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Last month in the journal Nature Materials, Japanese scientists reported that they had developed a type of gel that can swell up to 500 times its dry size when it comes into contact with solvents.

Originally, we thought what great news this must be to mothers (and fathers), to the aged and to the simply incontinent, because this new material is classed in the same group of super absorbent polymers that also includes gels found in diapers. It turns out, however, that the substance was designed not for consumers but rather primarily for industrial applications, for instance, to suck up leftover waste chemicals in brownfields and absorb oil spills about to wipe out an entire ecosystem.


Having now brought up the subject of super absorbent polymers (SAP), we would now like to quote a rather generous portion of Deena DeNaro's report for Core77 on the 2nd Rotterdam International Architecture Biennale, curated by Adriaan Geuze of West 8.

It concerns a radical reconsideration of SAPs as a landscape application. Presently, they are used mostly to increase the water reserve of soils and to mitigate erosion.

In SPONGEcity, sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Transportation, Public Works and Water Management, and designed by Niall Kirkwood [and 15 landscape architecture graduate students from] the Harvard Graduate School of Design, floodwaters are captured by a dual sponge system both soft and structural. Elbows, or man-made oxbows, are built along the river Waal expanding the floodplain. Within each floodplain, canals are dug out to hold some of the floodwater. Cellular networks of Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP's) are placed in these elbows and when the dikes close to the river are breached a new absorbent sponge landscape is created along the entire river. The sponges create a dramatic new terrain as they swell to a height of up to 20 meters. This sponge matrix radically re-imagines the traditional Dutch city by proposing a hybrid structure that contains water and constructs space for urbanization. Capable of holding 100 times its own weight in water, the structural sponge is realized by adding a hardening agent to the SAP, which creates a shell on the surface for development. The soft sponge is a fluctuating system of undulating hills that rise and fall according to seasonal floods. As mean water levels rise, soft sponge is converted to structural sponge and a new band of soft sponge is established on the periphery. The overall sponge matrix allows development to exist within a floodplain. The urban conditions benefit from the framework of sponge elbows by structuring newfound ground within the floodplain.

This one paragraph seems to be the most extensive description of the project found online, with the possible exception of this terragram. In that Niall Kirkwood interview, we hear more about the project and learn that he was tasked to challenge the mentality of defense — of instinctively spending billions and billions of euros to build sea walls and dykes, to raise an entire country, and then subjecting the population to equally costly mass migration when the concrete crumbles — by speculating on ways to open up the landscape to disaster but not to catastrophe.

Did New Orleans and the Army Corps of Engineers receive this terragram? The relevant part starts at 46:12 and ends roughly around 54:30.

Eric Fredine

Meanwhile, we cannot help but wonder why the Netherlandses and the New Orleanses of the world should have all the speculative fun with super absorbent polymers.

Give us tons of the stuff and Pruned will drive out to the glacier-flattened terrain of the Illinois prairie. And using vertical drain installation rigs, we'll inject (infect?) a whole township with the gel so that when the rain comes, the landscape balloons with Himalayan peaks and Alpine valleys, an entire state county positively giddy with heretofore unknown contour lines. Instant topography.

Or Terrestrial Mumps®.

And then when Chicago loses the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, it will immediately put in a bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

  • Anonymous
  • June 13, 2007 at 8:23:00 PM CDT
  • Does anyone know how to contact Deena DeNaro? I found some photographs of an artistic nature downstairs in my apartment building that she might want. Have her get in touch with the Federal (the bar in down town Durham) before June 23rd.

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