If it weren’t for her love of baths and, therefore, the fascination for ancient bathing places, Jane Withers may not have been doing the work she is now on—how design can help water conservation and ecological sanitation. While having a leisurely bath maybe a luxury for many, Withers believes that the loss of such bathing places has made us less sensitive to water and, even, devalue it.
Withers, 57, is passionate about the subject and has dedicated much of her career in curating design works that provocates people to discuss issues about water, and maybe in their own ways conserve it. After all, most of the regions in the world are already showing signs of becoming waterless soon.
At her London-based studio, Withers and her team research on water-related projects. For instance, her recent collaboration is with Loo Café x Water Loop, a project, funded by the Telangana government and the British Council, which addresses the issue of ecological sanitation. The shedded, wall-less cafe, which will open next year in Hyderabad, aims at creating discussion and awareness about off grid waterless sanitation with the aim of people adopting it in places where there are no system of proper sanitation through demonstrating the workings of such a toilet.
Not surprisingly, the Café will be water self sufficient as it will capture rain water and also treat toilet water and waste. “The Loo Café is all about—you eat, you shit; its basic human systems and linking them to the city’s systems and how you deal with these inputs and outputs. Only a third of the world has centralized sewage system. We need to look at off-grid systems and try them," she says.
Wither recalls a trip to a city called Bath in the UK that piqued her interest in bathing places when she was a child. “I remember when I was about 6, going to the city of Bath, a city of Roman baths in the UK, having an amazing 18th century bath. Not surprisingly, I went there expecting to swim in the Roman bath. When I got there, I learnt that you are not allowed to swim in it. It seemed ridiculous to walk around the edge, looking at this beautiful stone bath with steaming natural water. We have somehow lost any connection to be able to enjoy using it," she says on the sidelines of the Hyderabad Design Week.
This longing led to Withers becoming determined to “bath my way around the world", be it walking three hours to a Roman bath in the middle of nowhere in Tunisia or the Japanese bath or the Turkish Hamams. “We know the famous bath towns but we have forgotten many of the others. There are loads of little ones particularly in Italy. They are almost deserted but beautiful. So, it’s a personal passion. Show me a hot spring and I will jump in," she says laughing.
While discovering lesser known bathing springs quenches her personal need to connect with water the way the ancient civilizations did, at work too she takes inspiration from a lot to ancient water cultures because “so many of the things made more sense".
Two decades ago, she read a book that explored bathing and bathing cultures, about how Romans enjoyed afternoon baths and Ottoman hamams. “Now our idea of luxury is a power shower in a little sterile commune cubicle. So, I thought we have lost a lot of connection with water. There is an interesting book by philosopher and activist Ivan Illich called H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness about how we have lost any sense of connection or relation to water and we need to understand it and then we can conserve it. Once you think more about, it becomes natural to treat it more responsibly," says Withers.
The use of plastic bottled water is an example of this loss. Where earlier, there were varied materials like glass, terracotta, rock crystals, etc., associated with water either changing the quality, cooling it or storing it. “There was an amazing language of design around water, which has been made so banal and cheap," she says. She, however, understands that due to lack of alternatives it sometimes gets difficult to avoid plastic bottled water, especially while travelling. That’s where design can help, she believes.
Although she relies a lot on the historical context of water usage and storage, she’s careful not to discard contemporary approach to the problem as well. “Young designers are thinking things differently. I like the combination because it’s not that you go back to the past, it’s that you take those ideas as source for inspiration and innovation today," she states.
For instance, the work of the recent winners of the A/D/O competition called Indus project is designed by Bio-ID Lab, a team of scientists and architects, looks at waste water cleaning for artisans in rural India because there is a so much groundwater pollution.
“Obviously, there are systems which do this but they tend to be expensive and technology reliant. These people made a ceramic tile made locally and has algae in the veins like leaves. The algae captures heavy metals in the water, maybe from textile dying or jewellery production, stopping it going into the ground water. It looks amazing and very clever to have in a village. It could pass off as sculpture," she explains.
Similarly, the 100 tank project in Chennai or the use of terracotta in not only cooling water but cooling buildings or using fire hydrants as drinking fountains in New York. Also since designers can’t operate in silos, a cross disciplinary approach is required. So, in her studio, they often ask scientists to set the agenda for the new water projects which her team will work on. “The last one in New York ‘Water Futures’ was done after a year-long research programme with Columbia University’s Water Centre. They said we need to look at off-grid systems because centralized ones are failing.
I see Loo Café x Water Loop as a real demonstration of that. How do you make public toilets which people will want to go to," she says.
In her personal space, Withers has been consciously trying to reduce her water footprint, although there is still a long way to go. She does this by sourcing locally grown produce, ensuring she doesn’t have imported food items that have vast quantities of water footprint from countries that are water challenged like beans from Kenya. And being careful of what she plants in her garden.
“I use Mediterranean plants like oleanders, fig, olives and hedges that don’t require vast amounts of water. They can adapt to a hot summer," she says.
But this is from an individual level. Considering how complex water issues are, even if individuals desire, they would be powerless if the system doesn’t change. “People do what’s within their power. That’s why water consciousness needs to be built in the industries. I don’t think the pressure should be put on individuals. I think that’s often the wrong way around it," she says, adding that’s why the Loo Café is interesting as it will push people to react, which will lead to conversation and hopefully action.