Three ways landscape architects can play with water

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Principal | Chief Executive Officer

Designing a water feature to blend with an urban ecosystem is a task best left to an experienced landscape architect.

After all, it’s only a professional with the required expertise in the field who can transform the design into something captivating and iconic. Water is an integral part of a landscape architect’s design palette. Its diverse range of states can transform the spatial qualities of a place and influence how people perceive the landscape.

In short, a landscape architect will know all about the aspects that might be useful while designing a water feature, especially for a densely populated public space.

In this guide, I'll discuss the benefits of adding water amenities to urban sites and a few ways a landscape architect can use and play with water features in such areas.

What does water add to a public space?

There are numerous benefits to adding water in landscape architecture—whether it's to enhance the landscape's appearance or to feel closer to nature. Simply put, constructing a water fountain will give you the opportunity to create a unique space that is functional and visually appealing.

Water Boat Fountain, Valencia, Spain

Most landscape architects globally believe that there’s no other water feature as majestic as a fountain. Some of the world’s most spectacular fountains, such as The Water Boat Fountain in Valencia, Spain, and The Keller Fountain Park in Portland, Oregon, will back me in this regard.

These water structures are the modern masterpieces of some of the most famous landscape architects in the world. While fountains can serve as landmarks in the places they’re situated, they can also offer many environmental benefits:

1. Visual delight

A water fountain amidst a busy surrounding is a delightful sight to come across every day. Adding it to public space will prove to be aesthetically appealing. At the same time, it can help provide the “fun” and “welcoming” aspect in the lives of pedestrians moving through the space.

2. Cooling effect

Designing an outdoor feature with water in mind can help break the monotony of solid structures, such as buildings and high-rises, primarily seen in urban sectors. Apart from that, water, known for its cooling properties, will help create a micro-oasis for people to cool off in the hot sun.

The water spray released into the air has a significant cooling effect by helping bring down the surrounding area's temperature.

3. Ambient noise reduction

The sound produced by flowing water has a calming effect on the mind and body. Additionally, it helps absorb the ambient noise caused by traffic, pedestrian activity, and buzzing crowds—common in busy urban sites. A landscape architect can execute the design, location and construction of a fountain in such a way that mindfully masks undesirable noises within the urban environment, making the space a departure from an otherwise hectic and stressful day.

4. A sense of place

Dense urban areas with narrow streets, high-rises, and almost no greenery are common in cities worldwide, failing to provide interest for tourists and locals alike. But adding a fountain or any other feature to the space can change its overall dynamic.

Not only will people be excited to explore the surroundings, but it will also provide value and definition to the public site. Long story short, a water feature in landscape architecture serves as an attractive force to both visitors and daily commuters.

Serving as famous landmarks, people prefer gathering, socializing and clicking photographs around the notable fountains designed by the most talented landscape architects.

Three ways you can use water in landscape architecture

1. The “tiered cake” water effect

The “tiered cake” or “wedding cake” fountain is probably one of the most widely recognized and iconic configurations for how people identify fountains. In its most basic form, this fountain consists of several concentric basins stacked atop another to let the water spill over the edge, filling each larger basin underneath.

The functional structure allows the fountain to adapt to various scales. It can be small enough to include in your garden or big enough to occupy a city park like the Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois.

A three tiered fountain lit up along in front of the Chicago skyline
Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, Chicago, IL

This fountain's form has been around for ages. Earlier versions were meant to be more pragmatic and provide water for drinking, bathing and washing. However, over time, these fountains became purely decorative.

Edward H. Bennet designed and completed the Buckingham Fountain in 1927 with featured sculptural elements by French artist, Marcel Loyau, in the Rococo style (Late Baroque). The structure has four basins clad in elaborately carved granite and pink Georgia marble, art deco styled bronzed sea horses and over 100 jets that push more than 14,000 gallons of water per minute to deliver an impressive show. This stately fountain is the centerpiece of Grant Park and is rooted in Chicago's traditional architectural identity.

Despite its long-established history and widespread use in traditional landscapes, this fountain type can be unconventional. Claude Cormier proved its playful possibilities in the Berczy Park fountain design. Located in Downtown Toronto, Berczy Park is a small parcel of land surrounded by active mixed-use neighborhoods.

Cormier considered the communities' desire for a dog park alongside a gathering place in the design refresh. He playfully designed the Victorian-inspired fountain with dogs in mind: two-tiered basins, embellished with quirky life-sized dog sculptures, spurt water from the edges into more extensive bowls.

Berczy Park Fountain in Toronto, ON

The custom ornamentation of this fountain encourages dogs (and possibly owners) to get into and engage with the water. The design of the Berczy fountain draws on a historical design and bends it to meet the needs of contemporary culture, creating a light-hearted neighbor park for people to play with their furry companions.

2. The Vegas water impact

All about theatrics—this choreographed water feature can be set to and synchronized with music and lights giving the viewers a dramatic performance.

It’s often composed of multiple water nozzles that produce various effects using a pressurized water system. The jets transform water into spectacular shows that spin, burst and whirl to music, illuminating a spectrum of color. The theatrics of the water draw spectators to the space as they wait for that next big moment to happen.

The Bellagio Hotel and Casino is well known for its extreme water shows. People from around the world visit Las Vegas to see it. The Bellagio fountains consist of over 4,500 lights and 1200 water jets that transform and choreograph 22 million gallons of water into a magnificent show, taking place every 30 minutes during the day and every 15 minutes at night.

The Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas, NV

This fountain has become part of the luxury hotel’s identity. They have collaborated with various music and visual artist to create unique, timely water events to encourage repeat business and draw in visitors from across the globe to experience an entirely different performance from the last time.

The Bellagio is the most extreme example of designing with this system type. Still, landscape architects can use pressurized water jets within a spray pad or neighborhood fountain.

We used 52 jets, equipped with choreographed LED lighting, in our Water Bend Park and Rose Lake Green Court fountain designs. While we designed these water features to meet the scale and needs of a suburban neighborhood park rather than a Vegas show, we still aimed to offer a performative type of experience for spectators to gather around and watch—a destination place, if you will.

3. The ethereal water experience

I find this to be one of the most enchanting uses of water, and it has gained popularity in the design world for its low water usage. Even though this water feature operates using a pressurized water system, it requires approximately less than a cup of water per minute (and per jet) to achieve the desired effect. Whereas, the fountains described before may rely on large bodies of water or a reservoir tank to execute its performance, this fountain creates an evocative landscape by creating the illusion of mist and fog in a public space.

The Miroir d'eau in Bordeaux in France

The Miroir d'eau in Bordeaux, France, cleverly uses water by alternating between a mist and mirror effect. The gentle water intervention transforms a sizeable public square into an ethereal experience that celebrates the surrounding historical architecture while providing users with an engaging fountain to play and cool off.

The rectangular pool is only two centimeters deep and covers an area of 3,450 square meters (37,135 square feet). The thin film of water covers the black granite, giving the illusion of depth, and when undisturbed, evokes a mirror-like surface reflecting the 18th-century architecture and sky above. The mirrored surface will transform, emitting fog to alter the perception of the plaza and create a microclimate to cool the visitors.

In conclusion

Building a water feature in a public space requires expertise and experience. And to transform the structure to something more iconic like The Crown Fountain in Chicago or the Julie Penrose Fountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, it is critical to add a professional landscape architect to the project.

It’s the design of a structure that makes it remarkable. And a rookie mistake can lead to delays along the way, which every builder would want to avoid, especially while constructing in a busy urban site.

A professional landscape architect understands the factors that require consideration while designing a water feature for a public site. They can use the landscape as a template and inspiration to conceive an outdoor fountain or any other structure for that matter. After all, the ultimate goal is to develop a feature that blends seamlessly with the surrounding urban space.

In addition, it needs to appeal to pedestrians of all ages and backgrounds while catalyzing the growth of the city’s core. Of course, it’s not that simple, as landscape architects also must keep functional efficiency and long-term reliability in mind while creating a masterpiece capable of bearing the symbolic load of the urban architectural sector.

Fountains can be found as landmarks in most parks and even the residential areas of urban sectors, adding value to the area's social and economic infrastructure. Advancements in technology mean modern landscape architects are now more innovative in their approach and designs, using advanced technology to include lights and even sound effects.

That’s all I have to say about the role outdoor fountains or water features play in public spaces. I hope I have helped provide the needed insight on the topic.

Feel free to leave a comment if there’s anything more you wish to add.

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