As soon as the Revson Fountain at New York City’s Lincoln Center went active in April of 1964, it became the visual anchor for the plaza’s three main theaters as well as an oasis for waiting theatergoers basking in its cool mist on summer evenings. Not only was it the most technologically advanced water display in the city, but it was an oft-visited destination for many feature films. Over the years, like an aging human, its circulatory powers began to fade; the fountain lost “head” or vertical thrust due to multiple problems that included leaky valves. Until its renovation last autumn, it was not unusual to stroll across the plaza on the way to the Met Opera and not see or hear its welcoming presence.
A recent video on the New Yorker site tracks its declining powers over the past decades in movie scenes, from The Producers (1968) to Sweet Home Alabama (2002). Here’s the link:
But there is nothing in all of cinema fountain scenes that can equal the wondrous one from La Dolce Vita, which features an elegant but slightly befuddled Marcello Mastroianni wading into Rome’s Trevi Fountain to embrace the buxom yet innocent Anita Eckberg:
Of all of Rome’s fountains this is the most iconic, an obligatory tourist destination, and where I found myself on a late July evening two summers ago—filming a scene for a romantic comedy. As soon as the lights went on for a take, the several hundred young people watching us (it was after 3 am after all) decided to become movie stars; they leaped across the fountain’s chains by the dozens and dove into the pool. No sooner did the carabinieri reel in one group than the next one followed. We got a printed take of the short scene simply because all the dripping spectators had run off down the intersecting streets, flashing police lights in hot pursuit. One can’t help but wonder: What is this atavistic relationship between humans and cascading water, especially when set in an urban environment? Are we, as removed from nature as we are, still hardwired in some primordial way to the sight and sound of flowing water as an ultimate affirmation of life?
Rome’s fountains were originally built to distribute drinking water via aqueducts from sources far outside the city; the water’s descent from surrounding hills provided enough “head” for small vertical fountain displays as well as for the cascades that provided a peaceful natural music against the din of the city. But it was the Renaissance with its heroic conception of the new man/god sculpted by Michelangelo and Bernini that turned the fountains and the enclosed statuary into places of pride for Rome’s assembled citizens. And ever since, man’s public forums have featured ever more ambitious fountains. The scale and grandeur of water displays increased apace with the technology of mechanical pumps in the 19th century.
There were inherent limitations, though, to employing only mechanical pressure to create vertical water displays: the higher the pressure used to achieve head, the more “turbulent” the water becomes, colliding with itself as it passes through the system, backing up, slowing the flow. This can be overcome by using a principle of fluid dynamics called “laminar flow.” Here is a Wikipedia definition:
Laminar flow, sometimes known as streamline flow, occurs when a fluid flows in parallel layers, with no disruption between the layers. In fluid dynamics, laminar flow is a flow regime characterized by high momentum diffusion and low momentum convection. It is the opposite of turbulent flow. In nonscientific terms laminar flow is “smooth,” while turbulent flow is “rough.”
The concept of laminar or smooth flow in a vessel is demonstrated by this lab video from the University of New Mexico:
“Smooth” flow is accomplished by means of pushing water through a system, using controlled isolation, into smaller streams, rather like bundling packets of digital information. A homemade laminar system can be built simply by inserting small tubes such as plastic or metal straws into a larger flow pipe, then passing that water through one or more screen grids that direct the flow even further: a kind of liquid polarization. It is this simple concept, coupled to computer technology, that has allowed Mark Fuller, founder of WET (Water Entertainment Technologies) to create dazzling aquatic displays around the world. The January 11 issue of The New Yorker features an article written by John Seabrook that tracks how Fuller grew from a boy living outside Salt Lake City, who trapped and routed snow melt rushing down the sloped streets of his neighborhood, into an entrepreneur who creates multi-million dollar water, light, and music extravaganzas outside world class hotels, public malls, and entertainment complexes. His compelling story, which centers around the recent revitalization of the Lincoln Center Revson Fountain, makes for fascinating reading; I urge you to read or download the article from the WET website:
Once the site loads, use the dropdown menu to access “press,” then click on the New Yorker “Water Music” link.
Here is a video from last October that shows a test of the new Revson fountain:
You can see technicians at the frame’s right side as they deploy the MicroShooters that push laminar water up to 60 feet. This is as high as the Lincoln Center designers felt was safe, given the proximity of the water jets to passing patrons dressed in evening wear, rushing to make an 8 pm curtain. But this is chump change for WET’s air-powered tubes: Hypershooters can reach up to 240 feet, and the XtreamShooters can launch a stream, under intense air pressure, up to 500 feet. (The underlying technology for all this is explained by Seabrook in the New Yorker article).
Here are photos of several WET laminar fountains:
Mark Fuller’s big break came in 1995 when Las Vegas casino developer Steve Wynn was looking for a new kind of fountain to anchor the exterior of his planned Bellagio Hotel, a fountain that according to Seabrook, quoting Wynn, would “make you forget you were in Vegas.” And that’s what he got, sort of. Fuller created an amazing water display, the construction of which almost bankrupted him. It required Wynn to front him several million more dollars to complete the breakthrough fountain. Fuller had to promise not to create any other such venue in Las Vegas until he had repaid Wynn. The fact that he has since created fountains at the Mirage Volcano and the Las Vegas City Center complex is evidence that he made good on the loan. Since then, WET enterprise has created spectacular displays worldwide, as you can see by accessing the site map on their web homepage. On the same pulldown menus as before, access “creations.” A world map with links to photos and films of completed projects will appear.
The Bellagio display was a breakthrough for the concept of fountains as freestanding entertainment, as “headliners” in their own right. Music and light became key elements to be choreographed in tandem with the “dancing” water. Here are two examples of this 21st century version of “Son et Lumiere.” You can pick your musical poison here—Celine Dion or Sarah Brightman. I’m only promoting the light and water, not the musical selections.
If, despite Steve Wynn’s mandate to Fuller, you still feel as if you are in Vegas after these two videos, please come with me now to Dubai, where WET has created a fountain that is not soon to be topped. The “dancing,” waving streams (called “oarsmen” by Fuller) that defined the Bellagio pieces, are only an element in the aquatic choreography set to the Swahili “Our Father,” written by Christopher Tin for the video game Civilization 4. The song, “Baba Yetu,” has an energy and visceral momentum that plays well together with the enormous water canvas that is the Burj Dubai fountain complex.
Recently, I saw an exhibition at the Drawing Center on Wooster Street in Soho of mathematical drawings alongside conventionally notated music scores that had been developed from the drawings, by the avant-garde Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. He had trained in Paris as an architect/ mathematician after having to flee his homeland in 1947 after the new right wing government began hunting down its “enemies.” Xenakis was an avowed Communist. In Paris, he became a student and then colleague to the astringent architect Le Corbusier (a leading exponent of the style labelled “Purism,” which morphed in the 60s and 70s into a technique employing raw concrete called “Brutalism.”) Xennakis had a major hand in the design of the Phillips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Observing how his architectural designs were translated into musical notation for concert hall performance will be (I hope) a future piece here.
Watching the video of “Baba Yetu” is not unlike experiencing mathematical forms as they become liquid architecture. All the devices and techniques, the “shooters” and “oarsmen,” which have been created by Fuller and his technical and artistic teams around the world have, to my mind, achieved a kind of transcendent purity in this singular, anthem-like piece.
A step back in time and in technology will conclude this brief water voyage. When I was a film student, a generation of iconoclastic filmmakers such as Stan Brackage, Bruce Conner, and Kenneth Anger carried a brilliant experimental torch against the darkest days of a moribund studio system. The whole concept of Saturday Midnight Screenings began with their irreverent and often profane films. No one was more iconoclastic than Anger, whose bold venture into “queer cinema,” Scorpio Rising, caused the movie house on Western Avenue that dared show it, to be busted by the guardians of public morality called the LAPD. I was there the night management was arrested. It seemed to us as if the then recent landmark court decisions to allow Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer to be freed from their chains of obscenity, meant that films, too, were now wide open. We were, in the near run, wrong.
Still, none of us could imagine that a decade earlier our bad boy hero, Kenneth Anger, had made a lyrical cinematic tone poem, cast in nighttime blue, of a woman dressed in an 18th century gown, running though the Villa d’Este gardens and fountains outside Rome—set to the “Winter” movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” You can read Deborah Allison analysis of the film at:
This film creates a haunting sense of water as sensual element, the antithesis of the projected water cannons erupting around us that is the domain of the very artful but hyper-stimulated contemporary displays created by companies such as WET. If the heroic Bernini sculptures and fountains of the Piazza Navona, and the cascading water steps of the Villa d’Este embody the sensibilities of the Renaissance, then the air-powered, laminar water jets shooting 500 feet into the night sky may be a metaphor for ours. Here is the second part of Anger’s 1953 film Eaux d’Artifice.
Pick your poison.