The Art and Science of Moving Water

Flowform designs make cleaner, fresher water

| July-August 2000

From mist in the air to life-giving rain, water flows. It courses through us—as spit, tears, sweat, urine. It runs off streets and fields to rivers and oceans, where it evaporates again into mist. It is the basis for life, yet its essential nature remains a mystery.

Ancient cultures on the Euphrates and Nile rivers believed that water thrived in a wild, chaotic state, then was divided into male and female forces, representing fresh and salt waters. These merging forces created the world. Yet our culture continues to use this gift as a conduit for everything we produce and flush away.

In the 1930s a German scientist, Theodor Schwenk, investigated water, hoping to improve European municipal water supplies. He began researching the relationship between rhythms and water movement and sought the help of English sculptor John Wilkes. They created the first flowform, a vessel that directs water into a pattern similar to that of blood in the heart or eddies in a stream. These symmetrical, sculpted basins, formed of reconstituted rock or concrete, recreate water's natural movements.

In a flowform, water enters a chaos basin, flows down a channel, starts a vigorous figure-eight pattern, then exits into the next basin. A train of vortices develops as the layers, or streams, of water move in the same direction at different speeds. The vortices increase the surface area in movement, boosting water aeration and making it cleaner and fresher.

Wilkes refined his designs and created the sevenfold metamorphic sequence: seven basins of various sizes and shapes that mimic the pattern of a compound leaf. Scientists continue to research how water is physically changed, and if flowform-aerated water is different from regularly aerated water.

Flowforms are working elements of art at Stensund Folk College in Jarna, Sweden, where they have been part of wastewater treatments for 20 years. Forms for Life, a New Zealand company, installed flowform sculptures in several cities. In an Amsterdam bank, flowforms are integral to the heating, cooling, and humidifying system. Contemplative gardens and meditation spaces with flowforms enhance spiritual renewal. And some farmers combine flowforms with composted manure and herbs to make natural fertilizers.