Christopher Alexander states in #64 of his “pattern languages” for architecture and urbanism that “We need constant access to water, all around us; and we cannot have it without reverence for water in all its forms. But everywhere in cities, water is out of reach.” Moreover, ponds have become “so polluted that no one wants to go near them anymore.”
When modern sanitation materialized, domestic water became a guaranteed outcome of mere utility and stopped being part of people’s culture. But “it is possible,” states Alexander, “to imagine a town where there are many hundreds of places near every home and workplace where there is water. Water to swim in, water to sit beside, water where you can dangle your feet.”
Some of us have been lucky enough to sit by an unpretentious fountain with little to do but daydream. Discovering a serene fountain next to a verdant shade and a good seat, maybe a slab of stone, a bench, or perhaps a bit of grass, may not seem much, but doing so without the urge for moving on may feel as inspiring or refreshing as poets and thirsty travelers could attest. French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne traveled throughout Italy’s natural springs and balnearies to relieve his health issues, and the experience ended up nurturing a simple writing style that blended deep intellectual gems with casual personal commentary, much like a bit of running water keeps a reservoir unspoiled.
Sitting by a fountain
Fountains feel like an invitation to cool down when days get longer, and a domesticated source of water source by a garden turns into a sign of civilization. Old homes built around interior patios had already mastered microclimates with running water and plants, and the first codified systems of aesthetics recommended the same combination.
Fountainheads also inspired parables to quench the thirsty, whether in reality or spirit. A Taoist proverb states that no one can see their reflection in running water, that it is only in still water that we can see; another highlights that flowing water never goes wrong and that our doorways never gather termites. Yet the proximity of water in all its dimensions and manifestations has determined our decisions on where to set camp, either temporarily—for the night, for the season—or permanently, from the first permanent settlements to our water-scarce zeitgeist.
Our fountain-rich imaginary became a feast for Carl Jung and those who ventured to study the relations between what individuals share in their respective unconscious worlds. There are fountains in our legends, our dreams, our nightmares. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depiction of the Netherlandish Proverbs doesn’t forget to include a hurried man trying to plug up a natural well. Front and center, an old peasant is holding a shovel only after a disaster, or “filling the well after the calf has already drowned.”
There are also real-life manifestations of a fantastic world that would blend alright within a Hieronymus Bosch painting. A fountain outside the Monastery of Irache along the walking route of the Way of Saint James across Northern Spain welcomes modern-day pilgrims not with water but with red wine, cold and free as water. In the Italian town of Ortona, Abruzzo, a similar fountain provides the passers-by with Montepulciano red wine. Such sources don’t promise to restore the youth to anyone drinking from them as old legends of the Fountain of Youth did but guarantee the mundane effects of fermented grapes: either Don Quixote’s idealism or Sancho’s worldly needs.
Running water across the world
No wonder the old need for proximity to water fountains—first, as a matter of survival, later as an aesthetic, sometimes metaphysical, mandate—dictated the prosperity of homes, farms, and entire populations. Reliable freshwater sources feel familiar and welcoming, promising hydration, a fresh climate, and the benefits of a garden. In the ‘1930, archaeologists Leonard and Catherine Woolley uncovered a series of sophisticated pottery pipes during the excavations of the Mesopotamian city of Ur. The network, from 4000 BC, drained sewage and stored rainwater but also guaranteed a complex network of public and domestic cisterns and fountains.
Traditional construction systems issued from a deep study of applied aesthetics such as vastu shastra and feng shui developed in ancient India and China, respectively; other civilizations would pay similar respect to domestic water sources on the other extreme of Eurasia. Perhaps inspiring Heraclitus’ principle of “panta rhei” (“everything flows”), Greek fountains had water flowing through bronze pipes and used gravity, but also a siphon capable of making the water sprout. Roman courtyards upped the game. “This is what I prayed for,” wrote the Roman poet Horace. “A piece of land –not so very big, with a garden and, near the house, a spring that never fails, and a bit of wood to round it off.”
Mesoamerican cultures relied on natural water cisterns, canals, and aqueducts to provide water to cities. Mayans transported fresh water from natural sinkholes formed from the collapse of limestone bedrock, or cenotes, to urban centers around the Yucatán peninsula. Cenotes also represented an opening to the underworld. A decline of stored rainwater in the network of cenotes around the region propelled the decline of Mayan civilization; to the north, Aztecs mastered their water networks and fountains with manual pumps and pressure systems around a network of interconnected lakes with canals and floating gardens, pivoting around Tenochtitlan, the city on the main lake, Texcoco, that impressed Europeans upon their arrival.
The melody of ancient water harvest
Due to its altitude, the area of Mexico City cools down during the summer rainy season. It had just rained when, after a few days in the city’s Colonia Roma, we decided to head south over the volcanic mountains between the metropolis and rural Morelos, and down to the valley of Tepoztlán. We had directions to approach one of the dirt roads that climb the slopes of Tepozteco Mountain as the temperatures cooled down and houses gave way to forested areas. When we finally arrived at our destination, we understood why Aztecs had called it Meztitla, “place near the moon” in Náhuatl: amid a subtropical, unexploited rainforest, a dry-stone modern house sat as an organic by-product of the massive volcanic boulder behind. Not far from the house, a rustic trail leads to the Pyramid of Tepozteco, a pre-Columbian sanctuary at the summit. But we were interested in worldly things.
We had heard that Casa Meztitla concealed a sophisticated off-grid water system inspired by Mesoamerican water harvest best practices. Luis Arturo García, the architect and owner, had done so by necessity due to the lack of public water supply and a rather short rainy season, lasting from July to October. García had overcome the constraints with a water harvesting system relying on gravity that recirculated water through an intricate, if easy to maintain, filtration system.
The house’s intricate filtration system seems more foreign to contemporary construction than to ancestral cenote guardians from down south, who had understood that the best water came from cenotes located in areas where water filtered slowly through the ground and hence contained very little suspended particulate matter. Casa Meztitla includes rain gutters collecting water that is divested through filters that turn it potable, storing it in a water reservoir covered by a grass patio. The water used around the house flows to a canal that, using gravity, fills an open-air reservoir filtering the water with aquatic plants, fish, and a pump; after the treatment, the water is ready for irrigation. The pool is the third connected reservoir.
What we didn’t learn with the Columbian exchange
We could not help but try the water. It was a mineral, pristine spring water. Why did such a simple water management system, capable of capturing every drop of rain touching the property, seem such a technical breakthrough? Like medicine, modern sanitation has transformed the world for the better. Among the tradeoffs of centralized water treatment infrastructures, societies had discarded ancient rain harvesting, irrigation, and cooling systems that rely on local materials and techniques, efficient if properly maintained, affordable, and with little impact.
Jared Diamond relates the collapse of the Mayan civilization to the civil unrest resulting from a series of droughts depleting water reservoirs. As aridity and unreliable climate patterns menace water supplies in some heavily populated areas, water reuse and efficient irrigation become strategic. Six hours to the east, we headed to the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city by population.
On a terrain overlooking the steep Huentitán Canyon, we met a group of friends from the Mexican Institute for Community Development (IMDEC) trying to bring back some Mesoamerican building and farming techniques, from earthquake-proof masonry to the drought-resilient crop-growing system called milpa, which combines several types of maize, bean, and squash on a single field with no need of pesticides or fertilizers.
The cultural syncretism that arose in Mexico with the Columbian Exchange does not only manifest itself in the celebrated permanent exposition of Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology has not forgotten an ancient culture that understood the importance of domestic and public water sources, from harvesting rain to the use of extensive collection systems of underground water.
Fountains, ponds, and pastoralism
An important group among the first Europeans reaching Mesoamerica had come from Extremadura, an inland, scarcely populated, dry area of the Spanish central plateau or Meseta, the central, pastoral highlands of the Iberian Peninsula. A little over a decade ago, when we were staying at a small village in rural, pastoral Extremadura, Spain, we got the confirmation from a small architecture studio outside Madrid founded by siblings who had not only managed to stay close together during adulthood but worked and often went on vacation together. To accommodate a growing family with several children, the Alonsos had decided to find a place within two hours from Madrid by car where they could share a budget country home.
Extremadura, a rural region west of Madrid with oak-covered grasslands where farmers from the area raise fighting bulls and Iberian pigs, as well as harvesting cork, honey, mushrooms, wild game, and much more, shared with Castile a mountain range that had remained off the beaten path, a little Arcadia marauded by local shepherds with small, healthy herds benefiting from pastoral management since time immemorial.
During a weekend outing, siblings Alonso found a property high in the Gredos Mountains, where in summer farm animals share pastures with the area’s Iberian ibex and the roe deer. They decided to perceive the property’s worth not in terms of making a quick buck but in its dormant potential as a dream location that could embrace their family over the years. The hillside was private but could be accessed by car on a maintained dirt road not far from a village; it remained cool in summer but received plenty of winter sun for the area’s long winters. Halfway down the summit, an abandoned stable marked where two creeks became one, providing water to the animals through a natural trough filled with crisp water all year round.
Two little sources feeding a home (and a mountain)
The GPS stopped working at Guijo de Santa Bárbara, a humble mountain village amid a natural park with just over 400 inhabitants, some of whom still practice the transhumance, the seasonal pastoralism that for centuries moved livestock from the lower valleys of the winter to the higher summer pastures, a protected right-of-way across entire regions that shaped the medieval prestige of products such as Merino wool.
We followed a dirt road that led to a forested pass beyond which we spotted a herd of cattle, a shepherd, and a house. As we approached the house, we spotted a narrow stream descending from behind the house, entering one of its corners, then filling a natural pool, and finally descending downhill. The off-grid modern home we were facing kept the structure of the original crumbling cow shed. Carlos explained the cattle ranchers could not have chosen a better place in the mountain for the stable: it was the only point, he said, where they had water and sun all year round, ideal for a combo of solar photovoltaics and small wind.
With nobody else above them on the mountain, the spring water could be used for drinking and bathing, but Carlos and Camino didn’t settle with the mere utility of the two creeks merging at the stable, celebrating the arrival with a water fountain regulating the house’s temperature. Like any location from where to observe a constant water source, things had changed profoundly since the time the original building had been erected. But the sun continued to hit the building the same way, and the water kept flowing as before. Local cattle were grazing as their ancestors had, celebrating both the constant change and the ancient eternal return of similar cycles. Heraclitus’ river is different every moment and also recognizable.
The sound of water in quiet backs
Born in arid lands, the people of the book codified best practices around water fountains into ceremonies of purification next to temples and crossroads. Islamic architecture differentiated between the “sebil,” or public water kiosks for drinking and ritual purification, and the sophisticated private world of gardened patios around fountains, with Sumerian, Persian, and Greco-Roman reminiscences. The series of canals and fountains cooling down the interior gardens of Granada’s Alhambra are a testimony of domestic water mastery —and cultural syncretism in the Old World.
Such places of unconcerned solace lost some of their shine as other symbols of social bonding arose, among them all perhaps the tower clock dictating a stricter time perception, public precursor of wristwatches and their ultimate incarnation: the smartphone, contemporary killer of unpreoccupied mental divagations, unhurried conversations, and other unproductive pastimes.
Not long ago, small-town gatherings by a cool fountain were an excuse to wander and doze in some unrushed thoughts, or maybe an occasion to trigger a conversation while playing some old game, to read aloud some novella, almanac curiosity, or worn out periodic provided by the local peddler. The awe of children and their pets when, on a sunny day, they discover a fountain nearby contrasts with the sleepy rumination of those who still feel attracted to such places, which have become impossible where fountains have fallen prey to mass tourism.
To all of us, taking a pleasant promenade amid dirt paths and trees on a sunny spring day is an opportunity for the senses —not only most preeminent among the ones described by Aristotle, but all the ones we feel we use, like our ability to feel ambient pressure through our skin. In temperate climates, we flow to sources of water to test all our senses when they notice the proximity of places with running fountains, humble creeks, naughty rivers, or the sea. When talking about quiet backs (pattern #59 of A Pattern Language) Christopher Alexander states that:
“If a number of these walks are connected to one another, then slowly, there emerges a ribbon-like system of tiny backs, pleasant alleyways behind the commotion of the street. Since the sound of water plays such a powerful role in establishing the kind of quiet that is required, these paths should always connect up with the local pools and streams.”
In search of a familiar, sometimes elusive source
To German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a house was an expression of an existential action, of “being in the world.” When he wrote these words, he was working and probably thinking about his small wooden cabin on the slopes of Todtnauberg, in the Black Forest, which he called “The Hut”. Without running water or electricity, the modest cabin had square windows, timber walls and shingled pitched roof. Inside, two cast-iron wood-burning stoves provided heating and the means for cooking; a few books on shelves on the boarding walls and essential furniture completed the ascetic cabin. The process of getting water resembled the inner workings of any intellectual process, as it required the relative discomfort of leaving home and walking to the wooden fountain next to it. The murmur of the trickle of water could have inspired something substantial and ephemeral at once, or, according to Chuang Tzu, “The sound of the water / says what I think.”
The other consequential philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had also decided to seclude himself in a cabin at the end of the Sognefjord, Norway’s deepest and second-longest fjord. To access it, he had to use a boat to cross the lake from the nearest village of Skjolden. “Whoever is unwilling to descend into himself,” he wrote, “because it is too painful, will, of course, remain superficial in his writing.” Measuring just 7 by 8 meters, became Wittgenstein’s conceptual fountainhead for 13 months, inspiring his influential Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
As for still water, we will also find ways to sense our approach to wells, ponds, alpine lakes, big and small, humid marshes, and wetlands. Fountains inspire familiarity and hospitality, whereas marshes and swamps trigger our uneasiness and danger awareness and might be reconciling our collective unconscious with a shared remote past where our ancestors would hunt nearby the bodies of water scattered across the savanna, but also confront danger in such early sanctuaries of the megafauna with which we coevolved.
A haven of one’s own
No matter how farther away we feel from the savanna hypothesis, few things are more familiar than a fountain with a running trickle of water by the side of a path, a garden, or an urban crossroads, and we sense this feeling of familiarity may be as old as what the conventions we call “culture.” A little fountainhead manifests itself unimportantly like a humble body of water, signaling an unspectacular—if somehow special—immediate environment. Around the running water of a fountain, the provided shade concedes a particular, agreeable relief to the cool and verdant surroundings, and vegetation reaches a certain metaphysical solemnity as if trees providing shade by a fountain were more cathedral-like than other members of their same species.
An unimportant fountain also indicates the proximity of a source and its welcoming: routes, towns, oases, or religious and chivalric orders would keep complex networks of fountains and wells to guarantee freshwater access but also to fulfill other important duties before the arrival of modern sanitation. Poems and songs celebrate the walk to the fountain nearby to fill a pitcher, water the animals, or do the laundry, but also to see somebody or dream aloud somewhere beyond domesticity but still familiar.
The walk to the fountain at twilight is a daily ritual as forgotten as any of the aesthetic subtleties that gave meaning to people’s daily lives a few generations back. We may be confident that filling the same impasses of the day with display time is an improvement to the walk towards a fountain by the house or at a public place, where we may overcome the initial discomfort of addressing others instead of engaging in the last gregarious battle within the digital realm.