ONARCHITECTURE- Fountainblue: Who'll revive our Mall fountains?

Can you place the four interactive water fountains on the Downtown Mall? Don't feel bad if you can't place them all. Three are usually hidden, surrounded by the outdoor seating at Miller's, Sal's and The Nook restaurants, and all four have strayed so far from their designer's original intention that one local architect says the biggest one– at Central Place– has become "a kind of dead zone."

According to several local architects, that's not what renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin had in mind when he designed the Downtown Mall in the 1970s. Indeed, Halprin– now 90 and living in San Francisco– is famous for the integration of interactive fountains in his public space projects, most notably his Auditorium Forecourt Fountain in Portland, Oregon, a complex of falls and water shoots that invite people in to splash around. Here on the Mall, Halprin's invite has been thwarted by restaurants co-opting the space around the fountains and general disuse, not to mention a thick "keep out" chain that was installed around the Central Place fountain.

Although Halprin couldn't be reached before press time, UVA landscape architecture professor Beth Meyer agrees that his original idea for the fountains has been derailed. 

Halprin, says Meyer–a specialist in 20th Century public landscapes–designed several significant American urban spaces, such as San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, Portland, Oregon's Auditorium Forecourt and Lovejoy Plaza, Seattle's Freeway Park, and, of course, our Downtown Mall. "All of these spaces had fountains and pools that invited participation," says Meyer. "From sitting on or stepping into a basin to jumping from stone to stone across a pool and immersing oneself in a waterfall." In addition, Meyer says the Downtown Mall is one of Halprin's finest works. "It is one of a few places in the United States where a pedestrian street has worked economically and socially," she says. " Granted, it has benefited from a populace that has valued it and cared for it even when it was not yet economically vital."

Meyer, who spoke to Halprin about his Charlottesville work some years ago, says he did have plans for a large participatory fountain plaza at the east end of the Mall where the amphitheater went up, but the scheme was too costly for the City. 

"But they did include the small fountain at Central Place," she says. " I first saw the Mall in the mid 1970s. The fountain was on, the basin full, and there were families gathered around it. When I moved here to teach in 1993, the fountain was not chained. The water was not always on, but when it was, it attracted people."

However, City spokesperson Ric Barrick says he was told the chain went up in the early 1980s in response to public safety concerns, although he admits no accurate records exist to determine exactly when it was installed.

"It's not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it," writes William Whyte in his classic 1980 study of New York's plazas, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. " But this is what has been happening across the country. Pools and fountains are installed, then immediately posted with signs admonishing people not to touch. Equally egregious is the zeal with which many pools are continually emptied, refilled, vacuumed, and cleaned, as though the primary function of them was their maintenance." 

Whyte cites safety issues as a typical reason cities choose to seal off their fountains, but points out that people have been frolicking in Halprin's Auditorium Forecourt Fountain for years, and still are today. 

According to architect Katie Swenson, part of the problem with the Mall fountains is that the city only went "halfway" with the interactive idea in selecting the final design.

"They were referencing those other (Halprin) water parks, without really going for it," she says.

As a result, Swenson suggests, the fountains' function may have been muted. 

"Sounds like the next evolution of the Mall to me," says Swenson when asked about the possibility of reviving the fountains, of perhaps turning them into more interactive 'water parks.' 

"I would roll out the old Mall drawings," says Swenson, "and think about the space as a whole before doing a smaller project like a water park" 

Others, like UVA architecture prof Bill Morrish, think a few innovations might be in order.

"Many cities are using a very simple idea of placing water jets in the surface of the mall and having them squirt up and down on various timing patterns," says Moorish. " I know Aspen mall has one that they turn on when it is hot. I think that the new park in Chicago has an area for that, too. Bigger things such as water slides have big insurance and maintenance costs, and you also need scale or size to capture an active market, which requires a large area and control of patrons." 

All that means the Downtown Mall won't likely turn Wet n Wild anytime soon.

"It is actually a pretty tight space there if you imagine people with towels and chairs," says former Planning Commission chair Karen Firehock, imagining an improved "water park" at Central Place, "and for liability reasons those things actually require a lifeguard, so that might be a staffing issue." Still, she likes the idea of an interactive fountain downtown. " They have one in West Palm Beach that is wonderful and right downtown," she says. 

According to former city councilor Blake Caravati, one reason the Central Place fountain was closed off was because it leaks, but also because of the liability issues inherent in its easy and uncontrolled access. 

"I am also not sure that it's in an appropriate place," says Caravati. " I would be a bigger fan of a water park idea between the Merrill Lynch building and the new Transit Center."

In fact, Caravati says the original Transit Center plan called for a "stepped cascading pool" between the two buildings and going down the hill. 

 "The idea was nixed because of cost reasons, I believe," says Caravati. " Think giant slip and slide from your childhood." 

Still, Caravati likes the idea of an interactive water park, and vows to shop the idea around.

One small step, says UVA architecture prof–and former mayor–Maurice Cox, would be to remove the chains around the Central Place fountain.

"I think the City should consider removing this small, but significant, deterrent to truly enjoying an otherwise successful interactive public fountain," says Cox. 

"I am sure that some well-intended person in the City government was concerned about safety and installed the chains," says Meyer, who sighed in disbelief the first time she saw the chain. "But perhaps we should consider why public spaces in Europe are so beautiful. There, you will find few railings or chains around fountains and canals. People of all ages are expected to deal with such small urban risks. Living with risk is something we do everyday–when we cross the street, drive  in a car, and fly in an airplane. Why is wading in a shallow pool and enjoying the spray of a fountain on the Downtown Mall so scary?"

Unchain my heart: the Central Place fountain was originally designed to invite people in.