July 21, 2010
Drinking in Public
A Neutra water fountain?
In late June, in preparation for a weekend workshop I was teaching at Otis College of Art and Design, I spent a couple of days driving around LA seeking out locations that were beautiful in unexpected ways. I was assisted by my old friend Alisa N. Smith, an interior designer and artist who knows her way around that city’s more obscure historic landmarks. She took me to the Eagle Rock Recreation Center, a 1953 basketball pavilion designed by Richard Neutra, with walls that open up and louvers that modulate sunlight. It’s a simple neighborhood building, one that hasn’t exactly been treated as an architectural monument (although it was officially designated as one in 1991), and you now have to look hard to see the Neutra touches.
Outside the Eagle Rock gym, I noticed the water fountain above. It was so simple and so clever — the steel structure and the drainage system are one and the same — that I thought perhaps it was part of the Neutra design package. Wouldn’t that be cool, a Neutra drinking fountain? Alas, I could find no mention of Neutra designing any such thing, and I began to notice the fountain bore a familial resemblance to other public drinking fountains I saw around LA. Finally, this op-ed piece in the New York Times dashed my hopes; illustrator Jon Han found the exact same type of fountain in Westwood Park.
Clearly, this brilliant example of minimalism wasn’t Neutra’s doing. In truth, it looks more like Donald Judd. Most likely it was the work of some anonymous civil servant.
Anyway, I forgot all about the “Neutra” fountain until Monday, when I visited Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in lovely Allentown, PA. I was tagging along with a couple of teenagers, learning yet another lesson about what passes for amusement these days. And it was very hot out, in the low 90s. The first thing I wanted after my initial encounter with a state-of-the-art roller coaster — Jeeee-zuss!!! — was water. And the only place I could find it was a vending machine. I bought a bottle, but really resented shelling out $3.50 for Aquafina. As the day progressed, I sought out public drinking fountains, and found a few tucked away near the restrooms. The fountains worked, but they looked dusty, neglected, and uninviting. The water vending machines, by contrast, were brightly lit, hugely appealing, and ubiquitous. But I was damned if I was going to pay anymore money for water. (Note that Wildwater Kingdom is a water park, all water slides, fake rapids and wave machines. But not a drip to drink.)
After about five hours of unceasing excitement, we left the park, found a diner, and sat at a table gulping ice water until our food came. I spend the rest of the day rehydrating. The next day, I did a Google search — pure curiosity — trying to find out a little about the safety record of some of the scarier rides. Dorney’s record seems pretty good, but what came up in my search was this:
Right. Failed to properly hydrate. Very easy to do. Note that park rules prohibit bringing “outside food” or “beverage items other than factory sealed bottles of water.” Meaning, no thermoses or reusable water bottles.
I was reminded of the lady in Concord, MA who, as part of her crusade against bottled water, “made a point of finding out how many public water fountains Concord has — 11 — and sharing their whereabouts in a letter to the local newspaper…” I’d take it a little further. Design competitions for public drinking fountains, like the one they staged in Winona, Minnesota would be a start. Moreover, I think a positive regulatory approach — mandating more and better drinking fountains in public places and places of public accommodation — would go a long way toward curbing our dependence on commercialized water. Wouldn’t it be great if drinking fountains were as celebrated as dancing fountains?
Update: I just found this article about a town in Australia, Bundanoon, that banned bottled water and install “bubblers” instead. The bottled water industry isn’t pleased.
Dancing fountain, The Grove, Los Angeles.
P.S. My Metropolis column about the the Cooper Hewitt Triennial is right here.