Must (monumental) Water Fall Too?
By Emilie Moor
The sun’s rays heat the atmosphere and water flows from the glacier. In the imperious spring, small, scattered and disordered streams sparkle in the middle of a valley. Centuries ago the land calmed the water’s ardour, slowed it down and sometimes merged with it into a huge swamp. Inhospitable to humans, rich and prodigious to other species.
This same water is now firmly channelled, redirected to satisfy the daily needs of the inhabitants. If left uncontained, it would pose a formidable threat. But more often than not we look at it, we use it, we bathe in it, we are made of it and it makes us. We write poems. We cry and we drown. In the cities, an invisible hand summons water beyond a necessary need, and appropriates it as an element of culture. Water is extracted from its natural environment and flows endlessly in a setting for the pleasure of our own eyes.
(The purpose of this text is to reflect with Gene Ray’s invitation “All Monument Must Fall” while engaging with Nancy Fraser’s idea of a (re)wilding of public space.1) The aim is not to propose an essay on the issue of hydro-urban-environmental management in Geneva, but rather to question water as a symbol in a city that is richly endowed with it. What kind of spell does water trigger in public spaces in a region provided with one lake, two major rivers, a coveted water table, seven rivers, thirty-three streams, six hydroelectric dams, three hundred and thirty fountains, over two hundred thousand taps and a (huge) water jet? Must (monumental) water fall too?
According to Jamie Linton (What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction) quoted by Astrida Neimanis in her Bodies of Water, A Posthuman Feminism, « water can be stripped of its wider environmental, social, and cultural contexts and reduced to a scientific abstraction – to mere H20. This abstraction has given modern society license to dam, divert, and manipulate water with impunity, giving rise to a growing suite of problems. Linton argues that part of the solution to the water crisis involves deliberately reinvesting water with social content. » Let us refocus on the cultural abstraction of water, the one that allows us to master it intellectually, to anthropomorphize it. What can be said about how water is made visible in Geneva through its monuments?
At first sight water monuments might appear less intimidating than solid ones. If we come back to its definition, a fountain is a water distribution structure, simple or architectural, comprising of at least one hole from which water flows into a basin or a pond. Geneva is made up of all kinds, round, flat, imposing, discreet, of marble, molasse stone or bronze. Fountains are located most commonly in the middle of squares, in front of institutions or international agencies, along established walks and public parks. Their construction, whether financed by private investors, donors, foundations, patrons or by the state, perfects the urban setting. Most of the time water is used as a quiet and voluptuous element completing the set piece, whose sole purpose is to be admired and complied with. One can also perceive a demonstration of a certain wealth, even of an overabundance whose excess is unnecessary and purely decorative. Insofar as water structures are part of the design of public space, they also, as much as any other monument, tell the story of the exercise of power. They reveal the aspirations and ambitions of a city.
But the role of water in Geneva is not only an aesthetic one, it also represents a marker of temporality. Like a clepsydra the monuments of water plunge us into a space-time that updates the monumental support which makes the liquid emerge. In classical biblical mythology, the Fountain of Youth is associated with the rejuvenating virtues attributed to it, to an eternal process of purification and regeneration. An imaginary of tranquility, prosperity and preservation. The city radiates, intact and unstained. The liquid can be waveless, stagnant and hieratic to signify the weight of ideas to be feared (The Reformers’ Wall), it can also be light, translucent and sharp to show off the notion of progress.
The Fountain of the Place des Nations is surrounded by the flagship of Geneva’s international organizations (WMO, UNHCR,) the Palais des Nations, the Ariana Museum (ceramics) and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. According to the website of the city of Geneva, « this square is often the place where demonstrators gather to challenge public opinion and international organizations. It consists of eighty-four jets coming directly from the ground and divided into seven rows of twelve jets. The choice of the number twelve is not a coincidence: it naturally refers to the measurement of time, another strong symbol of the city of Geneva. The choice of placing this fountain in the center of the square is also not by chance, as it symbolizes the unifying and universal character of water (the oceans), which connects, without borders, the countries and continents (symbolized by the granite bands). »
This monumental arrangement is a concentration of Geneva’s philanthropic culture that literally whitewashes and neutralizes the problematic neocolonial funding networks unraveled in Vinit Agarwal’s investigation work Architecture of Cultural Philanthropic Accumulation.2 Certainly water is soft and transparent, but it can also take the form of a powerful jet, which cleanses “degradations” and erases the traces of thin and ephemeral memories. The seas do have many borders, people die every day because of them, and the earth is not this organic and universal expanse that we inhabit. In order to decipher the usurpations of the water element within the city, we need to identify whose hand the jet comes from, to whom and for what purpose is the water sent?
How can water be envisioned as a medium of collective flow, but also as an element of its own right, to live with regardless of our needs? How is the public space to be reawakened without falling into a dominant common sense and sensibility? How to allow a multiple and decentralized common sense and sensibility to emerge there? How can we “reinvest water with social content” practically?
One answer could be to undertake acts of misappropriation. Showing the practical usefulness of an object that is a priori useless would highlight its “improperness”. By diverting the fountains from their decorative function, they are symbolically taken down from their pedestal. It is a process of urban humiliation which is in line with many other insurrectional methodologies. One of the ways to be enlightened iconoclasts of water, can have to do with this responsive game of shifting our relationship with its circuit; adopting a mode of being in the public space that is akin to a playful renegade to the city’s project.
Another response would be more related to the element of water detached from its urban environment. The Léman lake is more or less dammed up, but in a different temporal context, which allows it an empowering auto-generative disposition. Its water belongs to everybody and its banks belong to the public domain, nevertheless two-thirds of the banks remain inaccessible to the population. Article 3 of the Federal Law on Spatial Planning mentions the desire to keep the banks of lakes free and to facilitate public access to it. The latter can only be used freely once it has been opened to the public, following a specific procedure including in particular land use planning and a public enquiry. There are also safety considerations. Therefore, the existence of a right of way in favor of the State is not in itself sufficient to grant the public access to private land. To assert one’s right of access to the lake and to experience it with one’s body would be an interesting way to reflect on our bonds with the water element. Open water swimming requires adjustment and careful observation of its condition. Is the water rough? Is there any waste from fauna and flora on the surface? Is it clear or opaque? Is the ground visible or not? Does it smell like slime, rot, chlorine or freshness? The exercise requires us to adapt to it and not the other way around.
Even though we have seen that the visibility of water in urban areas can often be problematic, we have to admit that its presence does makes us feel profoundly good. Water is fundamentally linked to our emotions reflecting us in it and it in us. That’s why an additional social response could lie in water thought of as an element of emotional emancipation to be spatialized. How could we adopt a more ethical stance towards it while benefiting from its inherent aesthetic quality?
The Geneva water jet was created by chance in the waterworks of the Bâtiment des forces motrices. Engineers were looking for a way to evacuate the excess water pressure when the workers’ activities stopped every night. Why not make this aqueous monument an emotional thermometer of the city, that would release of an excess of pressure? We could mentally project a magnetic force on it that would reverse the poles of pressure and fight de-pression. Of course, that would be a zany meditation work, but it emphasizes the possibility to imagine an alternative through a particular posture of care. A posture that would invite us to pay closer attention to how our emotions overlap and interact with others human or non-human.
In the Evaux park, a fountain once appeared, just placed on the meadow without any earthworks or heavy foundations. It navigated between the birch trees in such a way as not to disturb them; they accompanied and reflected each other without the existence of one destroying that of the other. Today it has disappeared without a trace.