Spare aqueous aesthetics…
In England, the change to a romantic naturalism in landscape design in the later eighteenth century put a temporary end to the grandoise artificial displays in fountains that had earlier been the norm. The nineteenth century was preoccupied with plumbing, but the taste for grandeur returned momentarily with the waterworks of the famous London Crystal Palace of 1851; so much more expensive than the building itself that they threatened the Exposition with bankruptcy and signaled the end of a long, aqueous road.
While Western civilization concerned itself with water in motion, the aquatic embellishments of the buildings and gardens of the East had followed a different course. Their designers would have been surprised to know, as John James decreed to the English, that “flat Water … being always quiet and in the same State… is no great Beauty.” The beauty they sought was gentle and placid. The effects they created were artfully natural and heavy with symbolism in the carefully constructed garden ponds and lakes of China and Japan: quietly evocative of the flat, reflecting sheets of Mogul palaces and tombs; and solemnly impressive in the great temple tanks of India, where the rivers, considered messengers of god, were diverted for the double purpose of purification and divine communication. No monumental sprays or falls disturbed the calculated serenity or the harmonious relationship of building and image, of the tangible and unreal. Moving water in the East traveled without bombast, through calm channels or down gently inclined, carved metal slabs. Nor has anyone understood better the concentrated psychological effectiveness of a single crystal-clear jet bubbling from a small silver lotus, or a shallow stream flowing softly through a garden court.
At the same time that Italian torrents were reaching their roaring apogee, the architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in northern India had devloped a water art of quiet elegance; marble monuments, like the classic Taj Mahal at Agra, were mirrored in man-made lagoons, so that substance merged with shimmering reflection. The Red Fort at Delhi by Shah Jahan incorporated water in one of the most remarkable architectural compositions ever realized: it flowed through the center of open courts and roofed pavillions as a series of flat streams and pools, sometimes exposed, sometimes underground; murmurous and light reflecting, it was the building’s soul.
The lesson of Eastern ways with water- of simplicity, subtlety, and sensuous understatement- was brought to the West by the Moorish invasions; most notably in the exquisite, delicately conceived water courts of the fourteenth century Alhambra in Spain.