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On Water Feature and Fountain Design

A well designed fountain should integrate physical structure, water behavior and sound into a unified and coherent whole. The fountain should "make sense" with each element having a reason for being a part of the work.

Sound should be actively considered as a part of fountain design. Fountain sound should not be perceived as "noise" nor should it fight the dynamic movement of water in the fountain.

Water movement should be purposeful. If the fountain is thematic, the water movement should relate to the theme.

As with all good art, a good fountain should evoke an emotional mood and connection in receptive viewers and should express "intent".

The water feature or fountain must "read" as a unified statement and "stand alone" on its own merit when integrated with its surrounds.

A well-designed fountain should remain fresh to the eye and ear. Ideally, every time one looks at a fountain, one should see and hear something new, sometimes centering, sometimes provocative, sometimes even surprising. Metaphorically, viewing a fountain should be like searching for enlightenment by perceiving the world uniquely at every moment, the viewer flowing with time while remaining in the present.

Like the Japanese Tea Ceremony, fountain design can be a subtle dance between making a statement that many can simply enjoy while stimulating a few to relate to the work on a number of deeper levels.

Water in Architectural Settings

When you look at a fountain, what are you aware of? Are you aware of the physical design of the fountain, what the water does, how the fountain sounds, or how the fountain relates to its architectural setting? Or are you simply aware of the overall statement of the fountain, buildings and setting as a unified whole? Or - because it all works - are just unaware and simply experiencing mindlessly?

Many of the fountains in our environment are "just there". Many splash onto circulation spaces, employ materials that discolor and stain due to exposure and water impurities, and cry out for maintenance. Many are simply banal; many more are incongruous and just don't make any sense either in terms of location, context, or execution.

A vast majority of the fountains we encounter around the world have themes that have been used for so many hundreds of years that the absurdity of much of the imagery doesn't even register. What mental imagery is water flowing from the mouths of lions, cherubs, putti, dolphins, birds, and the like supposed to evoke? Kitsch themes abound in fountain design and quite apparently have abundant historical precedents.

So many fountains are poorly designed and built, improperly filtered and non-maintained that many end up as non-functional eye-sores until they either magically transform themselves into planters or are demolished and carted to the landfill. One of the givens in the real world is that if something is not easy to maintain it generally won't be maintained.

Is there a rational approach to incorporating water in our environments? One overarching principal is that in an ideal world the fountain or water feature design should be an integral part of the architectural and landscape design process. This is not always possible and in many cases water elements are considered only after the project is completed or when renovation is considered.

What follows are just a few ways of thinking about incorporating water in an architectural setting. There is no one right way. What seems to be the case is that when it's right, you know it, your viewers know it, and it simply "works".

Water as a Unifying Element

Especially in large projects consisting of several buildings to be built in a uniform style, water can be used to visually tie the separate structures together. In this context one can design water elements to be visual "threads" that are metaphorically woven through the planned space. In this context the water "threads" can be used to delineate circulation space and to define branching points between different structures.

Water as a Complement to Architectural Design

In this paradigm the water feature or fountain would architecturally mirror the building architecture. For instance if the architectural style is minimalist, the fountain would be minimalist and stylistically integrate with the building architecture. As another example, if the building design were traditional Spanish/Moorish, the fountain could carry out the Spanish/Moorish theme in style, shape, texture, and materials.

Complementary design is the simplest approach to merging water and architecture. The only pitfall is that a slight deviation from a one-to-one design correspondence might be visually jarring. Many examples of this exist where ersatz "Moorish" fountains are placed in quasi-Spanish style residences only to look like they don't quite belong.

Water as a Contrast to Architectural Design

Contrasting water with architecture can be tricky but examples exist where such a mix works. A notable example is the Getty Center in Los Angeles, designed by Richard Meier. Artist Robert Irwin's Central Garden at the Getty contrasts wildly with Meier's architectural and landscape aesthetic but is a spectacular success. The garden incorporates a meandering abstracted stream bed, a waterfall, a pond and plantings that are changed with the seasons. The garden and water treatments become a foil to soften and contrast with Meier's architectural style. Whereas Meier chose to emphasize the expansive views from the Getty's mountain-top site, Erwin's design visually brings the viewer inward. Erwin's water treatment unifies the garden and auditorially softens the architecture. Somewhat surprisingly, Erwin's garden and Meier's architecture do not fight each other but instead give us two separate experiences in the same space. Contrast become complement.

Water as an Integral Element in Building Design

There are many examples of inside-outside residential design where water unifies the transition of inside to outside - either explicitly or by reference.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water in Pennsylvania strategically placed the residence over a natural waterfall.

At the 1939 New York World Fair the Italian Pavilion had a formal cascading waterfall integrated into the front facade of the building. The front of the Electrical Utilities Building had a walk-through waterfall as the building's entrance. In fact, water features were an integral part of many of the corporate buildings and public spaces of that most visionary World Fair.

One can consider a garden room with water walls defining the room's perimeter; or a room with clear walls of cascading sheets of water. In these later examples, water defines space and in essence becomes a part of the architectural statement. Do other examples come to mind?

Water as a Focal Point in Architectural and Landscape Design

A water feature can act as a focal point in a residential, commercial, or industrial development. It can anchor a street and even be integrated into roadway design. One example to control traffic flow is the linear water feature in Los Angeles' Century City used functionally and aesthetically to separate northbound and southbound traffic. Do other examples come to mind?

Environmental Considerations

Fountain design is a natural arena for exploiting green technology. Given cost constraints, novel power technologies coupled with feature effects that maximize performance while tending to minimize water use and power requirements, are becoming increasingly feasible. In some cases solar driven-pumps can be considered for intermittent small-scale water effects such as pump-driven spray nozzles to aerate a pond.

It goes without saying that because water resources are diminishing in many parts of the world, environmentally conscious water use is becoming a practical necessity. It thus becomes imperative for the fountain designer to consider minimizing water loss by at the very least considering evaporative losses as part of the design process.

It may be that in the near future outdoor water features and even swimming pools in new home construction will be banned or severely limited in many regions of the United States and abroad. In this case indoor water fountains can become a way to still connect with water in our home environment.

Indoor water fountains can be designed to evaporatively cool and increase humidity in the living space. Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, California did that very thing in the 1920's - so this concept is nothing new. Also indoor fountains need not be small, tabletop statements. Several of our indoor art fountains in our gallery make the point. Especially with our patented control technologies, the indoor fountain can become a dynamic design element whether placed in an entry or in a living space. The same but never the same - it's only for the viewer to watch and realize the transitions.


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text copyright © 2008-2013 Gary Fisher
copyright © 2006-2013 Fountain Kinetics

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