Architect and Planner Dilip da Cunha Reimagines Rivers at 1960s Scholar Lecture

Pictured: Dilip la Cunha looks at the camera.

On Thursday, November 11, architect and planner Dilip da Cunha joined Williams students and faculty in discussing his book “The Invention of Rivers” and his visual design platforms in a talk entitled “Nature by Design,” which reconsidered the predominant land/water division and demonstrated a conceptual, postcolonial alternative of perpetual ‘wetness’ on Earth.

Da Cunha’s theoretical work explores and complicates the taken-for-granted assumptions of Earth’s geographies. He showcased how the concept of a ‘river’ was in fact engineered by human design, a process which began thousands of years ago along the Nile River with the ancient Greek figures Herodotus and Alexander the Great, who sought to control water and saw firm ‘lines’ of flowing water that could be spilled over in times of rain, creating the idea of a ‘river’ and a ‘floodplain.’ These ideas informed and framed the ways in which land and water today are seen as separate entities that interact or disengage in various spatio-temporal ways.

The reality, da Cunha argued, is that the Earth is a place of constant and ubiquitous wetness that “holds, soaks, saturates, evaporates, condenses, and precipitates” in a way that is ignored in favor of “fair-weather movements.” All other parts of the hydrologic cycle, especially rain, are ephemeral and disregarded in the contemporary moment, frustrating the clear moment when “maps are drawn, laws and written, you think of the past, and you imagine the present.”

Da Cunha noted that in separating land from water and removing its inherent connection, colonizers have done the impossible, as the world’s Indigenous people did not engage with the concept of a river at all but instead saw varying wetnesses. In his work as an architect and planner, da Cunha has expanded upon this framework through various visualizations, done in partnership with Anuradha Mathur, that reframe the terms and conditions for water as wetness. He emphasized the need for landscape planners and architects to grapple with their roles in maintaining and enforcing the colonial presuppositions of Earth’s geography.

CES Director and Associate Professor Nicolas Howe introduced da Cunha and moderated a discussion at the end of the lecture. Howe’s background as a cultural geographer, as well as his theoretical work on reimagining rivers – a tutorial offered this fall – was strongly influenced by da Cunha’s writings on wetness.

Da Cunha is an architect and planner based in Philadelphia and Bangalore, and Adjunct Professor at the GSAPP, Columbia University. With Anuradha Mathur, he has authored Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (2001); Deccan Traverses: The Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (2006); Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary (2009); and editor of Design in the Terrain of Water (2014).

This lecture was sponsored by the Class of 1960 Scholars Program in Environmental Studies. A small group of student scholars joins the distinguished lecturer for an hour-long seminar discussion and, in non-COVID times, an intimate dinner before the public lecture.