Reclaiming the fountains

Towards alternative urban playgrounds

With their tendency to waste drastic amounts of water and their inclination to recall past governments’ extravagance, urban fountains seems to have lost their functional aura as water suppliers for the people to become rather impersonal gathering landmarks within cities.

Precisely because they are both ambiguous and controversial in their social role, fountains are regularly re-claimed, hacked or even transformed by creatives. Like “microscopic attempts” [1], such initiatives intend to give back to these neglected infrastructures the togetherness function which was once theirs, while breathing life back into cities.



Design: Lawrence Halprin
Location: Portland, Oregon, USA
Date: 1970s

Encouraging sociability in the urban environment was precisely the vision of American landscape designer Lawrence Halprin when - in the late 1960s - he proposed to break down the passive contemplation of fountains “designed only to be looked at” [2]. His solution? Calling for people’s participation. Inspired by his wife, American choreographer Anna Halprin, he created a series of open-air water theatres “for choreographing human movements” - among which was the ziggurat-like Ira Keller’s Fountain in Portland (Oregon, USA). Still today, these concrete fountains encourage people to come into the water, re-connect with the natural element, interact and play.



Design: LIKEarchitects®
Location: Guimarães, Portugal
Date: 2012


In 2012, LIKEarchitects® organised a series of performances called Fountain Hacks. On this occasion, the fountains of Guimarães (Portugal) were ephemerally squatted and transformed into public swimming pools for the inhabitants - thus allowing a complete new relationship with the city’s regular and often passive planning.




Design: PKMN Architectures + ISAD
Location: Chihuahua, Mexico
Date: 2015

If LIKEarchitects® settled for small artefacts - such as plastic ladders and colorful rubber rings - to temporarily disguise each fountain, Spanish architecture collective PKMN opted for a more spectacular infrastructure in Chihuahua (Mexico). Called Urban SPA, the improvised pool temporarily occupied a disused and broken fountain in the heart of the Parque Urueta, in an attempt to revitalise the area. Built by PKMN and Mexican design duo Memela - together with small organisations and the local population - the wooden architecture reflected the “collective imaginary” [4] of the inhabitants and their need for a shared recreational space.


Design: EXYZT
Location: Warsaw, Poland
Date: 2011

Bringing back life to a vacant fountain was also French collective EXYZT’s intention with their 2011’s project Unexpected Fountain Occupation (UFO), in Warsaw, Poland. By turning an old fountain into a provisory camp and setting up a series of in-common infrastructures - such as a kitchen, a pool and other facilities -, EXYZT’s aim was to “offer to the population a 2 months long place of crazy performances and activities”. [5]



Design: Raumlabor
Location: Montreal
Date: 2013


EXYZT’s concept of performative appropriation and donation perfectly matches German collective Raumlabor's analysis of the meaning and role of fountains in the city, who refer to these infrastructures as both “celebrations of joy” and “public gifts”. [6] Yet, at first sight, the empty concrete fountain that the collective found in Montreal was far from being a festive location. Left empty most of the year - due to the long and cold Canadian winters - the dry fountain provided a sad and depressing void within the urban decorum. Determined to propose a meaningful alternative, Raumlabor - with a handful of students of the UQAM design school - imagined the Fontaine Grise (literally Grey Fountain). Developed during a “week of action together”, the ephemeral re-appropriation of the empty fountain turned it into a space to relax, read and gather - thus demonstrating that “things are not entirely what they seem to be, can change, (...) and can provide more.” [6]



[1] Doina Petrescu, “Losing Control Keeping Desire”, in Architecture and Participation, (ed.) Peter Blundell Jones, Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till, 2005, p. 46;[2]; [3] Wrote American landscape designer Lawrence Halprin in his book Cities published in 1963; [4]; [5] [6];

Cover_LIKEarchitects®’s fountain hacks project, Photo by Dinis Sottomayor & Francisca Sottomayor © LIKEarchitects®; 1_Lawrence Halprin’s Ira Keller Fountain (originally called Forecourt Fountain) in Portland, Oregon, 1970; 2_Recently “reactivated” the Ira Keller Fountain became the stage for Anna Halprin-inspired choreography “City Dance” - on the occasion of the Time-Based Art Festival, in September 2008; 3-4_LIKEarchitects®, Fountain hacks project, Photo by Dinis Sottomayor & Francisca Sottomayor © LIKEarchitects®; 5-6_The Urban Spa project, by PKMN Architectures + ISAD, July 2015, Chihuahua, México, photos by Taller del Desierto / Taller del Desierto / Bieno Jiménez / Nikola Anakabe, Courtesy of ENORME; 7-8_The UFO project by EXYZT; 10-13_The Fontaine Grise by collective Raumlabor;

Published: 22 Mar. 2017


#Raumlabor #PKMN #LIKEarchitects® #LawrenceHalprin #EXYZT #Fountain #SpaceAppropriation #Water

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