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Arturo Vittori's Warka sculptures gift a functional solution for water woes


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Ethiopia hosts one of two current, functional Warka towers that remain in a testing, research and design phase. - COURTESY ARCHITECTURE AND VISION
  • Courtesy Architecture and Vision
  • Ethiopia hosts one of two current, functional Warka towers that remain in a testing, research and design phase.

Arturo Vittori thinks your LEED certification sucks.

Ask the 44-year-old director of the Italian design firm Architecture and Vision about environmental efficiency, and he'll tell you that "buildings should produce energy" and "cars should clean the air."

Forget about our tinier carbon footprints. What have we done to truly assist nature and our fellow humans lately?

Recently, Vittori earned acclaim for his WarkaWater project in Ethiopia, a striking 40-foot, woven bamboo tower with a condensation-gathering mesh inside, creating potable water from rain, fog and dew. You can read all about the simple science behind it in a multitude of international press clips, or watch the recent episode of National Geographic Breakthrough which featured Vittori. Come March 18, Vittori will venture to Taiwan as one of three finalists for the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design's World Design Impact Prize.

Multiple versions, including a Warka House, remain in the design phase, with only two working models (one in Italy and one in Ethiopia) currently providing data via functional and social monitoring. Two more should come online in 2016 (another in Ethiopia and one in India) and by 2019 Vittori hopes to have blueprints for open-sourcing, so people (many likely sponsored by NGOs or government initiatives) may begin constructing their own artful purifiers for as little as $550 — a steal compared to the prohibitive costs of drilling wells.

According to specs on A&V's website — which looks a bit like vintage 1950s advertisements, in which space-age conveniences and cool gadgetry seem like a foregone conclusion — six people, assisted by two pack animals, can construct a Warka tower in just five days, using mostly local materials, such as bamboo. Plus, no scaffolding, cranes or ladders are required for assembly: Individual segments are lashed together and then stacked for a total weight of around 200 pounds.

Warkas offer site-specific solutions to communities in need. The villages in Ethiopia where Vittori has opted to pilot his inventions are places where women and children must walk for miles to collect water — which isn't clean — perpetuating a poverty cycle that keeps children from attending school and kills a great number of people through waterborne diseases.

With the World Health Organization citing 1.1 billion people (1 in 7) living without access to an improved drinking-water source, Vittori says he got to thinking, "we go to the moon, and I've been working on a moon base and developing technology with NASA and the European Space Agency. We work on how to keep the water clean, how to recycle it and regenerate it. It's technology that's 50 years old and working perfectly. So why don't we use our know-how and try to help these people? Ethiopia is much easier than Mars as an environment."

Towers are assembled in pieces, requiring no ladders or cranes. - COURTESY ARCHITECTURE AND VISION
  • Courtesy Architecture and Vision
  • Towers are assembled in pieces, requiring no ladders or cranes.

Sadly, for the average American — used to long, hot showers and toilets flushed with potable water — Ethiopia does feel just as far away as Mars, and its people's desperate need remains out of sight. Having just come from a mid-day meal before our meeting inside Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space, Vittori's even criticizing the average person's energy-wasting need for ice in their water glass, especially on a snowy day in the middle of winter. Despite Al Gore "and all the TED talks," he says, "everything seems to be pretty much the same."

And that's why along with product, building and transportation design projects, A&V also engages in research and development "with projects that explore applications of emerging technologies together with ancient traditions to find better solutions to contemporary needs."

Which leads us to a village called Dorse in Southern Ethiopia, where inhabitants for generations have already been constructing "incredible houses," some taller than Warka towers, out of bamboo, says Vittori.

Dorse is also an example of where the art approach enters the picture. Guest curator Holly Parker — who has organized the larger, clean-water-themed Hydro-Logic exhibit, of which a (non-functioning) Warka tower model, or "ambassador" as Vittori calls it, is the central fixture — says Vittori is all about "aesthetics, it's totally form and function coming together — it's social design."

In this case, that's because warka trees, which bear edible figs, also act as community gathering points for Ethiopians, who teach classes and congregate for many purposes under them. (Unfortunately they're also a firewood source, so under threat.) Vittori drew inspiration from them and intends for people to gather under his towers in the same manner, just as Europeans convene around public fountains.

"If you go under a tree, it's a similar feeling of freshness," he says. "We want to attract people. Because when they're there, they keep it well. The kids play and read books. It becomes a community place, like a church."

Forcing condensation with a Warka tower relies on well-known science principles of temperature and air and water exchange. - COURTESY ARCHITECTURE AND VISION
  • Courtesy Architecture and Vision
  • Forcing condensation with a Warka tower relies on well-known science principles of temperature and air and water exchange.

By incorporating elements like canvas canopies, particularly on the home designs, Warkas too can be a source of shade, while also holding humidity and combating evaporation to function optimally. But getting back to those "incredible" houses, which appear like giant thatched beehives sprouting from the earth, Vittori knew that his Warkas must be pleasing to the eye.

"If it is beautiful, it's also sustainable. If something is beautiful, you keep it, and you maintain it. By maintaining it, it becomes sustainable," he says. "What they build at the moment in the traditional way are beautiful houses. Everything they do is beautiful. They don't produce ugliness, because they're exposed to nature, and nature is beautiful."

Problem No. 1: Those houses are disappearing, because "there's only one person in the village left who is capable to build houses like this. If we lose him, it's gone." Problem No. 2: According to Vittori, China imports corrugated sheet metal for cheap, and people are building unsightly structures with it instead because the modernity attracts them. But it's not sustainable, and Vittori believes China will later raise prices, but people won't be able to go back to the bamboo because the knowledge will be lost.

With Warka houses, Vittori wants to use modern technology to improve design of the ancient huts while adding the rain-, fog- and condensation-capture ability to generate clean water too. Then, he says, "you can build an entire village with towers and houses collaborating," teaching skills and creating economy along the way. Also, "it answers the question of how to provide water for a larger community."

That remains a question, because one tower currently produces up to just 25 gallons of water a day. In this first six months of monitoring, Vittori's team quickly noticed the need for a water manager from the village, "because what they do is go there early in the morning, and the first one takes all the water. But not for themselves. They give the water to their livestock."

Hydro-logic features both a mini replica and tall 'ambassador.' - DUSTIN GLATZ
  • Dustin Glatz
  • Hydro-logic features both a mini replica and tall 'ambassador.'

The animals, though also crucial to daily survival, could of course drink the dirtier ground water were they somehow marched to it. But Vittori says our Western understanding of clean water "doesn't exist in them — for them it's not dirty" so a secondary educational component will have to follow in the wake of each Warka's construction.

For this the WarkaWater nonprofit will require more funding, above that which they already need to finish R&D, more modeling and additional test sites. They raised $41,000 on Kickstarter in 2015, mostly from U.S.-based backers, and currently have an Indiegogo campaign underway, seeking $50,000. Part of Vittori's goal in building this first "ambassador" Warka model on U.S. soil (a coup for Parker, who was "persistent," luring him ahead of the likes of Google and the United Nations, he says) is also building awareness and fundraising through university and arts channels, including galleries and museums that will pay to host the model and informational exhibit.

And though there's such a strong eye toward the aesthetics in these academic settings, he reminds that "this is a humanitarian project, it's not developed for making profits." But the sooner WarkaWater can net upwards of $3 million, the sooner Warka fabrications can multiply internationally, reaching those in need. Then, "when the development is more solid," he says, he can release the blueprints and "people can start building it and giving us support and improving it," a process he likens to regular Apple computer updates. "The design will never end. It will go on forever as long as people use it. Nature took such a long time to design and create things for performance. A tree wasn't designed once. It took millions of years to become what it is now."

So rather than just applying space-age technology to primitive applications, he reverses that equation and seeks what the natural world can teach us. For instance many plants condense their own water from the air, like cacti. A 2007 A&V project called AirTree created a public sculpture using moss to clean pollution from the air in congested cities. Someday, we could incorporate Warkas into skyscrapers, he believes, informed by lighter and thereby more sustainable building materials. Even "agriculture is a part architecture," he says, citing lessons learned by growing up without running water or electricity, outside Rome in the tiny village of Bomarzo, where he still lives and now produces his own energy, along with olive oil.

Arturo Vittori believes "water belongs to all of us." - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Arturo Vittori believes "water belongs to all of us."

"As an architect you have all these responsibilities," he says. Warkas are just one of his creative responses. But true to his call for objects that give back, "a Warka is a piece of architecture that's producing resources."

Like Matt Damon in The Martian, we'll all have to "science the shit out of this" to survive many of our impending environmental predicaments. But we'll have an even better chance if we remember to employ art as one of our primary design tools.


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