The Netherlands has a long and complicated history with water. Centuries of calamitous floods have forced the country to become one of the world’s foremost authorities in water management. Almost a third of the country is below sea level, and another 26% is at risk of floods from rivers, according to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But because the Dutch government has become so efficient at preventing deadly floods, the public isn’t terribly worried about the threat of invading waters anymore.
In response, the local water authority in Westervoort, a town in the eastern Netherlands bounded by two rivers, had designer Daan Roosegaarde create a virtual flood. Set up over four acres, Studio Roosegaarde’s LED installation, Waterlicht, visualizes what would happen if the Netherlands suddenly took a vacation from water management, allowing the land to flood. It represents the “beauty, but also the danger, of water,” Roosegaarde says in a phone interview.
While the Netherlands has a particular interest in raising awareness of the dangers of flooding, the installation opens up broader ideas about the risks of living near water. Any coastal city in the world is going to have to deal with the impending dangers of floodwaters and sea level rise, as climate change melts the polar ice caps and makes extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy more prevalent. Waterlicht could be just as powerful in Miami as it is in Westervoort.
Lenses set up in a black box on the edge of a floodplain project waves of blue light across the field overhead, creating a kind of translucent ceiling. The lenses move subtly throughout the night to create a swirling pattern within the light. Wind blowing off the river further adds a sense of momentum and foreboding, as the lights shine through dust moving through the air. “You have the experience that it’s floating,” Roosegaarde explains.
The installation felt so realistic to some residents that when the designers were testing a pilot version, someone called the police within 10 minutes of their setting up, thinking that the dike had broken and the area was actually flooding. Some 20,000 visitors came to see Waterlicht over the course of its five nights in Westervoort, and Studio Roosegaarde plans to set it up elsewhere in the Netherlands in the future.
“I’ve always been fascinated with merging the worlds of nature and technology,” says Roosegaarde, whose previous projects include glowing highways and bike paths in the Netherlands. “Water is usually thought of as a threat, or something to sail on. We can do much more,” he says. “This is the beginning of a five-year project where we’re looking at a potential of water and where we use it as a tool.”