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5-yrsBy Mark Holden

‘What’s the use of knowing about history?’  That’s the question Mark Holden asked to start his Currents column in the July 2008 issue.  ‘For many of us, the answer to that question seems so obvious that it comes as a shock to find out just how many people in the watershaping and landscape fields don’t grasp the all-encompassing significance of our collective past – but it shouldn’t.

‘Using my own career as an example, . . . I confess that I waltzed through more than a few early years as an aspiring landscape architect and watershaper in blissful ignorance of the history of much of anything, let alone art or architecture.’  He continued:


[B]ecoming literate about history redefined me:  Overnight, everything I was doing in the here and now was somehow being defined by connections I was making to various cultures and design traditions.’


‘In explaining all this to students, I often cite the example of Frank Lloyd Wright.  It’s no knock on a towering architectural genius . . . to say that he did not “invent” low, wide rooflines, for example, or that he wasn’t the first to use interesting natural materials.  Still, he’s widely credited as an innovator in these and other areas by people who have never been exposed to the work of those who inspired him.’


‘I start by considering the ancient Greeks and Romans and how they altered the entirety of the way we look at designed and built objects.  Their graceful columns and arches, their pioneering work with concrete and other now-common materials of construction have all contributed to the advancement of what we consider our basic tools of the trade.’


‘Working through this sort of discussion with my students has led me to believe that my fellow educators are truly being remiss when they overlook watershaping as a concept in presenting the grand context of historical design traditions.  And this blindness becomes absurd when you consider that the origins, the ancient roots of watershaping can be traced directly to irrigation and provision of potable water – keys to development of civilization as we know it.’


‘Tracing that developmental line through millennia until we reach the present day, we can see the genius at work in modern watershapes that still reveals the influence of these longstanding traditions.  Consider the legendary Modernist architect Ricardo Legorreta, who was inspired by ancient Moorish design as well as even more ancient Roman aqueducts in creating many of his most visionary works.’


‘No matter how powerful my argument seems to me, someone always asks, “Why should I care what pools looked like in 2600 B.C.?”  My answer for these skeptics is plain:  You are more than welcome to keep on crafting the same pools you did in 1985, but designers who truly want to distinguish themselves and carry the torches sparked by Lawrence Halprin or Pirro Ligorio need to open their eyes and minds to the history of watershaping.’  


‘[L]et’s consider Villa d’Este, the grand Renaissance estate in Tivoli, Italy.  This property features countless forms of weirs, spouts, streams, water chains and even the auditory thrill of a water organ.  There is absolutely no way a landscape architect or watershaper could avoid being inspired after seeing such multifarious manipulations of water.  You can travel there in person or simply study the place in books:  The immediate result is that you see how this one place has served as the foundation for the work of hundreds of modern designers.’


‘Mining all these riches takes work,’ he concluded.  ‘[M]y aim is to transform landscape architecture students into what I call “water architects” by giving them some understanding of how and why watershaping started.’

Is Mark’s deep and abiding sense of watershaping’s history something you’ve allowed into your own design processes?  Education along these lines was (and still is) a mission WaterShapes shared with him, and we would all be interested to hear how it has played out on a practical level in the intervening years – so please do share your thoughts below!


Mark Holden is a landscape architect, pool contractor and teacher who owns and operates Holdenwater, a design/build/consulting firm based in Fullerton, Calif., and is founder of Artistic Resources & Training, a school for watershape designers and builders.  He may be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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