Troubled waters

Mired in controversy, beset by safety problems and plagued by 'the wrong kind of leaves' - the ill-fated Diana Memorial Fountain is now set to reopen, again. Adrian Turpin investigates a truly British fiasco
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The Independent Online

Anyone who believes that "burying" embarrassing news stopped with the resignation of the government spin-doctor Jo Moore should think again. As Britain wakes up to a new political landscape on Friday, the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain will be discreetly reopened in Hyde Park, four months after it was last shut for renovations.

It is hard to see this confluence of events as entirely coincidental: while Saturday's papers will be full of speculation on a Blair-Brown handover (or shocked reaction to a Howard win), the latest instalment in a truly British fiasco will be relegated to somewhere between the knitting column and the crossword.

Fiasco is a strong word, and perhaps it needs qualification. It was inevitable that any memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales would be beset by controversy. The huge media interest meant that there was nowhere to hide the smallest mistakes. Unlike in, say, France, there is an innate British scepticism that loves to hear of a public project going badly wrong, and the Dome and the "wobbly" Millennium Bridge provided a template.

It's also true that Diana's image as the "people's princess" would have been a challenge to anyone designing a monument. There would always be moaning minnies who thought it too grand or not grand enough, too regally remote or too populist.

But, in spite of all this, when the Queen cut the ribbon on 6 July last year, not even the greatest pessimist could have predicted that the fountain would spend half its first 10 months closed to the public and drained of water. The arrival of spring was meant to have heralded children paddling, not bulldozers ripping up the grass. So what went wrong?

It wasn't as if no one had had enough time to get things right: the memorial opened almost seven years after Diana's death. From the date that the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Committee was set up in January 1998, it took almost three years to decide that a fountain in a London park would be an appropriate memorial. Even then the committee, chaired by Gordon Brown, was not close to choosing a designer. Instead it formed another committee.

Actually, this wasn't such a bad idea. Better that people who knew something about art and architecture should choose the design, and it is hard to find much fault with the make-up of the group. Sandra Percival of the Public Art Development Trust and James Lingwood of Artangel both had track records in commissioning public artworks.

Hands-on experience came from Edward Jones, the architect responsible for the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House, and the landscape designer Kim Wilkie. The Royal Parks, on whose land the memorial was to be sited and which would be responsible for its upkeep, was represented by its chief executive William Weston.

To these were added three journalists: The Daily Telegraph's art critic David Sylvester; the same paper's architecture writer Giles Worsley; and The Times's art critic Richard Cork. Chairing the body was Rosa Monckton, the wife of the Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson. Diana was godmother to her daughter Domenica, born with Down syndrome.

As a group, it seemed well balanced between traditionalism and modernism. Progress, however, was slow. Part of the problem was finding a site. Not everyone loved the princess enough to want a memorial to her in their favourite spot. The Friends of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens were strongly opposed, fearing the effect of "grief tourism".

"It was a very tense time," Monckton said later. "It had taken far too long for us to get to the stage where we could actually vote on anything. There had been so many unforeseen problems: European regulations, discussions with the head of the Royal Parks. I have been in business all my life and managed to get things done. But here I was, some years on from Diana's death, and we still didn't have the go-ahead. It was very embarrassing."

But the real problems started after a site was found beside the Serpentine and an open international design competition was launched. By July 2002, a shortlist of 11 entries had been whittled down to two: an avant-garde diamond-shaped water sculpture by Anish Kapoor; and a giant granite oval moat in which children could paddle, proposed by the American landscape artist Kathryn Gustafson and her London-based partner Neil Porter.

By this time, Sylvester had died and not been replaced. When the eight members came to vote, they were deadlocked. Monckton used a casting vote to back the Gustafson scheme, but the issue was still referred to the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. In what she described as "the judgement of Solomon", she plumped for Gustafson.

No one has revealed the conversations that took place in the fountain committee as it struggled to decide, or the reaction when Monckton took it on herself to break the deadlock. However, Cork and Jones have suggested that the wrong decision was made. Speaking of the rejected Kapoor design, Cork told the London Evening Standard in July 2004: "It's a great loss. It would have been an extraordinary, world-class memorial. People would have come from the four corners to see it and to contemplate it - there is a difference between contemplation and splashing around in water."

That's a matter of opinion. More worryingly, the same article reported that the committee did not appear to have discussed whether Gustafson's design would actually work. "Doubts about the fountain working do not seem to have been raised," the Standard wrote, "because the committee would have received the proposals on the understanding that they were feasible. The committee's task was to decide which was the better design, not to assess whether there could be flaws in their feasibility." The commissioning process, it seems, was deeply flawed.

Last year, 6 July was bright and warm as the Queen paid tribute to Diana at the fountain's opening. Reconciliation was the order of the day. "Of course, there were difficult times," she told the 1,000 guests. "But memories mellow with the passing of the years." k v Diana's brother, Charles Spencer, talked to Prince Charles and told reporters that "the rift thing was overplayed". The band played Handel's Water Music, and Prince William lingered in contemplation. It seemed that the fountain was already working a healing magic.

For Gustafson, it was a day of satisfaction. The £3.6m, 210-metre, 700-ton ellipse of Cornish granite looked spectacular. Her concept of two streams of water flowing in opposite directions to come to rest in a tranquil reflecting pool appeared to work.

"I've never seen a job go as smoothly as this," she said. "I sometimes wondered if we had a guardian angel. The best bit will be when the public like it." She looked forward to how younger visitors would react: "Children will paddle and play, chase and race sticks in the fountain's shallow water."

Within 24 hours, the problems began. The next day, foliage blocked the fountain, causing it to overflow and provoking jokes about the "wrong kind of leaves". A second stoppage was caused within a week by a blocked pump.

The sniping began. A critic called the fountain "a moat without a castle". Another compared it to a giant Scalextric track. The words "puddle" and "Jacuzzi" and "drainage ditch" were used. Sir Elton John said it was hideous and reminded him of a sewer.

You suspect that Elton's opinion on architecture will not have troubled Gustafson unduly. But worse was to come. On 22 July, the fountain was closed for safety reasons after three people slipped and injured themselves.

Some observers pointed the finger at a build-up of slippery algae, but this was denied. Rory Coonan, a former head of architecture at the Arts Council, who designed Birmingham's Victoria Square Fountain, described the fountain as "inherently unsafe" and suggested that it would be closed permanently within six months. Safety changes at this stage were "an attempt to put a sticking plaster on a poor design," he added, and the Department for Culture should admit it had made a mistake.

Jowell, at her most nannyish, chose to lay the blame on members of the public, who needed to treat the memorial in a "more respectful manner".

When the fountain did reopen in August, the floor of the granite ring had been roughened to provide more grip, a chain fence surrounded it - which could be closed to restrict numbers - and six security staff were deployed to stop the public from entering the water. This increased the running costs by £100,000 a year.

Gustafson was apologetic - up to a point. "I feel we made a mistake letting people walk in the water," she told The Guardian. "I apologise for that." But she appeared to have forgotten her words at the opening about wading children playing Pooh sticks.

Asked whether, when she came up with her design, she had envisaged people washing their dogs or paddling in it, she replied: "No, I thought people would picnic near the memorial, walk by and run their hands through the water, think about their lives, think about Diana."

And so to the last (perhaps only the latest) alterations, which began on 10 January. These involve an extended stone and resin path, improved drainage and the laying of thicker turf - the kind used on professional football pitches - to stop the grass, trampled by up to 5,000 visitors an hour, looking like the Somme. But not everyone is happy.

A spokesman for Westminster Council, which has the right to be consulted about the design, says that the local authority is concerned about the fence that remains. "We don't think it's very attractive. We'd like them to rethink it by mid-June with something that is a bit more realistic."

Other critics still have more fundamental objections. The American architect Charles Jencks - a leading landscape designer, who last year won the £100,000 Gulbenkian Museum Prize for his Landform Ueda, a great grass sculpture outside the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh - has history in the Diana fountain saga: a design he submitted with the architects Terry Farrell & Partners was one of the 11 shortlisted.

Jencks is critical of how the selection was handled, but his real problem with the fountain as built is how the concept has been watered down. "I really like Gustafson's work, and the wading-pool idea was brilliant. But if you can't wade in it, that's very underwhelming; the whole purpose is killed. You can't be half a virgin, and you can't be half a wading pool. And if it's not a wading pool, they should simply grass it over and call it Diana's Folly."

Neil Porter says this view is based on a misapprehension. "It wasn't ever meant to be a wading pool," he insists, as Gustafson has. "It was designed as a ring of water that was visually appealing. A lot of opinions have been formed by people, not visiting it, but seeing it on the television or in the newspapers."

Porter blames some teething troubles on the rush to be ready for the opening. "Water features need a good period of testing and that chance wasn't really given. A lot of the issues have been more associated with the management and maintenance of the memorial in daily use, which in a way hadn't been picked up by the Royal Parks until too late - although obviously that comes back to us to some extent."

So does Porter wake up at 3am and wish he'd never got involved? "As you can imagine, we're bound to think that at times," he says guardedly.

Gustafson and Porter may yet have the last laugh. In a survey in December, 21 per cent of people asked to name a British icon for the future suggested the Diana fountain, second only to the London Eye.

For the moment, it is hard to see past a crude symbolism running through the whole saga. A memorial that was meant to be accessible and informal - the people's fountain - ended up fenced in, protected by security guards, mired in controversy. Perhaps the princess got a more appropriate memorial than we think.