Water Works: Science-Infused Courses Underscore Sustainable Design, Artistic Expression

Last month the humanities and sciences division at California College of the Arts presented Water Works, an exhibition on the Oakland campus that showcased collaborative and independent student projects that featured water as the running theme.

The works in the exhibition represent the four studio courses that comprise Water Works, an academic effort to implement scientific instruction into the studio curricula of the four academic disciplines—architecture, design, fine arts, writing. Collectively, the theme-based courses promote the college's newest initiative: "science at CCA."

Water Works Goals

The fall 2010 Water Works courses all centered on the common theme of "water." Students were challenged to bring scientific ideas directly into their projects of art, design, and writing. Some addressed ecological concerns such as water usage and conservation; others offered an artistic representation of such research, and more.

Additionally, each course had a scientist "embedded" as a guest lecturer to assist students with the research and inspire fact-based, cognitive approaches to complement their projects. (CCA intends to offer a set of themed interdisciplinary courses each fall.)

The Water Works "Summit"

Following the opening reception, CCA's first-ever tenure-track science instructor, Christine Metzger, a geologist and Critical Studies assistant professor, moderated a special discussion in Nahl Hall at which the instructors of each of the water-themed studio courses discussed the successes and challenges of the projects. Metzger had participated as a guest lecturer in two of the studio courses: "About Rivers and Hydrology" and "About the Water Footprint of Cotton" in the Architecture and Fashion Design studios, respectively.

"Participating in Water Works introduced me to the creative and interdisciplinary learning environment of CCA," said Metzger. "It also fostered new connections between my own interests and student work. Blurring the lines between science and art can only strengthen the presentation of environmental issues and concerns, highlighted by the student work in the Water Works exhibit."

According to humanities and sciences Director Rachel Schreiber, "By 'embedding' scientists directly into studio courses, students at CCA have begun to see that science is everywhere and that it informs their practices as architects, artists, designers, and writers. Rather than seeing science merely as a requirement to be filled, our program allows them to experience science as a method of inquiry directly related to the work they care most about.

"I have mentioned this program to colleagues at other schools, and have received much positive feedback regarding this model. 'Integrative learning' and 'interdisciplinarity' are key phrases in current pedagogy; Water Works put both into action. We look forward to continuing this program in future years!"

Dominick Tracy, associate director of the humanities and sciences division, concurred: "To me the goals of this initiative were to pull back the curtain so that the students could engage with the science as agents and form a more interactive relationship with the scientific data and methodology than they might in a straight science course outside their discipline."

The following are encapsulations of the instructors' presentations and findings:


Director of Architecture Ila Berman selected associate professor David Fletcher, founding principal of Fletcher Studio, to lead the "Urban Riparian Ecologies" studio course, focusing on the role of the urbanized watershed in the context of the many competing interests and agendas: ecological restoration, resource management, and revitalization.

The course emphasized how today's industrialized river systems are being rediscovered throughout the world as zones of great potential and development. The 12 students in the course were required to research specific river patterns (the Los Angeles River; the Fez River in Morocco; the St. Lawrence River; the Wadi Hanifa watershed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and the South Platte River at the Cherry Creek junction in Colorado) and apply geographic information system (GIS) mapping to project 100 years into the future, with the stated goal of addressing resource scarcity.

Students were challenged with superimposing their detailed mapping in order to measure a region's water dependency and identifying existing infrastructures. From this research, students worked toward the goal of creating revitalization agendas that are concerned with land-use transformations in marginalized watersheds that result in economic development and environmental enhancement.

Science Fiction or Innovative Architectural Solution?

A touring exhibition, Out of Water, was simultaneously presented in the Water Works exhibition. It featured works by two CCA Architecture faculty members—assistant professor Andrew Kudless and David Fletcher—and similarly addressed the themes of water and sustainability.

Kudless was on hand to discuss a related project—though not one of the Water Works studio courses—that was included as part of the exhibition. The project, which Kudless admits is only a "speculative proposal," is a design that implements the idea of "water banking," similar to "money banking," meaning stockpiling a resource for future use. In this case, water would be the resource.

Kudless admits his inspiration was derived from the 1984 science-fiction film Dune, which he credits for introducing the idea of an entire ecosystem having to deal with water scarcity. He therefore devised a method of subterranean desert living in which stratified cellular pockets could contain entire communities in a kind of "recursive suborganization of space," beneath which water could be banked.

Fashion Design

Under the leadership of Fashion Design assistant professor Lynda Grose, "Fashion Design 3: Sustainability" was structured around a series of projects that allowed time for students to conduct their own research and apply theory and research to practice.

Guest lectures during the course were given by research specialist Don Monk (UC Davis), Critical Studies assistant professor Christine Metzger, and Reza Hosseini, manager of environmental site and compliance assessment at Levi Strauss. The course addressed the following questions:

  • What are the social and environmental ramifications of our design decisions, and how can we mitigate them through our ideas?
  • What new roles for design emerge in the context of sustainability?
  • How can we give visual form to new ways of thinking about, living with, and engaging in fashion?
  • How will the effects of climate change impact water flows and the world map of fiber production and processing?
  • How must fashion, textiles, and fashion designers shift in anticipation of these inevitable changes?

Grose emphasized the benefit of requiring students to do their own research. "Each student had a unique perspective and was able to engage in essential critical thinking." She added, "[The students] engaged with the scientists directly, allowing for insights to emerge and complexities to become known through collaborative thinking. In a Q&A with 'the expert scientist,' this type of synergy is rarely experienced.

"As the students witnessed the different perspectives of each scientist and measured their own perspectives against them, they were able to recognize the larger systems and influences with which each discipline works. This prompted reflection and critical thinking; they saw themselves as peers working with and able to contribute to scientific views.

"To me that spoke to the goals of this initiative: pulling back the curtain so the students could engage with the science as agents and form a more interactive relationship with the scientific data and methodology than they might in a straightforward science course outside their discipline."

The scientists were also energized and impressed with the level of enthusiasm from the students. Being in a studio format they also saw how the information they provided could have direct application. And the studio tutors also gained from having scientists in class to support students in their learning. "It made the science part of the studio curriculum for sustainability more robust and relevant," Grose affirmed.

About the Fashion Design Projects

The student projects addressed such sustainability-related issues as preserving the life cycle of jeans (42 percent of a pair of jeans' longevity is lost due to consumer washing); wet processing, which is the process of dying fabrics using water that has less salinity; general consumer care to simultaneously reduce water waste while prolonging the life of the fabric.

The challenge involved questioning current social mores about hygiene and addressing them in ways that promote less impactful solutions.

Students delivered one creative solution after another, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • the use of crystallized chalk and antimicrobial herbs to lift stains and freshen clothes to reduce laundering
  • inserting strategic copper elements within the fabric to counteract against bacteria and odors
  • applying laser-cut feather-like patterning of fabric to create breathable, smell-resistant garments
  • integrating diagonal panels into a dress that can be removed and washed when stained—as opposed to washing the entire garment
  • printing signs onto the garment to inform wearers that invisible actions such as nanotechnology were used in the making so they need only wipe the garment to keep it clean

By the conclusion of the four-week studio course, students recognized the expanded role for designers: using design to apply theory to practice; inspiring change, influencing consumer behavior; and making actions toward sustainability within the reach of many.

Fine Arts

"How Water Flows," the interdisciplinary studio course taught by Painting/Drawing chair Kim Anno, saw students examining the phenomenon of water at the intersection of art, science, and climate justice, and in particular how water is a fulcrum for the enormous changes in weather.

Students camped in the Santa Cruz Mountains as part of the studio to explore how artists can imagine new ways of thinking about the ebbs and flows of water in light of climate change, scarce resources, and the dynamics of global capitalism as well as the possibilities for sustainability, activism, and climate justice.

The goal of the field trip was to study and measure the meandering of rivers—how water flows and how rain flow affects landscapes. Discussions included the benefits of desalination—even at the micro, or individual, levels—and included political exchanges wherein the topic of "water as the fulcrum of climate change" again emerged as a common theme.

Leonard Sklar, UC Berkeley faculty manager at the Experimental Geomorphology Laboratory and associate professor of geology at San Francisco State University, served as the embedded scientist for the studio course.

Sklar is nationally recognized for his research that includes fluvial, hill slope, and tectonic geomorphology; engineering geology; hydrology; and ecosystem restoration. Additionally, Sklar is the designer of the huge wheel rock tumbler at the UC Berkeley Geology Lab that attracts visitors from across the globe.

Yet the scientist offered something extra that the students didn't expect; Sklar was a professional jazz musician—tenor saxophone—in New York before becoming a scientist. Anno describes Sklar as "the perfect partner" because he understands the practice of making art/culture and science.

Of particular interest is Anno's description of her connection to the experience: "The sense of experimentation and faith in the journey is what the students and I shared with the science students and the scientists."

About the Fine Arts Projects

Anno was thrilled to have her students partake in Water Works. Students were asked to create works of art that demonstrated specific themes from their research. Shelby Hawthorne's Contamination of Life project illustrated the residual effects of motor oils on water by aligning a vertical display of glass bowls that allowed the tainted water to drip through the bowls, simultaneously creating a soothing and aesthetically pleasing visual display yet also illustrating the toxic condition of the oil-tainted water.

Andrew Guiyangco created "Water Spirit", a daunting over-sized head made entirely of plastic bags. Emily Cunningham's Parasites featured photography; Mariana Garibay's sculpture Water Offering was made from knitted yarn and placed in salt water tanks to form glowing colored crystals; Ingrid Wander made a video called One Year Ago; and Ramiro Hernandez created Water Line, an acrylic and gold leaf box with a water pump in its center.

"My students benefited by seeing scientists working in a lab, or out in the field, with the idea of trial and error in their ideas and outcomes, and the fact that this was parallel to making art," revealed Anno. "They also had a place to talk about their own anxieties about water issues and climate change, and ways to interact with society around these issues. They became cognizant of their own power to make a social statement about environmental issues while respecting the parameters of their artistic disciplines."

At the post-reception Water Works discussion, Anno shared with the audience that she is currently making a film that captures the "futile, practical, unexpected consequences" of our relationship to water. Watch the in-progress Men and Women and Water Cities.

Writing and Literature

Writing and Literature and MFA Program in Writing associate professor Eric E. Olson led the “Literature Forms: Fiction” studio course. Olson encouraged students to explore the narrative possibilities in both the metaphorical and literal qualities of water—from the hydrologic cycle to the cycling of water within our bodies—and from tidal exchange to economic exchange.

Additionally, students were instructed to investigate how scientific discourse can inform narrative structures and how the natural world can inform our understanding of culture.

About the Writing and Literature Project

The resulting project was Water (fictions), a compendium of student writings.

Olson admitted attaining the strategic goals he set forth were more challenging than expected; he was, however, clued in to identifying particular truths about the challenge of working with writers: "Fiction about water is never about water; it's about us."

The Future of Water (Works)

Examining how to sustain effective water distribution and reusage is a creative process as well as a scientific one—a combination of thought processes that is integral to the science at CCA initiative.

Due to the success of Water Works and the continued need to address the ecological relationship between water and sustainability, Provost Mark Breitenberg recently confirmed the science at CCA initiative will again be offered in the fall, with the intention of readdressing water as the common theme among the courses.


Visit the CCA Flickr site to view additional images of the Water Works exhibition.