Water as an open system

Подпись: Wolfram Schwenk

Water as an open system

Water is by nature formless and passive, and only shows its particular qualities when interacting with its surround­ings. These qualities constitute its significance in the con­text of nature and teach us to handle water correctly.

Water has become a museum exhibit recently. This gives me pause for thought, as generally speaking museums con­cern themselves with things that are not (any longer) part of people’s everyday experience. And now water in its natural diversity falls into this category, which for me is eloquent evi­dence of man’s alienation from the elemental basis of his life.

We banish water from our environment and allow it to appear for certain purposes only. And so we only perceive it out of context, in specific functions: as a medium between tap and sink, as a drink in a bottle, as rain in the street, as sewage in a sewer, as an attraction in a museum, and in recent years as a flood as well. The links, common to all, archetypal, water’s context and its significance in nature are foreign to us. And yet we are talking about the most important basis of our existence, which cannot be replaced by anything else – and not about any old raw material or cultural factor.

Deliberately drawing attention to water has become a cultural activity that would have been difficult to imagine in earlier days. The following remarks about some of water’s characteristics are offered to this end.

When trying to describe water using everyday concepts we are immediately confronted with an unexpected problem: as a liquid, water has no shape of its own. It is formless and uncon­fined, has no hardness or sound of its own – not metallic, not wooden, not bright, not dull. It also has no colour of its own, no smell, no taste of its own.

We also cannot also understand water fully with our five senses: all these can tell us is what it is not and what it doesn’t have. And so just as it runs away between our fingers it runs away between our definitions. This is a challenge to reflect and to rethink.

No shape of its own: If water is placed in a container it fills it up and adopts its shape. At the top it always ends as a free waterlevel that adjusts itself to the parallel with the ideal horizon, the surface of the earth. It adapts to its surroundings, down to its very form. If you tilt the vessel, the surface of the water remains horizontal – unlike fixed bodies, whose form is retained when they are twisted and turned. And so for water its situation, its equilibrium is more important that its form – when it is released, it again tries to create a horizontal surface.

No hardness of its own: Water cannot be polished. But you can submerge yourself in it without resistance or throw objects like stones into it. It gives way, accepts these objects and surrounds them.

No sound of its own: When pouring water into a tall glass we notice that the colour and pitch of the sound depend on how full the glass is, in other words on the air-space in the cavity. This also applies to the plashing, murmuring and glug – ging sound of a brook.

No taste of its own: And yet it is only the moist film of water on our tongues and in our noses that conveys all the nuances to us. We cannot smell or taste anything if our tongue and nose dry up.

Everything that comes into being or passes away, every­thing that is combined or separated as a material in nature does so only with the aid of water: substances dissolve in it. ‘Substances can have an effect only in solution’ could be a free re-statement of an old chemical principle. All natural management of substances lives with and on water: in the atmosphere, in the ground, in rocks, and in the waters them­selves; in living creatures in breathing and feeding, excretion, regulation, growth, regeneration and reproduction. There is no life without water. Water always mediates, without itself being entirely subsumed in the products of the reactions. It is there to show other things to their best advantage and to convey other things.

As a chemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen, water is defined as H2O. But pure H2O does not occur in nature, and not even in the laboratory: in its pure chemical form water is such a powerful solvent that it immediately combines with other substances at the moment it comes into being and dis­solves and absorbs at least traces of these. Even the substance we call pure water is always more than H2O – because it is always open to its surroundings, and is always interacting with them. This is why it is so vulnerable and so in need of protec­tion.

If substances go into solution or are watered down they lose their own form and spatial confinement and gradually fill – together with all the other substances dissolved in it – the whole spatial content of the water that is dissolving them. In their dry and solid form they were distinct from each other within their own forms; now these limitations are lifted and the substances can develop their functional chemical qualities and enter into intimate relationships with each other. In the course of this they adopt an almost weightless condition of floating in the water. Weight loss as a result of buoyancy – divers are always disoriented by the equal pressure from all directions when under water – means being exposed to forces coming from all directions in the surrounding area, a universal balance of forces. Water in water is in this universally open condition.

Running water is a material continuum. It behaves as a coherent whole, not as a material made up of individual par-

Подпись: -е-ticles. And so it does not respond to stimuli in isolation, but always as a whole, systemically. Even minimal shifts in the equilibrium of forces within it set water in motion, and make it flow or pour. Starting at the point where this movement was provoked, fast and slow flowing areas mingle. Along curving or often rolling sections this leads to shearing, in other words partly pulling, partly pushing movements, to blockages and eddying in rhythmic sequence.

Set in motion by interplay with its surroundings, water, which is otherwise so passive, surprises us by producing a whole variety of forms like eddies and waves – and as they come into being they also immediately transform themselves. Every change of movement in water causes shapes to be formed and re-formed, and ultimately these flow away into nothing as soon as they become calm. A game that ceaselessly produces something new, transforms it and takes it back again, a continuous process without a lasting result.

In its material quality water is shapeless, it has no form of its own, but dissolves forms and changes them. It is only movement that makes it a design medium, the scene of an inexhaustible process of renewal, with shapes being cease­lessly formed and transformed, coming into being and passing away.

Many of the development stages of flow formation in water are strikingly similar to organic forms: they can be addressed as organic in terms of their forms. The formative movements that lead to the formation of such currents with their block­ages and stretching, overlapping and rolling up in sections with a multiplicity of curves, obey the same laws as the forma­tive movements in the embryonic development of organisms. But something that in an organism becomes the apparently durable condition of the form of a body and its organs through an equilibrium of flow between ceaseless new formation and simultaneous dissolution, remains a formative process in water, and does not acquire a lasting quality. Thus the forma­tive principles of organic and living nature are reproduced as processual events in moving water under the universal conditions of weightlessness and of forces in states that are changing in an unstable fashion. Life-supporting wisdom is woven into these processes. This is – alongside the mediation of metabolism in organisms – the second major sphere in which water works to convey life. Each mingles with the other.

Recent astrophysical research has shown that the laws governing currents in moving water are part of the laws of flow that govern the entire cosmos. The ways the stars relate to each other also follow these laws. And the patterns adopted by the little floating droplets that water forms when falling provide an image of this – they reflect the whole cosmos on a small scale.

In summary: formlessly passive water, mineral according to its material quality, is opened up to the formative forces in living nature by movement. This is shown by the flow patterns that are formed. At the same time they reveal cosmic laws of order: organic laws are also cosmic. The universal laws that form the basis of all life can also be revealed in moving water, and affect it.

Water lives by coming to terms with its surroundings, though excitability, rhythmical articulation in the course of pattern-forming and pattern-changing, and by mediating metabolic processes, and it enlivens those surroundings at the same time.

These qualities of water can be seen in infinite diversity in natural watercourses: in springs and mountain streams it is largely conditions working from the outside – like the structure of the bed, the slope, the daily pattern of light and warmth etc. – that determine the behaviour of water and the absorption and transport of solid and dissolved substances. In big rivers, lakes and in the sea these processes take place to a greater extent inside the masses of water in the form of sub­stance conversion and separation. In meandering streams and rivers on plains these tendencies to absorption, conversion and separation, to shaping and mediating, run in a flow of rhythmical equilibrium. As it comes to terms with the land­scape, the course of the river itself becomes an image of these events.

Подпись: ~Є~If a creative artist wants to bring about cosmic and organic flow forms in water, this cannot be done in the same way as a sculpture, for example, would be created. They can only be evoked by handling water like an instrument. The creative process then takes place in the water itself. For the artist or designer working with water, this means that he or she makes only part of the work of art. The other, livelier part has to be left to the water – it is to the water that the completion of the work is entrusted. If the artist has learned how water twists and turns as it flows, how it eddies, trickles and spurts, flies and builds up, surges and sloshes, rests and reflects, then some of this can be enhanced and emphasized by creative design, and made into the theme of the joint work of art. Then the designer or artist is working in partnership with the water. This stimulates observers to become aware of the special qualities of water, to discover and experience it, to love it and to value it – and so to learn how to treat it carefully. I know of no bet­ter, more attractive and more sustainable ecological study course than this!

Water as an open system



Water phenomena in the Gelsenkirchen cooling tower


Natural processes are repeated daily without our knowing exactly what is happening. Do we have a sudden moment of insight when looking at the morning mist or a rainbow, do we know why a drop falls of a leaf at a particular time, and not a moment earlier or later? Unfortunately, being uncertain does not always trigger a thirst for knowledge. Even the most watery problem can sometimes seem too dry, and the chem­istry and physics that could explain it are much too complicated. People like to have answers to their questions, but please make them easy to understand and ideally demonstrated in three dimensions.

When Herbert Dreiseitl demonstra­ted phenomena involving water in the Ruhr city of Gelsenkirchen as part of the Federal Horticultural show in 1997, his intention was to engage and fascinate easy-going people of this kind as well.

He found the ideal setting for his experi­ment in showing water in all its states in a cooling tower that had been left standing at the Nordstern pit. After a 15 minute introduction a fine film of water had formed on the spectators’ hair and clothes – a perfectly harmless way of acquiring the feeling of being in the middle of a rain-cloud. What had happened? The spectators stood on a glass mezzanine floor, and the develop­ment from mist to a cloudburst was played out before their eyes, with every step in the process accompanied by gigantic slide projections. Every sense was working overtime as first of all their was nothing to be seen in the dark interior of the cooling tower, and then only indirect light, with a bank of mist moving ponderously into position in front of it. Turbulence on the periphery made shining droplets form dancing figures. Slides of foggy landscape thrust into this moving image. Then a circular eddy 1 metre wide rose out of the sea of mist, rather like the smoke-rings blown out by a cigar-smoker in its shape and


The old cooling tower, a relic of the former Nordstern pit in Gelsenkirchen, was the scene for a unique presentation of water – related phenomena for over two years.


A transparent platform for spectators. The use of light and water is carefully cal­culated, and here the indi­vidual phenomena and phases are being staged. Suddenly the old wooden gutters under the platform are flooded.


Veils of mist and vapour in the light. Here we are able to see the relationship between the ways in which air and water move.


The magic world of water vapour in an experiment in the old cooling tower


Spectators’ stand, slatted frame and the fittings involved in this magical installation


Water as an open system

Water as an open system

Water phenomena in the Gelsenkirchen cooling tower


movement. Followed by more rings, it rose to the top of the cooling tower in a cone of light, and then faded away in an air current, along with the clouds of mist. The slide projections of cloud for­mations appeared on the wall of the cooling tower – there was rain in the air. And it started to fall, first as drizzle, split up into numerous colour zones by beams of light, and then crashing down as an impressive cloudburst. Towards the end the projector revealed another detail: a huge drop of water was getting ready to fall, changing its shape in the first phase of detachment and flight. The demon­stration ended with slides of roaring waterfalls – but admittedly not without returning to the cooling tower’s original function. The glass platform allowed visitors to see part of the old system of gutters below them filling with water, which then dripped down on to the slatted structure below. Finally we saw how the slats worked to bring about air cooling and make the cooling tower work: the drops of water atomize as they impact, which means that a greater surface area of the water is exposed to the air. The heat in the water is largely dispersed by a stream of air generated by thermal currents, which warms up.

It’s as simple as that.

The Dreiseitl studio was able to repeat the performance in the IBA presentation year, 1999. The city of Gelsenkirchen wanted to find a long­term operator for the tower – until it was destroyed by arsonists in autumn 2000.


A circular eddy starts to rise from the depths of the cooling tower.


Vapour, mist and smoke remind us of natural and industrial phenomena in the Ruhr.


Spectators can follow the presentation from the glass platform.


Water as an open system

Water as an open systemWater as an open system

Water as an open system

Water as an open system

of the cooling tower






Water as an open systemWater as an open system

Updated: October 7, 2015 — 11:27 am