecture like a landscape and this feature is inspired by the swirly mountains and rivers seen on Chinese paintings. 

Dai-Ichi Preschool in Kumamoto, Japan – by Hibino Sekkei

A New Preschool in Japan Designed to Accumulate Large Puddles When it Rains

Photo source: Spoon & Tamago | Kids playing around the giant puddle in the courtyard

Rain usually signals a time out from playing outside for the children. But at Dai-Ichi Yochien preschool in Kumamoto, Japan, rain is the inspiration behind the building’s design. On the outside, it looks like any other preschool. But stepping inside, you’ll come across this one clever design that fosters creativity and fun for its little attendees. 

After a downpour, the school’s courtyard collects rainwater creating a giant puddle of clean water just waiting for its preschoolers to splash around and play in. Designed by Youji No Shiro of Hibino Sekkei, a team that specializes in transforming spaces dedicated to children, this innovative design allows kids to just be kids and serves as a way for them to develop an appreciation for rain and the enjoyable aspect of water. 

It doesn’t stop there, the area serves like a multipurpose hall that can double as a sports yard – for outdoor games – on warmer summer days. During cold winters, it transforms into a skating rink. With this space, the kids will never miss out on outdoor fun, no matter the season. How cool is that?

Kids having lunch in the central courtyard in the shade

Photo source: Boredpanda | Lunch time for the kiddos – with a central courtyard, they’re not exactly indoors but not exposed to the sun’s heat too

The courtyard also gave way to an open plan layout that affords teachers and adults a flexible space to get creative with the use of furniture and mix up their classes. This unconstrained environment fosters creative learning and enjoyment that will be good for the children’s overall mental and physical development. 

Floating City Apps in Dhaka, Bangladesh – by Waterstudio

A Floating City container

Photo source: Waterstudio | A Floating City App container being constructed in the Netherlands

Over a billion people live in slums, largely seen in developing countries and areas of low-income communities with very high density. Slum upgrading is a challenge because of a lack of space, which is made more profound for waterfront slums (or wetslums). 

Specifically in Bangladesh, a country ravaged by extreme weather – cyclones, flooding, storms – it is slowly losing land with rising sea levels that could displace millions of people. Every year, commercial areas and public spaces like buildings, schools, and some homes are washed away and destroyed, leaving many lost. 

Amsterdam-based architectural firm, Waterstudio, specializing in “architecture, urban planning and research related to living, working and recreation on water” came up with one solution: floating vessels that can stand its ground during the storms. 

Suitably called ‘Floating City Apps’, they are standard sea freight containers smartly and resourcefully converted into public spaces for multiple uses. The containers will serve as classrooms during the day and internet cafes at night, community kitchens, public restrooms and showers, healthcare services, garbage collection and back up generators for electricity. 

The interior of the container with kids

Photo source: Waterstudio | How the container will look like as a classroom for kids

On its roof are solar panels so each container are sustainably powered. They sit on wooden pallets with wire and pontoons made of thousands of plastic bottles allowing it to easily float. Local children are even paid to collect those plastic bottles thereby educating the community about the environment and reducing the slums’ waste problem. 

They are buoyed to the seafloor and allowed to move up and down to withstand storms and floods. Lastly, these floating structures can easily be removed from locations when no longer needed, or more can be added. The Floating City Apps Foundation works with various organizations to bring this to waterfront slums around the world. 

A container floating on a pond near Dutch government buildings before being shipped to the slums in Bangladesh

Photo source: Waterstudio | A container floating on a pond near Dutch government buildings before being shipped to the slums in Bangladesh

Sea Organ in Zadar, Croatia – by Nikola Bašić  

Water-Inspired Architecture: Fluid Structures of the World | CUBICOON

Photo source: Flickr | Original version of Tim Ertl

Why do we go to the beach? Apart from that lovely dose of vitamin sea, sand between your toes and sun-kissed skin, hearing the waves crash on the shore is equally relaxing and mesmerizing. On its own, that sound is lovely but what if harmony is literally added to the sound of the waves?

A marvel designed by architect Nikola Bašić, the Sea Organ in Zadar, Croatia is a natural musical instrument played by the waves of the sea. Similar to the High Tide Organ in Blackpool, England and the Wave Organ in San Francisco, the Sea Organ uses the wind and the sea to play its melodious tune. 

In 2005, what used to be a plain white jetty turned into an enthralling attraction. This natural musical instrument spans 70 meters of concrete on the Adriatic Sea coastline with 35 organ pipes embedded under it. 

From land to sea, there are seven steps, each with five pipes under it that produce different chords. Under the pressure of the water and exposed to the movement of the wind, the pipes vibrate creating a musical sound for all passers-by to hear and enjoy. 

People lying on the steps, enjoying the fresh air and the music of the sea

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | People lying on the steps, enjoying the fresh air and the music of the sea

This shows the perfect union of architecture and nature and how it is (quite literally) given the power to communicate something beautiful. With the unpredictability of the tides and waves, the sea plays a never-ending concert for all to hear. 

As a bonus, Nikola Bašić added a new installation behind it called the Greeting to the Sun – panel after panel of illuminating discs that can generate enough power to light up the entire waterfront. With a spectacular light and sound show created by nature, the visitors and cruise ships are greeting warmly onto this seaside, coastal town. 

From decades ago and until present time, architecture has continued to evolve. These are just a few examples of how architecture gets its inspiration from water’s varying elements or how these contrasting ingredients (solid vs. liquid) can, together, form something beautiful. 

But more importantly, today more than ever, this changing art shows us how it can serve as a bridge that fosters and enhances the relationship of human and nature – how each is made better if allowed to coexist harmoniously together. 

Follow nature, don’t contain it.

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