Properties that make a splash
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A vital element in the defence of medieval castles and a symbol of status throughout history, the water feature has long served a greater architectural purpose than mere plumbing. At the Palace of Versailles, ornate fountains represented King Louis XIV’s mastery over nature. And modern architects are equally fixated on channelling water into focal points that blur boundaries between the home and its surroundings.
Garret Werner of the international architectural practice Garret Cord Werner drew on the ethos behind traditional Japanese architecture and its emphasis on balancing the elements when designing a residence on Lake Washington’s Mercer Island. The property, used by its owners as a refuge from nearby Seattle, is built around a central spine of water – a rill – criss-crossed by a series of glass bridges leading to different interior spaces. Werner’s rill leads to the entrance, which segues into a lap pool running the length of the interior, and ends in an infinity spa at the rear of the property with views across the lake. “Consequently all these very emotional experiences happen as you travel through space,” says the architect of the house, which was completed in 2019. “Most clients now want their homes to be more of an experience because they spend so much more time there.”
Architect Jim Cappuccino was inspired by the “calming sound of trickling water” when his practice, Hutker Architects, created reflection pools as “time out” zones at a residence in Concord, Massachusetts. One zone sits just beyond the kitchen – an “island” of black granite steppers, which appear to float on the surface creating an idyllic spot for morning coffee – and the other outside the home’s den; both are only around 1.5ft deep but are lined with black river-stone mesh tiles to create the illusion of depth. “The experience is auditory and visual,” he says of time spent beside them. “We all know that water calms us and promotes relaxation.”
Han Loke Kwang, principal architect at HYLA Architects, uses water to instil a sense of peace and privacy within Singapore city homes. At Vertical Court, a colossal house in Greenbank Park, he’s created a two-storey inner courtyard that punches through the heart of the house and encases a timber-framed pond – at the centre of which is a single frangipani tree. “I have a very simple definition of architecture. It is the space between you and your environment,” he says. “In densely populated Singapore, where the houses are very close together, having this courtyard – which can only be seen by those inside – generates space, light and a focus for the property.”
Han has conjured the same sensibility within another cavernous house – Serangoon Gardens, north-east of the city, which features a courtyard with two pools on the ground floor: one for swimming and the other for koi carp. The living and dining rooms open onto this inner sanctum through sliding and bifold glass doors, creating an indoor-outdoor living experience that also helps to ventilate the home, while most rooms have views of the courtyard. “People see their houses in a much more holistic way,” says the architect of his water feature, “as somewhere to live, to work and to be entertained. They are not just shelters but an oasis.”
Buyers searching for an oasis of their own will find Spain fertile hunting ground. At the premium end of the market is El Mirador – a 23,486sq ft, five-bedroom home in Sotogrande on the Costa del Sol, which is on the market with Savills for €17.9mn. Here, the hefty price tag buys privacy in what is a community of just five owners (and where the entrance is shielded by a courtyard of shallow pools and tropical trees). Inside, the list of luxuries includes an indoor pool opening onto the garden and a spa with Turkish bath, jacuzzi, sauna and showers.
The demand for water features within domestic architecture is an offshoot of the growth of biophilic design. The thinking is that a sense of connection to the natural world has real health benefits – both physical and mental – but no one can deny the sense of theatre that comes with this approach. In Alcobendas, 11 miles north of central Madrid in Spain, the aptly named The Waterfall House (on sale through Knight Frank for €17.5mn) is currently under construction, and will feature a show-stopping raised swimming pool complete with a three-sided waterfall when it is finished.
Retro-futurist fans might also consider looking to Beverly Hills, where a $20mn 1960s bungalow has been radically transformed. Its slick, all-white open-plan interior plays host to a series of circular and oval water-filled “pools” with a 2001: A Space Odyssey-like aesthetic, while mirroring the organic form of the home’s outdoor swimming pool. The property is on sale through Christie’s International Real Estate.
In countries where water is a scarcity, the architectural vernacular has evolved around its use. In the desert nation of Morocco, for example, early riads were built facing inward with rooms overlooking an open courtyard – with a central pool used for washing and cleaning. “In traditional homes you also find small canals running through the house, giving access to water and making it easier for chores,” says Kenza Taj, a real estate agent with Kensington Morocco, a local affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate. “Access to water means wealth, it is a way to show the importance of a family.” House-hunters will find an abundance of status homes here, including a 10-bedroom pile on sale at The Palmeraie, an upscale enclave some 15 minutes’ drive from the centre of Marrakech, which is dotted with extravagant modern palaces surrounded by formal gardens featuring lakes, ponds and streams. The spectacle of the 17,653sq ft house (priced €4.95mn, through Sotheby’s International Realty) is a linear water feature slicing through the garden, which extends over one hectare – an asset, as Taj points out, which is increasingly rare in the area. “The depletion of the water table means that homes are no longer automatically built with wells to supply water features and pools,” she says. “People are now much more careful with water.”
Water, of course, is a precious resource globally, which means designers have turned to collected rainwater systems to fill architectural details, while filtration keeps the water clean and healthy. When upgrading a home, water features can dramatically set a property apart from the rest – even in the most suburban of locations, as architect Gregory Phillips, founder and director of Gregory Phillips Architects, can attest. Among Phillips’ projects is the completion of what could have been a standard kitchen extension in a Victorian house in Wimbledon, south-west London, which is instead elevated by the design of a linear water rill around the perimeter of a glass box. “A small extension would have looked silly tacked onto the house, but by creating this sense that the room is floating, it gives it substance,” he says of his creation. “And the wonderful thing is the way the water reflects light into the room, while also mirroring the sky.” A design, perhaps, that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “a room with a view”.