Three ways landscape architects can play with water

Article By:

Practice Leader—public space and land art | Associate landscape architect

In my previous article, Why water is a landscape architect’s secret weapon, I discussed how people gravitate towards places that celebrate water. The single act of incorporating or integrating water into a design can have positive impacts on future development and tourism. As a landscape architect, water is an integral instrument in our design palette. Its diverse range of states can transform the spatial qualities of a place and influence how people perceive the landscape. In this article, I will touch on three different ways that designers used and manipulated water in landscapes.

The “tiered cake” effect:

The “tiered cake” fountain, or “wedding cake” fountain, is probably one of the most widely recognized and iconic configurations that people identify fountains with. The fountain, in its most basic form, consists of several concentric basins, stacked above one another, spilling water over the edge and filling the larger basin underneath. The functional structure allows the fountain to adapt to various scales. It can be small enough for you to include in your personal garden or big enough to occupy a city park like the Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park in Chicago, IL.

This fountain's form has been around for ages. Earlier versions were meant to be more pragmatic and provide water for drinking, bathing and washing. However, over time, these fountains became purely decorative. The Buckingham Fountain, for instance, designed and completed in 1927 by Edward H. Bennet, features sculptural elements by French artist Marcel Loyau in the Rococo style (Late Baroque). The structure is composed of four basins clad in elaborately carved granite and pink Georgia marble, art deco styled bronzed sea horses and over 100 jets that push more than 14,000 gallons of water per minute to deliver an impressive water show. This stately fountain is the centrepiece of Grant Park and rooted in the traditional architectural identity of Chicago.

Despite its long-established history and widespread use in traditional landscapes, this fountain type is not limited to only conventional contexts. Claude Cormier proved this fountain’s playful possibilities in the Berczy Park fountain design. Located in Downtown Toronto, Berczy Park is a little parcel of land surrounded by active mixed-use neighbourhoods. The design refresh took into consideration the surge of pet ownership, and the communities need for a dog park alongside a neighbourhood destination. The Victorian-inspired fountain is playfully designed with dogs in mind: two-tiered basins, embellished with quirky life-sized dog sculptures, spurt water from the edges into larger bowls. The custom ornamentation of this fountain encourages dogs (and also, possibly, owners) to get into and engage with the water. This classically inspired quirky fountain is anything but conservative. The design of Berczy fountain draws on historical design and bends it to meet the needs of contemporary culture, creating a much needed light-hearted neighbour park for people to play with their furry companions.

The Vegas Impact:

The showiest of the bunch--this type of fountain is all about theatrics. This choreographed water feature can be set to and synchronized with music and lights giving the viewers a dramatic performance. It’s often composed of multiple water nozzles capable of producing various effects using a pressurized water system.  In a public space, this fountain becomes an event as each moment can be different from the last. The jets transform water into spectacular shows that spin, burst and whirl to music, illuminating a spectrum of colour. The theatrics of the water draw spectators to the space as they wait for that next big moment to happen.

The Bellagio Hotel and Casino is well known for its extreme water shows. People from around the world visit Las Vegas just to see it. The Bellagio fountains consist of over 4,500 lights and 1200 water jets that transform and choreograph 22 million gallons of water into a magnificent show, taking place every 30 minutes during the day and every 15 minutes at night. This fountain has become part of the luxury hotel’s identity as they collaborate with various music and visual artist creating unique, timely water events to encourage repeat business and draw in visitors from across the globe to experience an entirely different performance from the last time.

The Bellagio is the most extreme example of how you can design with this type of system, but more often than not, pressurized water jets can be found at your local spray pad or neighbourhood fountain. We used 52 jets, equipped with choreographed LED lighting in our Water Bend Park and Rose Lake Green court fountain designs. While we designed these water features to meet the scale and needs of a suburban neighbourhood park rather than a Vegas show, we still aimed to offer a performative type of experience for spectators to gather around and watch--a destination place, if you will.

The Ethereal Experience

I find this to be one of the most enchanting uses of water and it has been gaining popularity in the design world for its low water usage. Similar to the fountains described before, it also operates using a pressurized water system. However, it requires approximately less than a cup of water per minute (and per jet) to achieve the desired effect.  Whereas the fountains described before may rely on large bodies of water or a reservoir tank to execute its performance, this fountain creates an evocative landscape by creating the illusion of mist and fog in a public space.

The Miroir d'eau in Bordeaux, France, cleverly uses water by alternating between a mist and mirror effect. The gentle water intervention transforms a sizeable public square into an ethereal experience that celebrates the surrounding historical architecture while providing an engaging fountain to play and cool off in. The rectangular pool is only two centimetres deep and covers an area of 3,450 square metres (37,135 square feet). The thin film of water covers the black granite, giving the illusion of depth, and when undisturbed becomes a mirror-like surface reflecting the 18th-century architecture and sky above. The mirrored surface will transform, emitting fog to alter the perception of the plaza and create a microclimate to cool the visitors.  It is an elegant and expressive water feature that draws together architecture, water, plaza and people through an immersive experience.

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