The Elemental Romance of Public Space and Water
What is it about water that draws us so instinctually toward it? In public spaces, it has an almost gravitational pull. Children flock to it, eager for a soak. For adults, the sound of splashing water has a redemptive quality, like rain, or a waterfall, or a pounding surf. We are all somehow cleansed in the presence of water. I was reminded of these elemental feelings last week, when I rode my bike to Boston’s Christian Science Center on a hot summer afternoon to see the remarkable fountain there in action. In the early 1970s, my firm, Sasaki, worked with Araldo Cossutta of I.M. Pei & Associates to create the public spaces in the complex. (Pei’s firm designed the buildings.) People of all ages were occupying the space, watching the scene, keeping an eye on their children, who were enjoying the water jets. In the beautiful light I admired the elemental qualities of the design: timeless, dignified, civic, welcoming, celebratory; a classic place in the heart of Back Bay.
The fountain is at the northern end of the complex. Together with the buildings, the Linden trees help frame the space and offer inviting, shaded places to sit.
As you approach the trees, the fountain beyond becomes more visible and draws you into the space. Because of the fountain’s orientation, the sunlight catches the spray, giving the place a glowing heart.
Along the edge of the trees is a long curved wall, the perfect height and width for sitting or lying on.
Whether you’ve brought your kids to play in the fountain or are just relaxing on your way to Back Bay or the South End, the space attracts a diverse array of people from the surrounding neighborhoods.
The fountain is elegantly detailed to create a misty spray of various intensities, offering a circular room of water for those adventurous enough to enter it.
The arc of trees is porous and allows for various experiences as you move along the circular paths. The paving design reinforces the curve while extending out to the nearby street crossings, connecting the place to the wider system of movement.
In the evening, the presence of the buildings is more pronounced. The fountain transforms itself into a more transparent form occupying the center of a larger place. The lighting reinforces the frame and further extends the welcoming gesture with its mysterious glow.
All photos by the author.