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Water Towers: Designing a Home for the Arid Lands Institute

By Anne Smith, Doug Bergert, and Alec Sands. From our Ideas + Buildings Blog.

Every year, Perkins+Will’s Design Leadership Council (DLC) holds a firmwide competition soliciting responses from our emerging talent to a topical design problem in a rapid-fire, two day charrette. This year, the DLC asked respondents to design a ‘House of Retention’ along the Los Angeles River, a home for the Arid Lands Institute. Check out the entire brief and all the responses at dlc.perkinswill.com. Here are a few stories from those selected by the jury. First up, this year’s winners:

We go to water for delight and beauty. Even the most pragmatic water infrastructure has a purposeful quality that resonates with our love of the littoral.

Leading up to the DLC competition’s launch on September 12th, we had received enough pre-competition hints in emails to ensure we were mentally prepared for a ‘water project’ somewhere in California.

Friday evening, we received the project brief. Reading it over, we learned of an institution we had never heard of before – Arid Lands Institute. Wanting to discover more, we tore through their website and discovered a particularly evocative moment within their Mission, Vision, Values video  that created a focus for our own study and later dictated our approach toward the project site:

We leave Los Angeles by traveling out the lines of infrastructure that support it. We have built classes in a community partnership around this topic. It is often the first time a student’s been asked to handle water as not just something that needs to be conserved, but something to be really celebrated.

This statement from Hadley Arnold, Co-Director of the Arid Lands Institute, brought to mind an image of determined architecture students marching out of the building and directly into the Los Angeles riverbed, upstream to the Arroyo Seco Creek, and the San Gabriel Mountains. The space for this access is manifest in the project as a tunnel, linking the river to the building’s lower level – providing direct river access to students and researchers.

We used this as a device to frame our own design: Our solution would include a space to access the river, manifest in the project as a tunnel, linking the river to the building’s lower level and providing direct river access to students and researchers. Throughout our process, this potent image of direct access to water was a key driver of the building’s form and organization, whether running the river directly into the building or presenting visitors with multiple opportunities to observe water research in action.

Our team was happy to move the design forward with conversation, coffee, Pinterest, and sketching. We spent Friday and Saturday discussing the most beautiful ways to explore and celebrate water. Our pin-up wall blossomed with images of Peruvian fog-catchers, 18th century Breton wash houses, 9th century Indian stepwells, 6th century Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul. A list of water treatment technologies was initiated. We began to educate ourselves about Lincoln Heights and East L.A. 


Inspiration came from many sources, from the digital (Pinterest) to a good old-fashioned pin-up wall

Saturday morning our work gravitated toward the development of a set of towering water vessels that accommodate diverse forms of water treatment and research, offering opportunities for students and the community to directly engage the mystery and beauty of water. We worked to ensure we could support best practices for restoration of our riparian site. We identified areas for stormwater collection and surface parking. The top surface of the site was conceptually peeled away to articulate a roof that has the capacity to capture rainwater and provide access to program areas below. As the design evolved, the trapezoidal cross-section of the channelized river reverberates across the project. We’re intrigued by the numerous, historical manifestations of this water-containment form. We see it in stepwells, rain-gauges, cisterns, and many other collection devices. In anticipation of the river’s restoration, we embed this figure into the building to recognize its history as a flood-control mechanism.

By Sunday, mid-morning, we realized we had not drawn a thing.  Over a cup of coffee we assessed our pin-up wall and began distilling it down to the most essential ideas. We made a list of what we need to communicate. As the model evolved, we began mining it for views. The rest of the day (and night) we drew, developed, tweaked, and edited – ultimately landing on a small set of drawings that illustrated the most critical elements of the project.


A small piece of the larger project, with the water towers now developed.

The Water Tower Pavilion is driven by the conservation, treatment, storage, and infiltration of water through the building and site. The primary structure orbits around a series of vessels/water towers that collect and contain water from the site, sharing the work of water conservation and research with the public. The Water Towers are integral to not only the design education and applied research of the students and researchers, but also to the entire Los Angeles community.

Discover more about their entry, and all of the submissions from around the globe, at dlc.perkinswill.com.