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In defense of the fountain San Franciscans love to hate

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Embarcadeo’s Valliancourt Fountain has a small but passionate fan club

Image of fountain with water running out of its square spigots. Photo by Thomas Hawk

Perhaps you’ve heard? The Embarcadero’s Valliancourt Fountain, which more than a fistful of residents detest, has been brought back to life. And many are cheering its return.

The 1971 work, created by Québécois artist Armand Vaillancourt, was initially designed to help conceal a section of the Embarcadeo Freeway. Ever since the freeway came down in 1991, people have grown to detest the heap of tentacled concrete. Which is too bad, at least for some who now consider it a cult icon.

Days before the controversial gusher returned to form this week, we asked readers to tell us why they love the polarizing fountain.

Many of you responded with words of praise. Here are just a few terms of endearment for the clunky yet somewhat cohesive Justin Herman Plaza centerpiece.

Curbed SF commenter Will Burnett: I love this fountain with every fiber of my being. In so many contexts, brutalism is code for boring. Here it’s full of life and direction and texture. You can walk through it and interact with it, and it tells a different story from every angle you look at it. If it made sense as a ruinous mirror of the freeway behind it when the freeway was there, it makes even more sense now as a death mask for the freeway long gone.

ah_so_grasshoppa: As a kid, I loved this fountain! I always liked to imagine it as a waterslide and liked to daydream about kids flying in and out of the different chutes. It was also fun to run around the fountain and see the water gushing out from different angles. It was cool to stand in the spot behind the waterfall ... It still conjures up the whimsy of childhood for me…today I’m still thinking about which chute I’d like to fly down.

Jason Wong: Looks like a fountain out of “Mad Max.”

cv94117: I’ve always liked it too from the days when the highway the still there and Justin Hermann plaza was the hot FiDi spot to eat lunch outdoors with friends and scope out the crowd. With the Embarcadero Freeway gone though, I wish it could be modified somehow to take out the wall at the back and make it a 360-degree experience rather than something to be viewed only from the plaza.

Image of fountain with water running out of its square spigots. Photo by Brock Keeling / Curbed SF

Russ Clímaco-Estardo: It's actually pretty when the water is flowing and the lights in the evening.

kitkidizzee: I’ve loved this fountain since it was built. Several things need to be said or reiterated:

  • While it was an undeniable pleasure to drive on, especially on the inbound upper deck, the Embarcadero Freeway was a monstrosity, a giant menacing wall separating city from shore. It was dark, dirty, dangerous, and noisy. It was an urban wound. The Vaillancourt Fountain when it went up was a kind of miracle, this playful, water-spouting exuberance that magically softened the freeway, even making it disappear from some vantages. Instead, if you entered the fountain, you experienced the sound of gushing, splashing water, flow, spray, reflection.
  • I don’t know what Armand Vaillancourt was thinking when he designed the fountain, but to me, he brilliantly adapted the material most associated with the destruction of the waterfront, concrete, and the most industrial shapes and angles (squares, tubes, right angles) and created – wait for it – beauty. There’s an idea here. And it’s really quite stunningly beautiful.

A post shared by Brock Keeling (@brockkeeling) on

  • It’s a fountain, for god’s sake! Water is an essential element of Vaillancourt’s composition. Any fountain lacking water is a pale ghost, Beethoven’s "Piano Concerto Number 3" without the piano! There’s just no point in talking about the merits of Vaillancourt Fountain when it’s dry.
  • You have to experience the playful flow and lovely, unexpected contrasts (fixed industrial shapes and materials/protean, cascading, pleasing water) close up. You have to be a child or let the fountain lead you back to being a child. I love to witness glee and delight, and I could always rely on this experience at the Vaillancourt Fountain if the water was flowing. Many’s the time over the years I observed children of all ages discover, enter, explore the mad variations of falling water, jump with delight from island to island, hold their hands under the cascades; look up, down, all around with pleasure and even awe. No one has the authority to judge the Vaillancourt from the sidelines.
  • Finally, the poor word brutalist is almost universally associated with brutality. But let’s remind ourselves that in the context of architecture, it simply refers to raw concrete. As with other periods, styles, and materials, there was lots of bad brutalist architecture. But not all mid-century concrete buildings are bad. The Vaillancourt Fountain in any case isn’t a building; it’s a sweet confection. In a city repressively conservative about public art, it’s also a wonder to behold.

Jordan Bowen: Agree that it's beautifully hideous and reflective of the time it was built. Use the money to renovate the surrounding plaza—give it functionality reflective of the current context—and the fountain will make sense. Now it looks like a forlorn relic, stripped of context.

Friscan: I love it and wish it were running. Evaluating it with the water off is like admiring a theater when there’s no performance. As a kid, it drew me into a precarious and invigorating Hop-Sprint on the stepping stones, behind the walls of cascading water. Watch whole new generations respond when the water flows: it is so much more successful that way than the UN Plaza fountain.

The fact that it resembles our demolition-crew victory over the Embarcadero Freeway isn’t just a bonus, its prescient: how did Vaillancourt predict that earthquake? And that we’d bounce back, make our waterfront even more beautiful, and turn that monster into rubble?

Maria Belilovskaya: It is just awesome and unique.