As cleanup from Hurricane Sandy segues to rebuilding, Sweet & Salt could have been ripped from newspaper headlines. The not-sounderlying theme is of the Dutch as canaries in the global-warming coal mine. Much of Holland’s most productive land is below sea level, so the Dutch are acutely aware of subtle changes in the rivers, seas, and weather that get lost in all the background noise masking the climate-change debate in America. After all, Holland has built its culture, social arrangements, and urban planning around controlling water for hundreds of years.
You will not find any hand-wringing in this volume. Sweet & Salt is a profoundly humanistic consideration of the culture of water, with, along the way, many ideas by designers about how to deal with water’s myriad challenges. Architects, planners, and landscape designers will never think of a riverbank, levee, or seashore the same way again.
You can open Sweet & Salt to a photo of torrential water ripping through the streets of a medieval town or a golden-hued painting of a peaceful ice-covered pond just after the chilly sun has set. Is this a history, a guidebook, a cautionary tale of climate change, a dike designer’s handbook, or an art book? In the hands of Tracy Metz, a longtime record contributor, and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel, it is all of the above. Sweet & Salt is an intensely visual consideration of the history, culture, and engineering of water that engages our senses and our emotions-not just our intellect-with its ravishing (and beautifully printed) photography, cartography, and art. We’re awed and enraptured by water-when we’re not fighting it off.
Even for that enormously competent nation, the challenges brought by climate change are daunting. Droughts dry up rivers even in such a characteristically damp country. Floods threaten the world’s most elaborately contrived system of levees, canals, locks, and barriers. Sea-level rise may be barely detectable, but salt water infiltrating fresh groundwater is already becoming a major problem for Dutch farmers.
The book wraps a plethora of ideas, politics, history, and art around five big themes: Conflict, Concord, Profit, Pleasure, and Myth. If these categories are a bit unwieldy, they also make the book an enormous pleasure. You get lost among luscious and provocative paintings and photos. Put away the hair shirt, please, and enjoy.
James S. Russell is the architecture critic for Bloomberg News and the author of The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change.