A tale of two fountains

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Built to last and says so in stone

A tale of two fountains

By David Brussat, Architecture Here and There

Nicholas Boys Smith is a founder of London’s new-urbanist Create Streets organization and is now the co-chairman of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission along with Sir Roger Scruton. Boys Smith had replaced Scruton after the latter was unjustly hounded by a social-media mob from the post, but now, with Scruton’s vindication and return, they serve together.

Given the dunderheadedness of the housing department leadership, it was a miracle that Scruton was so nobly replaced. It is worthy of note that the leadership did apologize and reinstate Scruton. As if to commemorate the event, Boys Smith has just written an almost Scrutonian essay, “We should build for the future, not just for the next few weeks” about Britain’s new water fountains. Referring to the illustration above, he writes:

The fountain on the left is not just, to quote widespread criticism on social media, ugly, top-heavy, crass, garish and jarring but it is an object. Its form, positioning, colour and nature says “I am a temporary plastic thing meeting a need as cheaply as possible. I won’t be here for long.” Ironically, for a fountain intended to lance the dragon of an overly-disposable culture, it is itself a disposable object. It is not part of the city. It is not civil. It does not talk to the street or the neighboring buildings but advertises at them. It might almost be selling sunglasses. Or blue paint. It is built for the next few weeks.

The fountain from 1859 is not an object but a modest bit of vernacular architecture. It is part of the city. It is civil. It talks to the past with its Romanesque arches and mini columns. But it is also clearly of its time and place with the pleasing busyness and over-elaboration in which the Victorians delighted. It is built to last and says so in stone.

Athenaeum water fountain. (AP)

It recalls the newly restored 1873 public water fountain on Benefit Street in front of the Providence Athenaeum. More to the point, it recalls The Golden City, whose author, Henry Hope Reed, began by pairing instances of classical architecture alongside modern architecture in New York City in order to show the superiority of the former, which was self-evident, requiring no explanation.

Boys Smith argues persuasively what in a sane world would be perfectly obvious: the importance of beauty not just as a balm to the eye in a largely hideous world, but as the key to humane endurance. Objects of beauty endure because people love them and sacrifice for their maintenance, repair and survival. The result is a lasting civic pride that instills love of place and of country, and also – as Scruton often points out – serves as a model of and inspiration for self-restraint, manners, and civic good behavior. (Almost all mass shootings occur in or near modern architecture and, I’d argue, not just because such settings are so common – in both senses of the word.) Nobody but a few cranks cry out to save “midcentury modern.”

So many seek so hard for a way to promote sustainability in a world frightened by the prospect of global warming and climate change. The answer is sitting in plain sight. It is called beauty – or sustainability, or to be more specific, classical and traditional architecture: the old way of building that prevailed for centuries prior to what architect Steve Mouzon (The Original Green) calls the Thermostat Age.

Windows that open and close admitted cool breezes or kept cold winds out. Thick walls conserved heat in the winter and cool in the summer. Verandas, shutters, deep window reveals, overhanging roofs and canopies over windows were features that moderated the sun’s hot rays and husbanded shade. Even site placement could help a house take advantage of terrain and local seasonal variations to maintain comfort.

The old-fashioned instruments of temperature regulation noted above – just a few of many – are available today, especially in places that we most revere. Instead, in our era, the HVAC industrial complex (air conditioning, furnaces, vast service crews, etc.) does the job at a hefty cost to wallet and climate.

How the older climate features are arrayed and decorated on any given building, old or new, and how they interact on a street, create a sense of place whose beauty incentivizes preservation. Preservation – not for historic reasons necessarily but for reasons of sustainability – avoids the waste of energy and materials inherent in the short lives of modern architecture. Constructing one building that lasts a century on a site wastes a lot less of everything than two or, more likely, three modernist buildings on the same site over the same stretch of years.

Much of this is stated or implied in Boys Smith’s example of the old and new water fountains of London. He writes:

A hospital is a noble building built for a noble purpose. It should not be built to look disposable and cheap. We need to rediscover the confidence and ability to create public buildings and objects of popular beauty and civic pride. When our approach to design is trapped by a narrowly utilitarian approach we build unsustain-ably and for the short term. Quick green not deep green.

Boys Smith concludes with an example history provides of another famous piece of British street furniture: the telephone booth. The famous red structures were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who was inspired by the tomb of architect Sir John Soane’s wife, Eliza.  (It is actually not in a sylvan setting but in a cramped London churchyard.) Thousands were installed after 1924, when Scott won a competition of the Royal Fine Art Commission. (How art commissions have changed!) Then, in the 1980s the red booths were officially replaced by tedious modernist kiosks. Even as the modernist kiosks failed to engage the hearts of the public and soon began deteriorating and disappearing, the red booths, as they vanished, gathered value and inspired organized protectors.

The classic, popular, beautiful pattern has not just survived, it has astonishingly made a revival. Many were listed. Charities and companies exist to find kiosks new homes and uses. Engineers and designers make good livings helping communities achieve this. Kiosks have been re-invented as defibrillators, pocket libraries, repair booths, even coffee shops.

Maybe Boys Smith and Sir Roger will, in their official capacities, begin a campaign to block the ugly new water fountains and replace them with restorations of the beautiful older models. The beauty commission should be recommending precisely that model for the affordable housing Britain so urgently needs – a model that would serve admirably to solve the housing needs of the United States. And not just housing but major public and private structures as well – for example, Penn Station in New York City.

Good policy is not so difficult after all.