Water Music

20 Mar.,2023


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When Philip Johnson designed the main plaza at Lincoln Center, in the early sixties, he imagined a glowing, pulsating column of water at the center, a feature that would give the modernist piazza, he once said, “the focal point a fireplace gives a home.” The result was the Revson Fountain. When it opened, in April, 1964, it was the most technically advanced fountain New York had ever seen; the Times thought it might be “the most sophisticated blending of light and water in this country,” noting that the nozzles and the lights were controlled by “computer programmed tapes.” In the fountain’s signature move, a six-foot-wide column of frothy water rose into the air, brilliantly illuminated from below. When the pumps were abruptly shut off, the water appeared to float in the air. If architecture is frozen music, as Goethe said, then the Revson was liquid architecture. It quickly became an icon of the city.

But over the years the fountain’s powers diminished. In hydraulic terms, it lost “head”—vertical thrust—mainly as a result of leaky valves, which is the way fountains, like people, tend to fail. The movies document this sad decline. In “The Producers” (1968), one can see the Revson in its prime, when Gene Wilder celebrates his new partnership with Zero Mostel by prancing around the watery eruption, but from “Manhattan” (1979) to “Ghostbusters” (1984) and “Moonstruck” (1987) there is an observable loss of potency. By the time of its appearance in “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002), the fountain looked ragged, and was out of commission for stretches of time—just another clever modernist idea that didn’t last. The drained basin of the fountain, with its exposed plumbing, gave the plaza the focal point that a toilet gives a bathroom.

In 2006, Lincoln Center launched a $1.3-billion redevelopment project, and among the many improvements to the arts complex—two additional restaurants, a roof garden, two groves, and a new approach from Broadway—was a plan for a new fountain. There was never any serious discussion about trying to fix the old one, Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, told me recently. “It was like the decision to replace an old mainframe computer with a P.C.”—a no-brainer. There was, however, “a great deal of discussion about what the new fountain should be.” The firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the lead designers of the redevelopment plan, came up with a number of options, including moving the fountain off center and, instead of a circular fountain, creating a linear strip of water. But in the end, Levy told me, “everyone agreed that the fountain was properly placed, and was the right size, and people should still be able to sit at the edge, on the granite pedestal.” Diller Scofidio did replace Johnson’s monolithic granite base with a thin granite disk that rests on slender steel supports—a significant improvement—and lower the water level in the fountain’s basin to match the level of the pavement.

The fountain’s innards would be gutted and rebuilt. To accomplish that, the architects proposed bringing in WET Design (WET stands for Water Entertainment Technologies), the Los Angeles-based water-features firm, led by Mark Fuller. Fuller, who is fifty-eight, may be the closest thing the world has to a fountain genius. He and his colleagues at WET, which he co-founded in 1983, have brought a new language to fountain architecture by giving the water itself a voice: playful, mischievous, sometimes bombastic, sometimes serene. In the United States, WET’s projects include Fountain Place, in Dallas, in which water squirts from tiny holes in the pavement, draining through narrow slots into a “vanished pool” below the surface; the Grove at Farmers Market, in Los Angeles, a sort of liquid cornfield, in which the stalks are made of water; the kinetic water-sculpture fountain in the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport, which emits water sparks; and the double row of water plumes outside the Brooklyn Museum. Among other things, WET has extended the tradition of the fountain as trickster, a player of water games, which the Italian Renaissance fountaineers mastered, and which they employed to great effect at Villa d’Este, in Tivoli, outside Rome.

But WET is best known for the fountains at the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, which Steven Spielberg has called “the greatest single piece of public entertainment on planet Earth.” These fountains, which occupy the better part of an eight-and-a-half-acre lake, are programmed to dance to particular tunes—“Singin’ in the Rain,” which was created by the choreographer and director Kenny Ortega, is a crowd favorite. WET also did the spectacular water features that are part of the volcano at the Mirage, just down the Strip from the Bellagio. More recently, WET built the Dubai Fountain, which opened in May, and is the biggest fountain in the world. It can project painted images on its water forms, and blast water fifty stories high.

Lincoln Center wasn’t in the market for a fountain like that. “We made it clear that we were not looking for a thirteenth art form at Lincoln Center,” Levy said. “And we are not Las Vegas. We didn’t want something that would take away from the 8 P.M. curtain.” Was there any interest in making the fountain musical, like those at the Bellagio? “No music,” Levy said firmly. “Because that wouldn’t have been appropriate.”

Diller Scofidio presented some renderings of tasteful waterworks that reassured the board, and, Liz Diller, one of the firm’s principals, said, “we went to see WET’s headquarters, in California, and we were very impressed. It was obvious they were the best qualified for the job.” The Revson Foundation contributed four million dollars to the cost of the renovation. In early 2007, Lincoln Center decided to get WET.

Mark Fuller is compact and energetic, and has a worried air about him; it often seems as if he’s working out a problem in the back of his mind, even as he’s talking about something else. He has stocky fingers that twitch sometimes when he talks, as if he were itching to take something apart, and his posture is slightly stooped, as if from years of leaning over a workbench. In demeanor and appearance, he looks like an engineer, but there’s a showman inside Fuller, and his alter ego comes out in his dancing fountains.

He grew up in a family without much money, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. In the spring, when the snow began to melt, water would rush down the sloped streets, and Mark would make elaborate networks of snow dikes, sluices, and spillways for the water to flow through. Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955, and Mark made his first visit, with his parents, when he was fourteen. The park made a lasting impression on him; he was particularly enchanted by the underwater submarine ride and the Jungle Cruise. As a teen-ager, Fuller built a miniature jungle cruise in the back yard for the family’s goldfish, complete with lagoons and underwater tunnels, using an old washing-machine motor to propel the water through the system. He even constructed his own underwater lights. “Here I was, fooling around with a hundred-and-twenty-volt current, in water, but nobody seemed concerned,” he said.

In high school, Fuller was interested in theatre and, recognizing that in “appearance and stature I was not Charlton Heston,” he channelled his theatrical impulses into sets and props. At the University of Utah, he studied civil engineering while continuing to do set design—for Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” he created an altar that breathed fireballs—in an effort to unite his seemingly disparate interests. An opportunity came after one of his professors showed the class a 16-mm. film that demonstrated laminar flow, a well-known principle in hydraulics.

In an ordinary garden hose, the water flow is turbulent. Water molecules bounce off one another chaotically, moving at different velocities, under changing pressure. When the water is projected out of the nozzle, it splinters into spray. In a laminar stream, the molecules all flow in the same direction, and surface tension binds the water as it emerges from the nozzle into a glassy rod that holds together, like a laser beam, and looks heavier, ropier, and wetter than water in a turbulent-flow stream. “How cool is that,” Fuller recalled thinking as he watched the film in class.

For his senior honors thesis, Fuller decided to build a laminar-flow fountain. He and two other seniors engineered it by running water from a garden hose through a large plastic cylinder that was stuffed full of drinking straws. As the water passed through the straws, the turbulence diminished, and was further quieted as it passed through first one small mesh screen and then a smaller one, so that when it emerged from the nozzle it flowed in a smooth rod. A friend’s father agreed to install the thesis fountain—the world’s first permanent laminar fountain—in the atrium of his new office building, the Conquistador, in Salt Lake City.

After two years of graduate school at Stanford, Fuller applied for a job at Disney, and for his interview he took along slides he had made of his laminar fountain. “They looked at it and said, ‘We definitely want to hire you—we’re just not sure as what,’ ” Fuller recalled. He became an “Imagineer,” charged with developing new ideas for Disney’s theme parks. After a year of working on rides at Disneyland, he moved to Epcot Center, in Orlando, the park intended to embody Walt Disney’s dream of science, technology, and design working together to create a better world. Fuller designed the first “leapfrog fountain,” in which laminar streams jump from one raised planter to another. In order to complete his work in time for Epcot’s opening, Fuller did not sleep for the last four days. Later, his colleagues had buttons printed that said, “I kept up with Mark Fuller at Epcot.”

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