Water trickles over a pebble mosaic of a Liquidambar Tree in Los Angeles
I was taking a hot bath in the claw foot tub built in to a niche of a low wall in my garden tonight, listening to the music of the fountains that trickle in to and out of my pond. The sound is intended to remind me of melting snow spilling from a ledge in a meadow filled with wildflowers in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest where I live. I grew up in Oregon and have an internal vault filled with the memories of days spent by streams, hiking in the mountains, fishing in lakes.
A snow melt stream in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington State
One of the things I always dreamed of as a child was having a fountain and pond. When I was 10 I saved up my allowance and ordered a horribly ugly kidney shaped aqua green lily pool from a Boys Life magazine for $4.95. It came rolled up in a box and had lots of wrinkles. I was allowed to dig a hole in the garden at the edge of the lawn under a scraggley lavender bush and install this sad attempt to create a place to sit and dream of nature. I filled it with water and planted the water lily bulb in the sunken bowl molded in to the plastic. It never grew.
Still I had this dream of building a vernal pool where water trickled and danced. After church every Easter we went to Hendrick's Park Rhododendron Gardens in Eugene, Oregon to see the flower smothered trees and shrubs in all their Spring glory. There is a fountain there, a very natural sculptural form of a large cast concrete Magnolia blossom, surrounded by a grove of Southern Magnolias. My brother and I would run excitedly to it in our little suits and bow ties and climb up to have our pictures taken.
My brother and I at the Magnolia Fountain at Hendricks Park in Eugene, Oregon
There weren't a lot of fountains when I was growing up in Eugene, Oregon. For me they were more the stuff of fantasy, faraway places with strange sounding names. At the University of Oregon, where I studied Landscape Architecture, in the Museum of Art there is an elegant cloister like courtyard with a fountain at one end spilling in to a long tiled pool. It has always been my favorite place on campus, the sacred spring emerging from a scrolled vessel flanked by two Elfin boys sporting tiny horns. One holds pan pipes and the other plays a flute. It is a beautiful piece of Beaux Arts garden architecture coming out of a design school that borrowed heavily from classical European ideals. Baffling to me is how this space is treated today. A large ugly modern sculpture blocks the beautiful bronze grilled glass doors that opened on to a small balcony. The planting beds are not lovingly tended. Nobody is ever in there when I visit, which gives it that magical quality of a secret garden.
Fountain and Pool in the Prince Lucien Campbell Courtyard at the University of Oregon Museum of Art
Water is life. The four rivers of paradise flowed out of Eden, the legendary land best known from the Old Testament in the Bible and the Koran, the place where Adam and Eve were created on this Earth. Eden is a kind of mental fantasy meant to bring solace to those who are not inhabiting such a lovely place. We apparently got kicked out of Eden for wanting to taste it, and where we wound up usually isn't considered Edenic. What I think we lost is our ability to find Eden in our world, or to be able to manifest it. What Eden represents is the ideal landscape, one flowing with clear cool waters, the shade of trees, and the sweet fruits dangling from them. The word Eden is derived from an ancient Aramaic word meaning fruitful and well watered. The four rivers became the dividing lines forming a cross in which four garden beds could be planted with fruiting and fragrant plants. The four rivers would then become four irrigation channels in this stylized landscape. This literal representation reached its pinnacle at the Alhambra in the Court of the Lions, where white marble rills connect the fountains emerging in the interior halls of the flanking palaces to the central courtyard. What makes the fountains so incredibly elegant is their utter simplicity.
A fountain and rill in the Alcazar in Sevilla
The word paradise is derived from the ancient Persian words pairi and diz, meaning a safe space, or a garden, enclosed by a wall. The wall was built to protect the spring, the source of life emerging from the Earth, which would be a veritable treasure in the dry landscapes of the Middle East. The water would be contained and the flow would provide sublime music to those who found sanctuary within the walls. It is easier to relax when you know you wont be jumped by wild animals or more likely, rival humans.
A four quartered garden in the Bahia Palace in Marrakesh, Morocco
This garden plan, called a Chahar Bagh, originated in Persia and became the model for gardens throughout the western world. The form is most clear in Islamic gardens reaching from India to Spain and the New World. The goal is always the same, to be near water and the gifts that it brings in a highly stylized and symbolic setting.
A Turkish carpet depicting a walled garden with the Four Rivers of Paradise in the Museum of Islamic Arts, Istanbul
Carpets were woven as a kind of mobile garden in plan view that you could roll up and carry with you when you traveled. They were a clean soft place to sit, pray, and sleep within the symbolic safety of the wall (being the carpet border). The medallion in the center would suggest a fountain, with surrounding designs alluding to the garden. My garden in summer is spread with carpets to provide space to lounge and listen to the music of the fountains.
My garden in summer
Tile zellij fountain in Rabat, Morocco
I travel a lot and I have seen a lot of fountains on my journeys. They are clearly meant to be gravitated towards, a ceremonious spring emerging from the Earth. There are plenty of grandiose examples, ranging from the opulent terminus for a Roman aqueduct in the Trevi Fountain in Rome to the synchronized jets waving to Pavarotti at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Many are garish spectacles with colored flood lighting in the center of plazas. But my favorites are the little ones. These often were historically the source of water for households that didn't have running water within them. In Moroccan medinas (the old pedestrian centers of cities and towns), public fountains are a humble spigot emerging from an elaborately tiled wall. These public water sources were often commissioned by wealthy citizens or ruling Emirs as an artistic way to provide this essential service.
Fontana dei Libri, Rome
Rome has had an inventory of as many as 1,300 wonderful fountains. Every piazza has a fountain, many spouting clean drinking water. It is a lovely thing to be able to drink from a thoughtfully sculpted work of art. One of my favorites is the Fontana dei Libri, the Fountain of Books built in 1927. A carved marble arch frames two pedestals with two books resting on each. Water spouts from the ornament hanging from the book markers and jackets. A stags head is framed in the center giving rise to some story I do not know, but there is something very scholarly feeling when drinking the water. So much of what we know comes from literature, most likely more than what we know from human experience. Food for thought, and further motivation to get out and see the world!
Rabbit Fountain at the Villa Borghese
The carvings are plumbed with metal pipes so that the water emerges as a simple stream making them easy to drink from or fill a bucket. There are usually basins for animals to quench their thirst as well. Aqueducts brought potable water in to the city center which made for a healthier population. Each fountain is different, giving it an individual identity that often becomes the symbol of the area in which it resides. The Fountain of the Rabbits at the Villa Borghese is a whimsical pedestal for a statue of a Satyr couple holding their baby. The water spills from the mouth in a refreshing alternative to the more frequently used lion mask.
Some of the most astonishing fountains on Earth reside at the Villa d'Este in the hill town of Tivoli not far from Rome. This is perhaps the premier water garden in the world. The Diana of Ephesus is a Roman Goddess honored in a magnificent temple in Ephesus, Turkey, one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. Diana, also known as Artemis in her Ephesus form appears to have 12 breasts from which water pours in this fountain. She is clearly a goddess of fertility and the breasts are thought to be a collar of gourds which may have been used to adorn statues in the Artemis cult. The Diana fountain at the Villa d'Este once resided in the central niche of the Water Organ which was designed by the famed Italian sculptor Bernini. This is the centerpiece of the garden, which was commissioned by a powerful and wealthy Cardinal in the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The statue was moved to a more discreet part of the garden when the Pope came to visit for obvious reasons.
Diana of Ephesus at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Italy
The Villa Lante north of Rome in the town of Bagnaia has a central water channel running its length connecting fountains that represent the four elements, water, earth, fire and air.
The Catena d'acqua (water chain) forms the body of a Crayfish, symbol of the Gambera family at the Villa Lante
A stream was diverted in to the garden and ravity flow provides the water pressure for small jets and spouts spilling in to pools which cool the air on hot summer days. Below the fountain dedicated to the element of Earth is a stone table with water channels on either side for the dipping of feet, and one running through a trough down the center for chilling bottles of wine. It is a marvelous piece of sculpture when not in use and is believed to have been used for sumptuous banquets.
Water Table at the Villa Lante in Bagnaia, Italy
Tiered fountains are a common feature of European and colonial courtyards. They had the function of being ornamental and functional by having a basin at the base for scooping out water for household use and irrigation of plants. The upper tiers elevate the water so that it can be admired from the surrounding area and for it's cooling affect on the air.
A basin fountain in the Alameda in Cadiz, Spain
Tiered fountains are commonly associated with Spanish colonial courtyards and continue to be popular in Latin America and the United States with varying levels of design success depending on placement and appropriate use. The most successful in my mind are those used in the classic sense, centering a courtyard or courtyard like garden area as a focal point.
A two tiered fountain in a courtyard in Tangier, Morocco
India is a country I returned to 6 winters in a row, in part because there is so much marvelous architecture. The fountains of the Mughals were influenced by the spread of Islam and the Persian model of the paradise garden. The Mughal emperors built magnificent gardens with a great many fountains to adorn them. One of my favorite treatments of water is called a chatar, where water runs down a sculpted slide forming rippling patterns. Another is when water flows as a sheet over a wall of niches in which candles or flowers can be places so the light and color shimmer through a liquid curtain.
A sculpted Mughal water chute in the Red Fort, Delhi
Lotus fountain in the Rang Mahal, Red Fort, Delhi, India
One of the most beautifully rendered fountains in India is a stylized lotus in the Rang Mahal in the Red Fort in Dehli. This palace fortress was built for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who was also responsible for the creation of the Taj Mahal. The fountain is inlaid with semi precious stones and at one time strips of gold. It is marvelously subtle and opulent at the same time, a pinnacle in the sculpting of architectural marble.
The palace at Deeg in Rajasthan was built in the late 18th Century and contains a classic Chahar Bagh with raised walkways flanking linear pools with a line of fountain jets running down the center. Water from the pools could be let out to irrigate the adjacent sunken garden beds.
Chahar Bagh in the Jal Mahal Palace, Deeg, Rajasthan, India
They are only operational twice a year during the monsoon due to a shortage of water. When they flow, the water is now colored to celebrate the festival of colors, Holi. Throngs of Indian tourists mob the place at that time, making it less like Eden and more like Disneyland or Waltzing Waters in Florida, which I visited many years ago and is now closed. Another loss to the world of aquatic entertainment kitch.
Nepal is another great country for fountains. Their primary purpose was ritualistic while supplying water for households. Spigots are often anthropomorphic creatures meant to be symbols of protection or beneficial spirits. The layout of the fountains in important civic squares create outdoor temples dedicated to deities from the Hindu pantheon. You could perform sacred devotional rituals while collecting water for the household.
At the holy village of Muktinath high in the Himalaya is an angled wall from which 108 of these spigots spill water in to a trough. 108 is a divine number in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. The water is believed to be sacred and pilgrims strip down to their underwear and run through them to receive a ritual blessing, even on cold days when there is snow on the ground like when I was there in the month of April 1997.
For simplicity and because I find single spout of water to be very elegant, I tend to build a lot of wall fountains, in part because of the domestic history of having a spout from which to collect water for the garden and household, and because they are fairly easy to build. Flexible copper tubing that is usually meant for ice machines makes an excellent piping for the water. This can be mortared in to the masonry work that makes up the vertical part of the fountain. I often cast these in a form and then stand them up. A sunken basin holds the submerged pump and catches the water that spills from the fountain.
A simple cast concrete wall fountain in a garden I built in 2001
I'll be running a course to subscribers teaching much of what I know about garden design and construction, with a video tutorial on building fountains, including the process we shot this Spring when I built a free standing fountain for a client. I will post announcements about the course as the start date approaches.
A free standing fountain adds elegance to the entry garden of a client's home
Sometimes I build a fountain in to a masonry wall, and sometimes I stand them on a poured concrete footing. For this fountain with three spouts I cast three round disk sunburst pebble mosaics and then mortared them in to a stone wall as I built it. The fountain faces due south and I erected the disks on the Summer Solstice, so I dubbed it the Solstice Fountain, signifying the longest day of the year.
The Solstice Fountain
I built the fountain so that there is a rectangular pool that the water spills in to with a seat height wall creating a U shaped seating area. The fountain sits by the property line and acts as a screen for a hedge of the neighbor's roses so you only see the flowers at the top and not the base of the plants. This makes the small front garden feel bigger and borrows the neighbor's garden view, while creating some privacy. It is a nice place to sit and watch the gold fish or visit with neighbors.
The Lion Fountain in the Orr Garden
The addition of water to the garden gives it a magic that I consider essential to the space. Turning off the fountain is akin to a signal that it is time to leave. The pump that recirculates the water needs to be plugged in to a power source installed in the garden and can be turned on and off with a switch. The sound of water can focus your attention in to the garden helping mask the sounds of the city. It is amazing how many gardens don't have the element of flowing water in them. Simple fountains are an elegant way to incorporate water in a tasteful way that isn't always achieved with poorly designed ponds and cascades that look artificial. Its very difficult to emulate a natural stream when it is cascading down an unatural berm. I like to use fountains as architectural focal points, like they are in the historical gardens I have mentioned here.
A small free standing fountain in the Smith/Garret garden in San Francisco
Water is the source of life, a life worth celebrating. Where I live, animals will come occasionally and revel in the joyous flow. This can be the magical sight of a hummingbird drinking from a stream of water, or the obnoxious parties when a family of raccoons come to visit. For this reason I usually build simple fountains without water plants that can be destroyed by these cute but rambunctious animals.
An Annas Hummingbird drinking from a fountain jet in my garden
A raccoon lifts glass floats from the pond in my garden at night
If the pond has straight sides and is at least 3 feet deep, the raccoons cant catch the fish that live in it. I love watching my goldfish swim around. The fish eat the mosquito larvae that would otherwise plague a pool of still water. They are the perfect pet, requiring very little care and there are no veterinary bills, money I can delegate to my love of travel instead.
Goldfish and glass floats in my freshly cleaned pond
If the water from a fountain spills in to a bowl and overflows in to a reservoir basin buried in the ground where the recirculating pump is set, its difficult for raccoons to do any noticable damage when they come to play. If use water plants they will unfortunately rip them to shreds if they can reach them, so I usually plant them in pots without drain holes outside of the pond itself.
A raccoon proof fountain I built for a client doubles as an altar to Quan Yin
I'm always surprised by how few gardens have fountains in them. I'm hoping this essay will inspire people to find creative and beautiful ways to incorporate this magical and essential element in to their gardens. It is the magic of life itself. Here is a collection of images of other fountains I've seen or built over the years. Thanks for reading, Jeffrey
Perhaps my favorite fountain in the world, the Walk of 100 fountains, Villa d'Este, Tivoli, Italy
A pigeon drinks from a wolf fountain in Siena, Tuscany
I giant shell fountain with honeybees, by the sculptor Bernini, at Piazza Barbarini in Rome
Fountains were incorporated in to ancient gardens. This basin once held a pedastle fountain in Pompeii, Italy
Ancient stone pieces assembled to make a seep pool at the Villa Rufalo in Ravello, Italy
A simple tiled fountain at the Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakesh, Morocco
A marble basin fountain in the center of a lush courtyard in a government ministry building in Rabat, Morocco
A pebble mosaic and marble terrace and fountain in Rabat, Morocco
A contemporary water rill in the Bellevue Botanical Garden, Washington
The rill terminates in a stylish pool
The King Edward V fountain at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain
One of the masks on the King Edward V fountain at the Alhambra
A shell and rill fountains spill in to a pool in Ronda, Spain
The water garden in a courtyard in Ronda, Spain
A simple water spout in Parque Montjuic, Barcelona, Spain
Lion Masks in Granada, Spain
A rill spills over a wall in to a pool in the Andalusian Garden, Parque Montjuic, Barcelona
A fountain centered on a patio in a garden I built in Portland, Oregon