How to make capital out of a liquid asset

Every half an hour something extraordinary happens to the Inland Revenue. It becomes dazzling, crystalline, romantic
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The Independent Online

The courtyard of Somerset House is an 18th-century neo-classical set-piece, perhaps the greatest of its kind in London. It is grandiloquent, grey and rather petrifying, and its imposing east and west wings are warrened with the offices of the ladies and gents of the Inland Revenue. Last week they found themselves in possession of an unexpected liquid asset - London's first major fountain since Lutyens remodelled the waterworks in Trafalgar Square in the Forties.

The courtyard of Somerset House is an 18th-century neo-classical set-piece, perhaps the greatest of its kind in London. It is grandiloquent, grey and rather petrifying, and its imposing east and west wings are warrened with the offices of the ladies and gents of the Inland Revenue. Last week they found themselves in possession of an unexpected liquid asset - London's first major fountain since Lutyens remodelled the waterworks in Trafalgar Square in the Forties.

The new fountains are conceptually extremely simple: 55 single vertical jets of water set out in a rectangular grid at three metre spacings in the middle of the courtyard. Slim tubes of water rise up to six metres from small, barely noticeable metal plates set into the granite setts and fall again in lolling crystalline tongues; water ripples away across the setts in a luminous brindling of light and the bases of each jet are haloed with a slush of bouncing droplets.

And then - having absorbed the details gradually, item by item - something interesting begins to happen. After a minute or two the courtyard's sombre facades begin to seem less leaden - much more like a stage set than a densely exclusive bastion. The Aldwych and its gruntling herds of cabs cannot be heard above the frish of water on granite. The air in the courtyard - which, moments earlier, was treacly hot and still under Thursday's heat haze - is suddenly seamed with moisture and coolness. We are, say the architects as the photo-opportunity children skitter through the glittering gouts, in the presence of a symbolic grove of trees.

Not quite. The metaphor - standard issue post-classical kit - isn't good enough, because to be in the courtyard is to take part in a kind of deconstruction, a transforming trick of the light in which shimmers and bobbles of water very nearly erase architectural history - or chill it out, at least. And the fountains, so minimalist in one sense, introduce an idea that might blench the faces of the pence-hounds in the east and west wings. They impose a playful, well-drained chaos whose choreographed fibre optic-lit gurgles and chitters echo against masonry behind which the Battle of Trafalgar was planned.

The architects, Jeremy Dixon and Ed Jones, have pulled off a charming sleight-of-hand which has been carried through with considerable attention to detail by Somerset House's co-ordinating architects, Donald Insall Associates. The Edmond J Safra Fountain Court, made possible by his widow's £2m endowment, is an important step forward in the popularisation of a space that has for so long been generally off-limits to the public and inevitably tainted with an aura of pen-pushing bureaucracy to do with births, marriages and deaths.

The new creation may encourage a more general movement towards fountain-making, which made the news last year when the water element of Sheffield's Peace Garden was nominated as one of the Royal Institute of British Architects 50 Buildings of the Year. The Royal Academy is poised to create a fountain in its Piccadilly forecourt and if the Foreign Office took the plunge, London would have a gushing postmodern trio of some international standing.

Fitting in, and yet bringing something new to the table, is the challenge. The Somerset House fountains may seem - in sensual terms - to reduce the weight of history, but they nevertheless remain of the hardcore tradition of the second version of Somerset House, designed by William Chambers in the 1790s. Version one, built at the start of the 17th century to house Anne of Denmark, contained a Mount Parnassus grotto fountain; in the 1630s, Inigo Jones and Hubert Le Sueur produced a bronze-and-black marble goddess Diana, with squirty bits, which was later removed to Bushy Park near Hampton Court.

These references aside, it is Somerset House's long association with the Royal Navy, and its position on the north bank of the Thames, that italicises its true symbolic roots: water and movement. It is not by chance that the first thing the visitor sees on entering the courtyard is a statue of George III and Father Thames. It's rather fitting that, as of last week, the fountains' skewers of water rise cheerfully behind their image like sparkling quote marks.

The technology behind that sparkle is something else. Beneath the courtyard's 45,000 Portuguese granite setts is a plant room that contains a 36,000-litre water reservoir and pumps which can almost completely recycle the 5,800 litres of water spouted by the jets every minute; bundles of fibre-optic lines lead from a bank of twin-disc colour projectors whose light is fed into the four lenses set into each of the water nozzle plates in the courtyard.

The fountains are programmed to perform four-minute routines every half hour, with 11-minute shows three times between 10am and 11am. They are the Radio City Rockettes of the kinetic water world and their shows will imbue the courtyard with constant movement, and punctuate musical or visual promenade events.

And that, first and last, is what the fountains are all about. It is true that they are architectural, in the sense that they modify the volume of the courtyard; and true that the grid of jets relates very precisely to the key bays and axes of Chambers' design. But the point of the fountains is to attract people into the courtyard, either from the Aldwych end or from the raised outdoor gallery facing the Thames, where Dixon and Jones have covered the chic new open-air café in two rows of beautifully articulated, convolvulus-like parasols.

Will the fountains draw the huddled masses, the west-of-Victoria smart set, and City traders largessing it on a Friday night? Dixon and Jones are acutely aware that the fountains are making history and that - for all their apparent sang froid - they will be judged on what has been rather a rush-job: from design to completion in less than a year, a tribute to the Somerset House Trust's go-for-it decision-making.

Judgements can be harsh. When Sir Edward Barry's original Trafalgar Square fountains were activated in 1845, the critic sent to ponder them by Civil Engineer & Architects Journal was liverish about them: they resembled "dumb waiters with the tops knocked off".

When Lutyens remodelled the fountains, the original red and grey granite set pieces were disposed of until, as revealed in a letter to Country Life on 6 January 1955, they "have at length found a home in the heart of Ottawa on a most conspicuous site below Parliament Hill adjoining the Rideau Canal".

But it had been pure chance. The magazine's informant, one H Clifford Smith of Campden Grove, Kensington, noted that after being removed from Trafalgar Square, the fountains "came into the possession of a dealer in statuary garden ornaments and such like at Isleworth, near London. There I chanced to come across them and drew the attentions of the National Arts Collections Fund to them, on the chance that the Fund might be disposed to secure them as a gift to the capital city of one of the Dominions".

It is unlikely that the Dixon and Jones fountain will end up in a Plants-R-Us garden centre in 50 years' time. The simplicity of its design suggests permanence rather than the "novelty" reaction prompted by London's last public objet de l'eau. Richard Huw's mobile water sculpture at the Festival of Britain was described by The Architects' Journal in 1951 as one of several items - including Powell Moya's wonderful Skylon - as "completely useless, in no way symbolic and altogether pleasant to have about the place".

The gushing grid in the courtyard of Somerset House is, as the critic of The Builder described Barry's fountains, "exceedingly chaste". The jets will not cause a furore; they are more likely to seduce gently, 55 pale, willowy graces whose courtly minuets will coax passersby into the heart of a once monumentally ossified space.

They are more than that. They are romantic. They will provoke billing and cooing as late-afternoon shadows drive wedges through the jets of water. They could feature in a remake of Brief Encounter starring either Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley, or Kevin Spacey and Juliette Binoche, in which Hugh/Kev is a feng shui consultant and Liz/Juliette come up to Harrods twice a week from Weybridge to buy Newhaus chocolates.

Until then, we can only count the minutes until the first streaker emerges with a jaunty haloo and whoop from either the east or west wing of Somerset House - a deconstructed tax inspector, once Monsieur Hulot but now ruddy, virile and Lawrentian, yearning to disport himself in a postmodern way among the water sprites.

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