Transparent medusas rose to the sea’s surface, throbbed there a moment, then flew off, swaying toward the Moon. Harmonising with the medusas, the sea itself would rise too, far beyond the summit of the mountain’s peak, attracted by the heavenly stars. In each display the water would narrowly avoid skimming the edge of the Earth’s plate – countering the effects of gravity in its daily show of flair and finesse.
The ‘dancing’ fountain was first described by Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician and engineer from Roman Egypt: “A bird made to whistle by flowing water. A trumpet sounded by flowing water. Birds made to sing and be silent alternately by flowing water.” From here, through recollections of the fountain at the centre of the garden of Eden, the parting seas and Aphrodite’s Botticellian scallop-shell debut; alien mechanisms, the Pillars of Hercules and Louis XIV’s will to demonstrate his power over nature, we eventually meet in Los Angeles, at the headquarters of WET – or, Water Entertainment Technologies – the firm behind the world’s largest, most dynamic and hi-tech water features. Experience Passion. Experience WET.
WET, founded by former Disney Imagineers Mark Fuller, Melanie Simon and Alan Robinson in 1983, has designed hundreds of fountains and water features around the world, using water, fire, ice, fog and lights, alongside music. Perhaps its most renowned work is the Fountains of the Bellagio, which front Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, and are considered by Steven Spielberg to be, “the greatest single piece of public entertainment on planet Earth”. In terms of physical scale, WET’s most impressive creation is the Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system set on a 30-acre manmade lake at the centre of Downtown Dubai.
In the ‘Finale’ to Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates describes Tartarus, the deep abyss, a chasm bored right through the earth – quite the opposite to a shallow manmade lake in Dubai, but with a similar effect – where all rivers flow together: “This fluid has no bottom or resting place: it simply pulsates upwards and downwards, and the air and the wind round about it does the same… as the breath that men breathe is always exhaled and inhaled in succession, so the wind pulsates in unison with the fluid, creating terrible, unimaginable blasts as it enters and as it comes out.”
Tartarus evokes the drama of the contemporary fountain, but the opposite expression. Being caught among its waters would only be in punishment, the axis of its abyss covering the axis of the *only recently identified!* spherical Earth. Swayed by his study of Pythagorean mathematics, Plato declared the world was declared “round as from a lathe” –although at the time, the word ‘world’ commonly referred to the heavens: Tarturus’ “unimaginable blasts” took in all the ‘world’s’ horrors.
As the contemporary fountain reaches its peak in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, it also returns to its source, the desert – although over a couple of thousand years the fountain has shifted a couple of thousand kilometres east, from Roman Egypt to the Arabian Gulf. While what might be considered the main source of desert water is a mirage, or a contradiction in terms, underground springs, rivers and lakes aren’t uncommon, and wells and oases – either dug or naturally formed – can support plant and animal life. Lakes occasionally form above ground in desert basins, from the precipitation or meltwater of glaciers above. They tend to be shallow, and consequently strong winds cause them to glide – like a stone skimming water – across low-lying land. When they evaporate off, the clay, salt or sand left behind forms in shallow plates, known as playa; and in North America many of the playa are relics of Lake Bonneville, which covered much of Utah, Nevada and Idaho during the last ice age. In 1912, an area of the Bonneville Salt Flats was marked out for motor sports – the Bonneville Speedway – and since then it has been the location for a number of land speed records. The first was Sir Malcom Campbell’s 1935 record of 301.129mph in the “Blue Bird”, and most recently Roger Schroer’s 2016 record of 341.264mph, in the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 3, an electric car specifically designed to break the land speed record on the Bonneville Speedway.
Although the playa continue to erode, the various muscle cars, modified aircraft belly tanks and Harley Davidson Road Glides are having considerably less impact than climate change on the shifts in surface. In The Endless Summer – the 1964 surf movie where narrator Bruce Brown follows two surfers as they circumnavigate the globe, following the summer, and searching out “the perfect wave” – the trio ride the desert dunes on their route towards the water off South Africa’s Cape St. Francis. Shifting the sands of time, they worked with the rhythm of the folds in the same way that they’d later ride the curl of each wave. Brown, describes the sensations the camera couldn’t record:
“The thing you can’t show is the fantastic speed and the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. It’s the kind of a wave that makes you talk to yourself. I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves must have been breaking here, but until this day no one had ever ridden one.”
Both the drivers pursuing land speed records, and the surfers seeking out the perfect wave, are attempting to defy the laws of physics. They are also, to differing extents, working with nature, letting it hold power over them, and define the terms. Neither are working against the laws of gravity.
In the Idea Playground, WET’s R&D lab, their equivalent of Imagineers work to make water do the seemingly impossible, or at least the improbable. In “Water Music”, published in a 2010 edition of The New Yorker, writer John Seabrook considered the roots of the work of WET’s innovators, and what came before their compressed-air cannons, which conquer the problem of gravity:
“Water is heavy, and fountain designers through the ages have been preoccupied with finding ways to counter the effects of gravity. The ancient Romans figured out how to use gravity to their advantage, by forcing water into fountains from high aqueducts; the weight of the down-rushing water created the head. During the Renaissance, the ancients’ hydraulic innovations were rediscovered, and the Popes restored and embellished the fountains of Rome, commissioning the great sculptors of the day, who used water to give their figures the liquid glue of life. In the nineteenth century, mechanical water pumps began to be used in fountains, which made fountaineering easier, and today anyone with an electrical outlet can run one in his back yard.”
As well as being heavy, water is unruly. While surfers work with the wave, and submit to the unknown, the fountaineer works against it, asserting their power over nature. A fountain can ‘dignify the water’ and as Seabrook wrote, give stone sculpture “the liquid glue of life”; fountains patiently give lessons in transience, and choreographed drama, in a way that is diametrically opposed to the true nature of cascading, or undulating water. They symbolise both the emergence and disappearance of fresh, or chlorinated water, and mark the jubilant entry of water into a city. Mimicking the nature of a spring, the fountains and wells of ancient Rome would have been the primary source of fresh water in the city, before the advent of modern plumbing. Having figured out aqueducts, they channelled water towards the city for the sake of supply rather than performance, and the gleaming, often decorated stone wellsprings would form the centre of social life.
The channeling of water, via aqueducts, hydraulics or pumps, contains the ungraspable rush, while maintaining the wonder in its lively, life-giving swirl. As the moon invented natural rhythm, civilisation uninvented it, and in its place built altars to Man’s influence. A prime example is Louis XIV’s commissioning of Les Grandes Eaux Musicales at the Château de Versailles. In doing so he invented the modern musical fountain, which synchronised the dancing water with music and fireworks. Sculpture formed the principal element, the water jets animating and enlivening the stone and lead forms, caught in the midst of victory or loss. There are fountains dedicated to: the four seasons, animal fights, dragons, the story of Latona, Apollo and Neptune; each representing Louis XIV’s vision of his own confidence and power.
The jets d’eau, berceaux, nappes, cascades, grottes, bassins, gerbes, armes d’eau, grilles, champignons, buffets, fontaines and théâtres, wreaked havoc with the château’s water supply. Initially, water had to be pumped from ponds and reservoirs close to the château; and in 1671, when the Grand Canal was completed, a system of windmills pumped water back into the garden, but never enough to keep the fountains in full-play. The king nevertheless demanded that every fountain be frolicking at all times, and those in view of the château danced with the dedication of Fred Astaire. Further along the garden, fountaineers would signal each other with whistles to switch fountains on and off as the king paraded through his grounds – giving the impression of life everlasting. The fountains would later be supplied by water lifted from the Seine, by the Machine de Marly, and even with the château’s equivalent of austerity measures, the gardens consumed more water per day than the entire city of Paris.
When hotelier Steve Wynn opened the Fountains of Bellagio in 1998, he described being hit by the tricksy water’s spray as akin to “being baptised”; as the jets, pumps and music dignified the water – which was Louis XIV’s belief – the water dignified its people. For the king and his swanky contemporaries, fountains call to mind something altogether larger, something Nicola Salvi, architect of Rome’s Trevi fountain, articulated as: “the only everlasting source of continuous being”. But as much as water can be coaxed, shaped and transformed, what makes it a (not actually everlasting) source of (comparatively short-lived) being is really the fact that it can’t be stilled. It inspires and dissolves, it’s life-giving and purifying, it spoils and drowns; its uncanny movement ungraspable and uncontainable.
Published in 2018 by Chateau International, with contributions from Soft Baroque and Bryony Quinn.