Fountains Making a Splashy Return

Nov. 16, 2004
Free PressOnce architectural icons, public fountains didn't fare too well beyond the early years of the 20th century. In the post-World War II era, marble and bronze edifices like the Scott Fountain on Belle Isle or Buckingham Fountain in Chicago's Grant Park were deemed to be so … well, 19th century. Architects cared more about modernism and suburban expansion. But now public fountains are making a comeback, thanks in part to the artistry and technical skill of Mark Fuller and his 100-person team at WET Design, a 21-year-old firm based outside Los Angeles. The nation's best-known designer of water features, WET Design is most celebrated for its 9-acre fountain lake at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, where waters dance in ballets choreographed to lush musical accompaniments. WET Design hasjust completed testing its latest creation, the centerpiece fountain in Detroit'snew downtown CampusMartiusPark. On a recent evening,great shimmering arcsand jets of water shothigh into the air, lit frombelow by brilliant incandescentlight. But in northern climes, fountains are fair-weather friends, so with the testingdone, the fountainwent into its winter slumber,its most powerful featuresshut down until spring.In the meantime, the baseof the fountain will serveas the platform for Detroit'sofficial Christmastree, which will be lit on Friday evening as partof the grand opening ofthe park. TheCampus Martius projectmarks the fourth time inrecent years that WET Designhas created a landmarkin the metropolitan Detroit area. First camethe central water featureat the McNamara Terminalat MetroAirport — a blackslab from which shootarcs of water in a choreographedcomplexity that mimicsan airline's route map.Then WETIDesign created the cascading,multi-story water installationinside the lobbyof the new Compuware Corp.headquarters downtown, inwhich an ever-changing patternof water falls fromcolored platforms to shimmeroff a lighted screen below.At the Somerset Collection mall in suburban Troy, the firm'stranquil new installationcreates soft, murmuringbackground noise. The Detroit projects demonstrate that public fountains are no longer about the base or plinth from which water shoots, no longer about marble or bronze figures of city benefactors or mythological creatures. Instead, public fountains are now all about the water itself, and as Fuller says, about finding ways to make the water dance.

At Campus Martius, the base of the fountain is a simple stepped platform that would hardly get a glance without the water show. At Bellagio, there is no base at all; the numerous small nozzles from which jets of water shoot are hidden at or below the surface of the lake. In many of WET Design's creations, the line between the fountain and the place occupied by spectators all but disappears.

This lack of design, or, rather, this focusing of artistic energy on the dancing water itself, makes Fuller's accomplishments hard to categorize.

"We're walking that line between the constructed arts — architecture — and the performance arts — theater, dance — and always looking for that integration and that synthesis," he said.

Hidden below street levelIat CampusMartiusPark,a concrete chamber holdsthe astonishing array ofcomputers, pumps, valvesand controls necessary tomake the waters dance. Fullersays the technology, whileessential, is kept hiddenfor a reason. "It's notabout the technology,"he says. "It's about sittingup here, laughing, smiling.It's about living inDetroit and saying, 'Whereshall we meet?' 'How aboutthe fountain?' And you don'thave to say what fountain!"

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