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Architecture for fish

Will Wiles

New fishtank owner Will Wiles scours the market for suitable subsea architectural ruins – and finds himself on a voyage of aesthetic discovery

Why are fish tanks full of ruined buildings?
Why are fish tanks full of ruined buildings? Credit: iStock

It’s a power move to give someone a pet as a surprise. But this is what happened to us last Easter, when my niece sprang two small golden fish on us. Swimmy and Dave, as my daughter named them, came with a 10-litre tank, a bag of gravel, a pot of food and assorted starter equipment. But once they were set up in our dining room, they looked a little adrift in their clean glass box. What they needed was something in there with them, to give their rather bleak environment some interest and a bit of privacy. And it would give us, the looming monsters outside the tank, more to look at. I set off on a minor architectural adventure mission. 

Fish tank ornaments fall into a few basic categories. There are a lot of sunken ships, as might be expected. The Titanic features a little heavily, which feels faintly macabre, and casts a bit of a pall over the more generic vessels. Mildly disquieted, I scrolled past those, and the rockeries and grottoes that are another category. I wanted a building: a structure with spaces and apertures and that the fish could inhabit and explore. The term that gets used in the aquarium ornament literature is ‘swim-through openings’. Their favourite spot in the tank was the only place that had any kind of structure at all, right underneath the filter. This suggested to me that they wanted overhangs and enclosure. And while you could get those features from the resin rock features, why would you? They obviously craved architecture.

What I discovered is that the fish-tank developer has limited architectural options. Film and TV tie-ins are popular, such as AT-ATs from Star Wars and the Tardis from Dr Who – but this is an area dominated by the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, who lives in a pineapple under the sea, as everyone knows. Beyond those options, there is a Gothic landscape of castles and ruins. 

Our idea of what a castle should look like is pretty plastic. There’s an established fantasy aesthetic, which has authentic medieval precedents but mostly comes through the hands of eager 19th-century interpretations such as Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s Chateau de Pierrefonds, and King Ludwig of Bavaria’s wild folly Neuschwanstein. It has been refined on film by Disney, Hogwarts and Rivendell. This aesthetic is at the fore, with a lot of East Asian options as well, and some craggy Bamburgh-style strongholds.

You can get your castles ruined and unruined, although the influence of the Gothic gives even the unruined a foretaste of the ruined. Lastly, there is a whole demolition industry of ruins, mostly classical, but with some Angkor Wat: Colosseums, broken stairs, tumbled temples, fragments of colonnade. This was where I made my selection: a tastefully dilapidated two-storey arched tower in an aquatic style we might call Cod Roman. 

But why do ruins predominate in the fish tank? In a way it makes sense – these buildings are underwater, obviously they’re disused. Indeed, those that don’t look ruined don’t make sense. One has a resin waterfall running through it, how is that supposed to work? This is not the place to look for realism, of course. Is the whole point of having these living creatures in your home to have a glimpse of the natural world, however artificially contrived? That glimpse implies a drowned world, without us. This is the peace of the seabed. What fish tank ruins brought to mind was the Grand Tour, and privileged 18th-century Englishmen having melancholy reflections on the passing of time and the nature of history while gazing upon the shepherds in the remains of the forum. Except I found the experience rather jolly, and the fish love the tower. 

Underwater update

Obviously there’s not a lot of contemporary architecture for the aquarium, at least not in the mass-produced stuff. Some of the more stylised and abstracted natural structures edge in that direction. I wonder if there’s a missed opportunity here. Arches, ‘swim-through openings’, overhangs, perhaps a suggestion of ruin: this is obviously a job for the postmodernists. Where is the aquarium edition of Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia?