A decent fountain throws water up into the air to refract sunlight and cool the surroundings, writes Terry Prone

GRAND shrink in the evenings, isn’t there? Autumn has arrived prematurely, this year, with earlier sunsets ushering in chilly nights, followed by darker mornings.

Maybe Mother Nature wants a balance, after the summer of Lucifer, which delivered heatwaves, deaths, and discomfort across the continent. The statistics were grim.

The photographs were great. Lovely shots from metropolises all over Europe, showing city dwellers cooling off, in, or around the municipal fountains.

Many of the newly-wet were half-dressed children, but in a shot from Kiev, Ukraine, a newly-wed stood in her white dress and veil, hands and flowers raised in thanks for the cooling temperatures that flying water can so pleasantly achieve.

Fountains have always been vital to comfort, even to survival, in the centre of those European cities, which get crushingly hot during the summer.

When engineers in ancient Rome were creating the first fountains, they used gravity to take water from a mountain spring into a city or town, for washing and drinking.

They worked out that if their water source was high enough, they could propel it decoratively upwards.

A town square could then be built around this attractive feature, allowing for pleasant walks by villagers as the sun set.

Because the availability of water was fundamental to the development of the very concept of the urban fountain, when Rome developed a second major water source, Acqua Virgo, in 1543, it widened the understanding of what water could do in, and for, a city and led to a few hundred years during which the city fountain was regnant.

“City fountains could be ornamental, as well as useful,” wrote architectural historian, Mark Girouard.

“Soon, it became apparent that, like obelisks, columns, statues and gates, they would also be used to glorify the papacy, in general, and the people who set them up, in particular.”

The fountain at the front of the Custom House in Dublin was intended to glorify not the people who set it up, but Irishmen who had died in the area during the 1916 insurrection.

Best-kept secret in Ireland, that one.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when I was a child surveying the world from the smoke-filled upper floor of a CIÉ double-decker, I was never told that it commemorated anything, nor did I have the significance of the statue of mourning Ireland, which is at the centre of this water feature, explained to me. Not that I would have paid any attention.

I was too enthralled by children swimming in the oblong pond around the fountain, outside Gandon’s Custom House, and was desperately wanting to join them. No, my mother said.

They were poor children, who didn’t have baths at home. I was silenced, but not satisfied by this.

It seemed to me that the poor children were getting the better end of the deal. Who’d want a bath, when you could swim in the open air and wave at passing cars?

Those passing cars, of course, did not need water, whereas the horses they were putting out of business did.

If, at the beginning of the twentieth century, you counted the decorative, sculpture-laden fountains in the average European city and then counted the watering points for horses, you would probably find that the latter outnumbered the former.

Particularly in Britain, keeping the horse comfortable and hydrated has always been a priority. Once cars took over city streets, these watering holes disappeared.

At the same time, fountains and surrounding ponds began to take on an aggressively decorative function, predicated on the reduction of nearby humans to a purely spectator role.

Writing about this tendency in the 1980s, William H Whyte complained that it was just not right to put water in front of people and then keep them away from it, yet that was what was happening in American cities.

Whyte might have been particularly sensitive to the trend, because, in addition to his non-fiction, book-length reporting on issues like “the organisation man” in corporate America, he was a professional photographer.

“Pools and fountains are installed,” he wrote, “then immediately posted with signs admonishing people not to touch…Safety is the usual reason given for keeping people away.

This is a legitimate concern, but there are ways, short of electrocution, for handling it.”

One of those ways is tolerance: Accepting that people use the facilities of a city in ways that suit their individual selves.

In my early 20s, I once dived, fully dressed, into the Fountain of Trevi, in Rome, which unnerved the man in my life no end, because he thought I was going to lose my hard contact lenses and knew I didn’t have spares.

The practicality of his response was disappointing, but the lenses stuck with me and the crowd around the pool, into which the fountain water fed, gave me a round of applause.

The two of us walked back to the hotel, me dripping as we went, and the Romans we encountered nodded, smiled, and said “Ah, Trevi,” in warm acknowledgement of a romantic gesture each perpetrator believes to be creative, but which, in fact, is generic.

Tourists of a certain age and level of besottedness go into the pool around the statues. They have for decades. Nobody cares. In fact, they seem to quite like it.

In the last 50 years, the joy of fountains has diminished.

Many designers miss the point that a decent fountain throws water up into the air to refract sunlight and cool the surroundings.

Up-tossed water catches every breeze, scattering in a cooling mist, like a breath blown on sweaty skin.

Instead, they have pointed the water downward in the fountains they have created.

Even the shoulders of Behan’s angels, outside Trinity, are not reached by the paltry jets of water below them.

Historically, the only time they became interesting was when a student turfed a bottle of Quix into the mix, generating an effervescence of bubbles.

The Anna Livia fountain that used to occupy the middle of O’Connell St was even worse, resembling a bored woman in a cold bath of constantly recycled water that had no life to it.

Admittedly, none of the fountains in Dublin is as bad as the Princess Diana memorial in London, which was a circular, artificial canal, rather than a fountain, and which had to be closed, because it was so dangerous.

The summer of Lucifer is not going to be a once-off.

Our major cities are going to get hotter and hotter during the summer, and we’re going to need many more fountains to cool the surrounding air and make walking in the city a pleasure.

It would be wonderful if this led to a renaissance in fountain design, which gave passersby the simple pleasure of tiny droplet rainbows in an infinity of fascination.


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