A certain subplot has emerged in ongoing talks about the ever-elusive possibility of changing the name of the Embarcadero’s Justin Hermann Plaza: A lot of San Franciscans would much rather City Hall turn its attention to doing away with the plaza’s eternally controversial Vaillancourt Fountain.
Many people probably don’t even know the name of this circa 1971 construction by Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt, but everybody recognizes it. For better or for worse, it’s one of San Francisco’s most visible pieces of public art.
It’s also not been serving its function as an actual fountain for some years now. The city’s Recreation and Parks department shut off the spigot back in January of 2014 in response to state’s demands that everybody cut back on water use during the drought.
Now the crisis is over—less than nine percent of the state is marked in drought conditions on the latest Drought Monitor Map, all of the area in the state’s far southern reaches—but Vallaincourt’s twisted tableau remains both dry and silent.
Apparently, restoring the gratuitous geyser to working order is not so simple as turning a tap.
Hoodline reports that the operation will cost some $500,000. That’s only $100,000 more than the whole thing cost to begin with (although of course that was quite a lot more money back then).
Update: Asked precisely why there’s such a big bill to restore the fountain to working order—naively, the public might assume that turning it on again is as easy as turning it off the first time, Rec and Park spokesperson Connie Chan told Curbed SF:
“Similarly to all fountains and water play features throughout the city, it would require the department to conduct forensic investigation and testing of the fountain’s mechanical systems.
“To be more specific, the fountain needs a new filtration system.”
Even Ruth Asawa gave the Vallaincourt piece the side-eye, but despite public grumblings, the fountain has its supporters.
San Francisco Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais wrote in its defense last week and called for the waters to run again, saying that hydration is critical to the proper appreciation of the piece:
It makes little sense to spend money to add even a single new object to our civic art collection if we allow the virtual eradication, through neglect and obliviousness to its original intention, of our city’s most visible public work.
We are the heirs to a memorial that, encountered as it was designed to be, animates a moment in art and history that cannot be re-created.
Bono, frontman for the band U2, paused in the middle of a plaza concert in 1987 to spray paint the phrase “Rock N Roll Stops The Traffic” on the the fountain’s ducts.
Although it may have looked as if he was defacing the work, he actually meant for his message to be a compliment to the piece. Vallaincourt himself (who also famously tagged it upon its christening) congratulated the singer on the gesture.
Incidentally, Justin Herman himself called the fountain “one of the greatest artistic achievements in North America." Although that kind of endorsement may not do it many favors these days.
Rec and Parks plans a (pardon the term) dry run in the coming weeks to test how well the fountains workings still function. But full-time restoration depends on funding.