An Atmosphere Excavated by John Becker


An Atmosphere Excavated

Architecture graduate John Becker's final project involved creating the future headquarters of a fictional company that sells bottled water harvested from dew.

An Atmosphere Excavated

The Columbia University School of Architecture graduate also constructed an invented history of the brand, but based the story on the real-life practice of collecting water in "dew ponds" and set the story in a real location in southern England.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Images from top: interior, exterior and section of Reserve House, constructed 2071 of amalgamated chalk to store vintage bottles of water.

Entitled An Atmosphere Excavated, the story starts in 1786 and continues to 2074, when the "dew pond" system has been commercialised by the Ethereal water brand.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: vintage  water harvested from dew and marked with the date it was bottled.

"The site itself is fictional, but intended to pass as real in order to build the story on a foundation that is easily accepted," says Becker. "Eventually the timescale passes present day, extending into the future and exposing the story for a piece of fiction."

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: 18th Century engraving depicting dew ponds on the site

Becker completed the project while studying at a studio named Glacier, Island, Storm taught by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: 18th Century engraving showing location of dew ponds on the site

Here's the story written by Becker:

An Atmosphere Excavated

A fictional narrative exploring the potential of the dew collection though the past, present, and future.

Dating back to the 18th century the Harnham Estate, located a short distance outside Salisbury England has documented regional techniques for harvesting water providing a rich history of the practice and the subsequent effects. The methods applied through the centuries reflect regional limitations, a shift in intention and attempts to amplify efficiencies. Although many of these techniques are specific to the region and time period, they are not necessarily unique to the site; it is the extent of the documentation of these exercises and the entrepreneurial achievements intent on monetary gain that make the subsequent story so fascinating.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: 19th Century map detail showing cistern

After acquiring the Estate in 1786 following the death of his Father, Sir Edward Harnham commissioned a series of engraved maps to be produced of the Estate. Cataloguing the boundaries of the Estate, as well as all landmarks within the terrain in a series of 4 maps and 2 scenic prints one depicting the manor, and the other the view of the Salisbury Cathedral from the manor. The 2 remaining images both display the dew ponds contained on the site. The large number and proximity of these dew ponds is rare, and is considered to be the largest concentration of dew ponds known in the South Downs.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: 19th Century map detail showing cistern and dew ponds

Located on large deposits of chalk the South Downs is essentially a large aquifer making the retention of water a difficult task. For hundreds of years residents of the South Downs have used a technique known as puddling to construct dew ponds which allow water to be drawn from the atmosphere and retained on the surface for long periods to provide drinking water for cattle. In the Early 20th century a catastrophic failure exposed a previously forgotten cistern located beneath the dew ponds. A local architecture firm was hired to survey the cistern and assess its potential threat to the existing manor. The conclusions presented stated that once the water had evacuated the cistern it was no longer a structural threat to the residence.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: photograph showing fault in chalk landscape following early 20th century failure

No one was injured in the failure, however a large number of livestock were lost. The rupture left a large chalk scar on the landscape which could be seen kilometres away. Inspired by the still visible scar James Harnham and a business partner John Linski founded Ethereal 1.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: photograph showing cistern revealed in early 20th century

Providing premium bottled water harvested from the now locally known Harnham dew ponds, Ethereal 1 entered the market June 11th, 1991 at £14 a litre. After a slow start Ethereal 1 finally met with success in 1995 as the market for bottled water grew exponentially. In order to meet growing demands, a series of dew collecting nets were pioneered by a London based architecture firm MJB Architects which allowed for a 25 fold increase in production. Due to peak production vs. bottling time, storage bladders were constructed on the hillside to provide short term storage for water during the process. The Bladders were placed under the surface of the earth to provide protection from the sun, and to retain the water's desired temperature.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: dew-collecting nets

This new system now mirrored the previous system of harvesting, storing, and distorting the landscape, except on an exaggerated time scale. The success of Ethereal 1 is largely credited to the history of water collection from the Estate. Inversely this success in turn encouraged the use of these techniques in the region to meet growing demands for water during periods of drought. Once these techniques were spread over a larger region their success caused the near collapse of the water table in the territory north of the South Downs. In 2026 a bill failed to pass that would have banned all acts of poaching the aerial aquifers within Southern England. By 2035 desalination became the leading source of water for England followed closely by atmospheric stripping techniques such as dew harvesting. At present 3000 cubic miles of water exist in the atmosphere at any given time. 98 percent of this resource is replenished every 2 days, and most importantly only 2 percent of this moisture exist in clouds, the vast majority is found in ambient air. Since 2028 atmospheric aquifers have been tracked and traded as an asset in the global stock exchange.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: bladders for storage just under the earth's surface

As water's value increases many countries inflate their economies based on water futures. Recognized as one of the most prestigious water companies in the world, Ethereal 1 began to capitalize on their long standing history of water collection. In 2001 the company began selling vintage bottles of water, allowing customers to hand pick select days in which their water was collected.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: drawings for Reserve House added in 2071

In 2071 an addition to the manor is constructed to house Ethereal 1s reserve bottle collection. The building is constructed out of an amalgamated chalk solution that itself becomes a source of water collection and storage.

An Atmosphere Excavated

Above: drawings for Reserve House added in 2071

Three years following the construction of the Reserve House a vintage bottle of Ethereal 1 dated prior to the millennium fetches over £40,000 at auction.

See also:


Cognitive Dwelling
by Paul Maich
More from this year's
Dezeen's top ten:
student projects

Posted on Monday August 2nd 2010 at 6:05 pm by . Copyright policy | Comments policy

  • unbelievably killer.

    if mcqueen had been an architect…….

  • I agree with Nicholas.

    Wonderful fairy tale creativity and adventure. I almost wish the company wasn't fictional.

  • architecture as fiction/history as fiction/fiction as architecture.
    beautiful, just beautiful.

  • I like science fiction & fairytales before I go to bed… :)

  • Tim

    The way of storytelling/fiction as architecture is absolutely romantic, and something rather refreshing in today's architecture climate. However, the design of the headquarters isn't quite there, to me. It's like a mixture of Gaudi and Tim Burton, but not in a positive way: it doesn't evoke the way the artificial history does…

  • Felix

    this is barely architecture, it's just sculpture + branding. this guy should write children's stories.

    bladders for storing water under the earth? why would you do that? huge excavations, insanely difficult to maintain or repair… and you can't even see it

    but of course that's not mr becker's concern because it looks very romantic on his section. the fact there's literally no other reason to design the storage that way doesn't concern him.

    "The Bladders were placed under the surface of the earth to provide protection from the sun, and to retain the water’s desired temperature" – this is a load of bollocks. Water isn't damaged by light or heat.

    • Lee

      JEAL. Where's your work?

    • kuyu kuyu

      …and actually water can be sanitized by ultraviolet in the sun. Very self-absorbing architecture.

  • sSuch a siiiick siick project.

  • Jorge-Ls

    kind of star wars

  • Filip

    This kind of Gaudi inspired modern art nouveau seems to be trickling into all the major architecture educational institutions. I remember seeing this type of work at the Bartlett a couple of years ago and then successive permutations at the Bartlett and the AA. Some nice work though, I envy the self discipline, knowledge and determination of the student to get the project to such a high standard and to complete all that work.

    I do wonder if this kind of architectural style would be more accepted by the conservative British public.

  • gaque

    Architecture as story… old-fashioned. Sub-div reticular structures… old-fashioned.

  • Lucasan


    Always reassuring to see such great imagination still dwells in the realm of architecture.

  • hauptbahnhof

    Now here’s a mad man. And the world is starved of mad men right now. Excellent work.

  • LOW

    I have to say it is quite striking, love love love the drawings and sections!

  • A bright future awaits…. hauptbahnhof you are 100% right, there are not enough eccentrics and man men about

  • flav

    at the end of the day it is some hernan diaz alonso sci-fi architecture rendered in marble instead of glossy white or red.

  • worldmanabouttown

    Outstandingly beautiful work!

  • mary-jade

    absolutely smitten over the whole conceptual thinking and the setting of all the atmosphere, though i could safely say i’m a digger for pure brutal modernism, this whole organic and sculptural approach enchanted me

  • Mike Magill

    Beautiful story and very creative sculpting but as architecture, that building would never get built.

  • e.Coyle

    Beautiful drawings but cant help but see a copy of Gaudis' "Casa Mila" within the exterior facade…inspiration is nice from something but dont try and rip it off.

  • nico

    elements of gaudi indeed. very sculptural VERY refreshing. @Felix – barely architecture? not being able to "see" it because "you can't even see it"? wow. really? enlighten yourself with architecture that "can't be seen" on the surface.

  • Pusti Lisac

    This project is really disapointing. The storytelling and graphics are great, but the architectural design is at best dull and at worst idiotic. If only this guy had used his drawing talent to explore an inteligent idea.

    It’s easy to be seduced by a little fantasy and historical fiction if you looking at this as an architectural project. But I don’t think it’s accurate (or fair) to evaluate something like this as architecture. It’s better to evaluate it as some kind of graphic novel or graphic art. And in that light I’m not sure how compelling it is.

    The problem is that this project shies away from engaging with the problems of building and environmental design, for the sake of creating a nice story. At the same time it shies away from the challenges of storytelling because it’s an architecture project. The drawings and text seem to occupy a cowardly middle ground that’s not quite compelling architecture and not quite compelling storytelling.

    This student clearly is hugely talented, I just wish he/she had used that talent in a sharper way.

  • cms

    ackward revival of rhino's worst computer generated shapes. Oh, sorry it's mixed up with a narrative story. Is that what makes it ok?

    • Guest

      This CLEARLY wasn't done in Rhino.

      • Juan

        Oh it was, well yes and no, it used grasshopper which is a rhino plug-in or component :P

  • jester

    He should be Shrek's architect.

  • Loren

    Smitten by its first image, i opened the link.Upon second images..i saw Gaudi. Mad man he is, damn talented he is, but i see lots of potential in it, which is not fully developed yet. But i love how he present it. At least that’s what i like about his project. Interesting research, just not fully developed design.Maybe it’s just subjective, as i love Gaudi and i believe that that kind of design style can be greater still.

  • Khai

    John Becker, this is beautiful. Be encouraged :)
    An architect -not only a designer of space, but an illustrator, a poet, a graphic designer, a model maker, a philosopher, a choreographer, a book maker, a storyteller and so much more!
    Enjoy being all of those! Really enchanting work.

  • G.String

    Gaudi meets star wars… outstanding …

  • submitter

    H.R.Giger, nice sci-fi, but ugly alien.

  • xtiaan

    gaudi goes goth! (with a dash of seventies space age) wonderful! sublime, a few more renderings of the outside as in pic 2 would have been lovely though, colour me impressed.

  • Inari Xonehp

    I ponder if perhaps he was inspired by the rainless predeluvial time when moisture came from the air to collect on the plants and hydrate them… seems as a rather standard programmatic planning with sculptural framework. But the whole history behind it makes a wonderful tale to lead up to it. Did the "solution" come first and then the tale to justify the proposal? Or was it an honest progression from a story to a final form? And the idea that the building itself is a machine to produce the product is creative and perhaps justify the formwork to a substantial degree. But still the planning arrangement offers little development from the usual axial and symmetrical underpinnings of estate projects. And the manner of only resting beside the "original" context screams for some sort of dynamic quality or means to elaborate on that connection from the intervention to the context. Overall, it is rather good eye candy and the combination of renderings and the tale make it very much a believable proposal, most likely to the extent that he will pass the course and use this in his portfolio. And given the hype and expenditures for bottled mountain water and the pursuit of the rare, dew water would be feasible if only history had made it a reality.

  • Max Hulenski

    When so many people don't even have access to clean water, its great to see that architecture students are being encouraged to focus on real issues. I was just out shopping and I was dismayed to find that there was no more expensive or exclusive option than Fuji water, at €3 a bottle I feel like I might as well drink from the tap like a damn peasant. I look forward to future projects from Columbia Students, perhaps a beautiful factory producing toilet paper carefully formed from the hide of said peasants. I would definitely wipe with that.

  • little scary gaudi!

  • Very special modern Gaudi!