My last year in high school I went out with an older woman. She was a freshman at UCLA. Judy was embarrassed to have me visit her in her dorm, so we would meet at the newest landmark on the Westwood campus, the Inverted Fountain. It was a round pool. Water gushes from a channel around the circumference across a bed of sand-colored rocks, then cascades down a hole near-but not at-the center. It's a bit like a large, asymmetrical toilet.
The Inverted Fountain was conceived on the whim of the university's chancellor, who disdained fountains that merely "squirt water in the air."
It was a great novelty, and of course was soon imitated. UCLA's cross-town rival USC built one, with a larger, hexagonal hole, so it looks less like a toilet.
Other non-traditional fountains also improved on the UCLA model: the Horace Dodge Fountain in Detroit shoots water down from a ring into a stone barrel, and so looks more like a primitive shower than a toilet. The Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park resembles a broad, circular gutter, swollen after a heavy rain.
Is the inverted fountain, a hole in the ground rather a squirt of water in the air, a revolt against patriarchy? Inquiring minds want to know. If the adoption of the UCLA fountain was a proto-feminist statement on the part of Chancellor Murphy, it was an unconscious one. There are books and articles on feminist architecture, of course, but nothing on feminist fountain design.
What the non-spray fountains have in common is that they are almost always public art. That is, they are paid for by taxpayers and the designs are approved by our elected and non-elected mandarins. The public is not consulted. He who pays the piper-so to speak-doesn't call the tune when the payment is obligatory.
On the other hand, when the owners of hotels, resorts, and malls design fountains, they seem to appreciate what sculptors and landscape architects assumed until the late 1960s: people enjoy watching water flying through the air.
One of the most popular fountains in the world is in front of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Behind an eight-acre lake, 1200 nozzles shoot water as high as 460 feet, in displays synchronized to 29 different show tunes, light classics, Christmas carols, the Star-Spangled Banner, and God Bless the USA. The performances begin every half hour in the evening, last about 15 minutes, and feature 4,500 lights. In season, each is watched by several hundred spectators.
When the newest upscale mall was built in LA, in the now-trendy Beverly-Fairfax district, the developers didn't look west to UCLA, but across the Mojave to Sin City. The fountain at the Grove imitates the Bellagio's, on a much smaller scale. Two rings of jets shoot water up to sixty feet, in rhythm to various pop songs. The most popular tune seems to be Dean Martin's "That's Amore."
It's cheesy, but when I'm back in LA I always try to swing by. I know I'll never run into Judy, now an Obamanista living in Berkeley, or any former friends and colleagues in the professoriate. To a man and woman, they wouldn't be caught dead in a mall, and certainly not in one with a dancing fountain. The New Class is also thin on the ground in front of the Bellagio, especially when Lee Greenwood's classic blasts through the speakers and the eyes ordinary Americans tear up.