Architecture: A bigger splash for the Millennium

Fountains are a source of civic delight but in Britain they have all but dried up. Jonathan Glancey proposes a project to go with the flow
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The Independent Culture
When the heat is on, we - women, men, dogs, horses - turn to water. Oh, but British towns and cities... water, what water? Over the past 50 years fountains, drinking troughs and other sources of running water in Britain have either dried up or been abandoned. In the very centre of London's Regent's Park, there is a delightful Gothic Revival drinking fountain that has not worked in my lifetime. Every reader of this news- paper will have a favourite fountain that ran dry years ago. A fountain without water is not just useless, but frustrating. And, in the current heatwave, cruel.

The Victorians were the great providers of fountains and drinking troughs throughout Britain. These were provided as a matter of civic pride and, more immediately, to give a source of fresh drinking water to combat cholera and other decimating diseases. Troughs for horses were erected at strategic points throughout towns, cities and villages. Many fountains, in an age where dogs were not despised, were built with special marble bowls for our best friend; my favourite is at Crewe station.

The reason, presumably, that so many fountains and troughs have dried up or been cut off from their water supply is a simple one to do with the way we live now. Nearly everyone in Britain has immediate access to running water in homes and places of work. If they need a drink on a hot day, they can pop into a cafe and buy chilled fizzy drinks or bottled water costing as much for a bottle as most labourers in Bolivia and Bangladesh earn in a day. Horses, meanwhile, have taken a bit of back saddle over the past 50 years. As late as the mid-Sixties, rag-and-bone men stopped to let their nags drink from municipal troughs. Today, the horses have been replaced by beaten-up Transits and the troughs filled with plants at best, cigarette ends and drink cans at worst.

The reason, however, to have fountains playing with water in the Nineties, has relatively little to do with function and everything to do with ornament and delight. This summer many readers will travel to towns and cities across the Continent. On the hottest days, they will sit at open air cafes besides voluptuous fountains. This is true of Rome and Barcelona, Paris and Lyon. In some Italian towns - Viterbo springs to mind - fountains are found in every square, gushing water from hundreds of sensual baroque mouths, horns, beaks and cornucopia. Tritons spout fizzing water in the hot, blue skies. Languid water nymphs follow in their energetic wake. Sea horses, dolphins, and all manner of monsters and grotesques join in this urban chorus of foam and spray. The water caresses our bare arms, and we feel at ease with the noisiest of Italian cities. Horns might blare from a thousand Cinquecentos, but the sound and feel of running, spouting water keep the civic excesses of the late 20th century at bay.

So many images of sensual pleasure or unbridled happiness are associated with fountains. Think of the way film-makers have used them; think of Anita Ekberg in that dress (a miracle of structural engineering) disporting herself in Rome's famous Fontana di Trevi in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Or of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Blum (Gene Wilder) dancing to the tune of the fountains in front of New York's Lincoln Center in Mel Brook's The Producers.

Italian towns and cities are lucky in that they are never far from the Apennines, the mountain range that forms the backbone of this beautiful peninsula, and are thus provided with torrents of mountain water.

British cities must get their water from elsewhere. Birmingham takes its water from the glorious Elan Valley in mid-Wales via some of the most sublime waterworks the world has to offer. Liverpool relies on Lake Vrynwy in the north of the rain-swept principality. London has its artesian wells. Although getting water to British cities is not always easy, this is no reason not to have fountains playing in the most central streets. For, once engineers have got water to Birmingham, Liverpool and London, there is no reason for them not to be encouraged to let rip with decorative waterworks. The water shot up into the air through fountains is recycled; there is very little waste. In any case, what water is lost into the atmosphere on a hot day will come back as rain tomorrow, if not today.

There are examples of spectacular fountains in Britain, and the most thrilling of all is still very much at play. This is the Emperor Fountain at Chatsworth House, Bakewell, Derbyshire. When first tested on 1 June 1844 (according to the Guinness Book of Records), it attained the then unprecedented height of 260ft (79 metres). In recent years it has not been played to more than 250ft (76m) and rarely beyond 180ft (55m).

Note the word "played". City fountains today are, for the most part, all about play and delight. In Britain, such words (beauty is another) are looked on with protestant suspicion. Cities are not for enjoyment; they are for making money. And money is made by cheeseparing, keeping costs to a minimum and distributing profits to shareholders rather than on making the hard-worked city a more beautiful place to live, work and play. The sound of running water has been all but banned from our cities; it is too pleasurable by half.

We do, however, have the money to spend - through the National Lottery and the various Millennium funding bodies - on a nationwide project that would bring running, leaping, dancing water back into all our towns and cities. A Millennium fountain project could take stock of each and every fountain and trough in Britain, estimate costs of repair and then get them working again.

That would be the first stage of what could be one of the simplest, most delightful and, potentially, most popular Millennium projects of all. The second stage would be to invest in brand new fountains and waterworks. There have been precious few of these in Britain over the past 50 years, and those that have been built have often been kitsch in the extreme - the novelty fountains found in out-of-town shopping malls, the bronze horses galloping through water-sprayed rocks beloved by property developers and the embarassing waterfalls provided dreamed up by interior designers in the marble-lined lobbies of Post-Modern office blocks imported half-heartedly from New York and Chicago.

Throughout Europe, there are examples of superb new waterworks and fountains. Some of the best are in the heart of Lyon, a city largely unknown to British tourists but a handsome, bourgeois city that has, over many years, invested a small fortune in the way it works and the way it looks. The most recent additions to this special city are a number of ultra- modern fountains. These employ sophisticated computer-control, which, while far from essential to the working of a great public fountain, adds a playful dimension beyond the capabilities of conventional hydraulic engineering. One fountain, in particular, in a square in the very heart of the city, stays in the mind of every visitor to Lyon: as pedestrians amble across the square, small pillars of water begin to dance on either side of them. The nearer they get to the centre of the square, the more jets rise - rank upon rank - and the higher they get. In the very middle, pedestrians find themselves passing through a forest of water, and yet so designed that not a drop will touch their shoulders. It is immense fun and the novelty appears not to have worn off in two years.

We need to organise a team of our best architects, artists, engineers and city planners to develop a realistic strategy for building new fountains across the country. Here are works of art that can be immensely sophisticated and yet popular in a way that many paintings and sculptures can never be because they will always seem esoteric to the majority of people to sit by civic fountains to eat sandwiches and cool off for an hour away from the stuffy summer office.

If any readers have seen fountains around the world that we could learn from, let me know. No unicorns, boys riding on the backs of dolphins or anything else better suited to theme parks than city centres, please. Meanwhile, make a list of the fountains near you that have not worked for years and let's see if it possible to work out a strategy that will have them all chuckling and sparkling in three years' time.