A Concept Worthy Of Rube Goldberg, For Handling Our Water Woes [Video]

A massive hydrological model on view now at the Nevada Museum of Art is a half-robot, half-marionette sculpture composed of 2,000 individual parts.

Goodnight, Irene, goodnight. But not before calling attention to a relevant prototype that’s now on view in Nevada. “Surface Tension,” by the London-based architectural studio run by Mark Smout and Laura Allen, is an attempt to make a conceptual machine-based landscape that can adapt to our changing water habits, whether irrigation or energy.


The studio, Smout Allen has lots of experience with these sorts of fanciful reveries: They’ve designed a futuristic oasis for suburban London, proposed “envirographic instruments” for the Severn River, and visualized water landscapes in Oslo that could provide a source of kinetic energy.

For this prototype, they built a vertically organized network of more than 2,000 individual parts: Tiny magnets that are attached to a chrome disc bolted into the museum wall can be moved and adjusted, which then pass through a triggering mechanism that causes the arms of A-frames attached to the gallery’s 36-foot ceiling to begin cranking, pulling on a series of reflective ropes that are attached to gold mylar pans that hang in the middle of the room and blue marble runs on the floor. As the chrome disc makes a complete revolution every two-and-a-half minutes or so, the timing of the magnets changes, creating a natural ebb and flow to the lifting and lowering of the pans and marble runs. But visitors can actually orchestrate different movements — you can make all the marble runs move at the same time, for instance, or test out different efficiency models — by moving the magnets by hand.

But maybe best of all is that, visually, it’s mesmerizing. As the reflective ropes pull up and down on the gold mylar, the A-frames that hold them are connected back to the mirrored chrome disc with a brightly colored handful of wires, all reflected and projected in the room, which crackles with meteorological effort. Even better, says curator Geoff Manaugh, the idea was to model how an architectural system also could generate power from the water that passed through it. The marble runs, he says, could stand in for stormwater runoff, coastal tides, or even river flow. Might there be a model for hurricane storm surge protection?

The prototype is part of an exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art entitled “Landscape Futures,” which explores the different types of architecture that may be needed for changing environments, and what forms of technology need to be invented in order for that to happen. We’ll look at a few more projects from this exhibition later this week.