Mist opportunities: When water is part of the architecture

In the realm of outlandish architectural fantasies, a building made out of mist surely has to rank near the top.

But this bizarre-sounding concept, dubbed the Blur Building, is no fantasy at all. It's under construction in Switzerland, and is one of five architectural projects featured in "Architecture + Water," a new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center.

The vision of Diller + Scofidio, the only architects ever to win a MacArthur "genius" award, the Blur Building is the most fanciful of the five, but each has a unique way of tackling a tricky equation: how to effectively merge function and form when water is a major structural factor.

Land and water have always had a visual relationship, says Joseph Rosa, the center's former curator, who brought the exhibit to PIttsburgh before becoming curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It first appeared at the Van Alen Institute in New York.

Mr. Rosa calls the water-to-landscape line "an edge condition." Hurricanes erode beaches, water levels naturally rise and fall ... the edges change. But according to Rosa, "People always assume the landscape is a fixed condition."

"Architecture + Water" examines instances in which "architecture and water play together" in an attempt to expand existing notions about building on or near water. Too many urban planners trying to combine the two fail to go beyond the merely visual, Rosa says. Yet opportunities for doing so exist in many cities - particularly those like Pittsburgh, which is trying to transform former industrial sites along its rivers into recreational, retail, and residential areas.

In each of the exhibit's five projects, water is an integral part of the design. Though the exhibit is handicapped by lack of finished-product images, it gives clear ideas of each project.

The prototype Quattro Villas in The Hague in the Netherlands, designed by MDRDV, are built over water and raised 40 feet to preserve public shoreline views and water access, unlike homes built on stilts that block both.

"It's looking at water as a floating element," says Rosa. "It's supposed to make people think outside of the box, instead of building horrible condos at water's edge."

The nearly completed Yokohama Port Terminal in Japan, designed by Foreign Office Architects, integrates the pier into its surroundings, including two parks, and provides more public space of its own.

With convertible space underneath for retail use and the park/plaza area on top, the port offers options beyond a freight- and passenger-ship terminal. The use of interlocking steel plates instead of vertical and horizontal supports removes linear restrictions and allows the structure's shape to blend with the bay's shoreline and city vista.

The vintage-meets-modern Blackfriars Station in London, designed by Alsop Architects as part of a plan to add mainline rail links throughout the city, integrates a new train station with a 19th-century bridge in an area undergoing urban renewal. It uses glass, aluminum, and carbon-fiber roof panels to provide cover with an open feeling.

Blending park and industry is the goal at the Lake Whitney Water Treatment Plant in Hamden, Conn., designed by architect Steven Holl and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.

The plant is integrated into a 12-acre park of streams, gardens, ponds, and meadows (reflecting filtration stages) and a nearby rooftop landscape. The building is a long, stainless-steel tube shaped like an inverted water droplet. Rosa says the structure does with machinery what the land does by natural processes: absorb and purify water.

The most intriguing of the five is the Blur Building, done little justice by an architectural model that looks like a thick, suspended ice oval. The real Blur, under construction as a temporary attraction for the 2002 Swiss Expo, is intended to look like a cloud suspended above a lake. This will be achieved by forcing lake water through 12,500 high-pressure spray nozzles attached to a framework of steel cables and rods. The mist will envelope the framework in what will appear to be an oblong sphere on which images will be projected at night. "Inside" are walking areas and one enclosed space.

Even more surreal are the "braincoats" - the sensor-laden cloaks, individually programmed for each visitor, that will reflect each wearer's response to another by reading body chemicals and turning colors like mood rings.

By stripping away the usual ways we judge one another - appearance, clothing - "it's exploring possibilities in the way people interact," Rosa says.

• "Architecture + Water" is on display through May 12. For information, call 412-622-3131 or go to www.cmoa.org.

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