Let’s face it: it doesn’t matter how big or vibrant your city’s downtown is. Generally speaking, the civic plazas immediately outside the major municipal buildings are dead on weekends. There just isn’t any magnetism, given that these buildings host city government functions, which typically operate during regular business hours, Monday through Friday. (Emergency and corrections facilities are the prime exception, but it goes without saying that a jail isn’t exactly going to lure people out for a stroll.) Bearing this in mind, it was a bit of a shock to see a few dozen people clustered around the plaza immediately outside the Fort Worth Convention Center on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon. And apparently this is normal; this plaza in Fort Worth’s otherwise moderately active downtown always attracts people, even when no one else is around.
Sure, I get it. Fountains—or water features in general—are pleasant and refreshing on a hot summer day. And while Fort Worth’s definition of “summer” stretches across six or even seven months, it does not typically extend to mid November, when I took these photos. The attire people are wearing—mostly long pants, some people with pullovers or jackets, only one or two shorts—should clearly indicate that this is not Fort Worth’s warm season. And I also completely understand that a convention center is not your normal civic building, since it can be active on weekends, depending on the event or conference taking place. But weekdays are typically more desirable for major conventions, and this Sunday in particular the Fort Worth Convention Center was empty. Yet here, against all odds, we see at least two dozen people gathered around the rushing water. What is it that distinguishes this particular plaza in Fort Worth, attracting people on a not particularly warm and otherwise quiet day?
For those who aren’t familiar with this installation, I deliberately chose the most misleading photo for my opener—one that obscures the perspective. Let’s take another look at Fort Worth Water Gardens to speculate on the source of its allure.
It’s a sunken display, a good thirty feet below street level, requiring visitors to descend a staircase that effectively blends with the installation itself. The photo below provides a clearer sense of the Water Gardens in relation to the rest of the plaza and everything else at street level.
And unless a visitor is reasonably close to the installation, he or she may pass by completely unaware of this unusual oasis.
Perhaps it’s word of mouth that gets people out here to the Water Gardens. Or perhaps it’s the sheer scale of the thing. It spans more than four acres, and it offers three separate water features: one active, one quiet, one aerating. The Aerating Pool allows the water to cycle through a continual spray.
But, as the photo above demonstrates, this pool offers seems to attract few spectators—more like what one might expect on a cool weekend when the sun begins to set shortly after 5 pm.
Meanwhile, the Quiet Pool is sunk even deeper; I failed to capture a photo of it, but, judging from the image below, most people are content peering down rather than actually descending the staircase, at least on a lazy Sunday.
Being so removed from the din of the street and lacking any fast-moving water sprays, the Quiet Pool undoubtedly lives up to its name. It’s comforting, and most days the only sound (apparently) is the trickle of water projected onto one of those steep retaining walls. It’s also not particularly distinctive.
Which returns us to the Active Pool—the one with all the visitors.
The secret to its allure comes with the “Active” name. Unlike the others, this one overtly encourages engagement; it dares you to get wet. It wants visitors to activate their senses; not simply visual and auditory, it’s fully tactile. We enter the fountain. But, to do so, visitors must descend those stairs lodged into the terraced depression.
Each stair consists of a slab of a concrete with pea gravel as its aggregate. They’re similarly sized, and deeper than they are wide. They aren’t hazardous per se, but the rush of water coming from all angles can create a distraction that weakens one’s ability to distinguish flat dry surfaces from angled wet ones. Furthermore, if the Active Pool is crowded (which it often is) it’s quite difficult for people to traverse a stair step two abreast, meaning if one person is descending while another is ascending, they will likely have to negotiate through a tango move.
It’s a very social fountain. But let’s face it: I hate to be a killjoy, but frankly, the steps to the most popular section of the Fort Worth Water Gardens can be dangerous for anyone with compromised depth perception. And I can only imagine the maneuvering that has to take place on a busy, hot day when it’s crowded with people—conditions compounded by an active convention taking place just a few hundred feet away. When one arrives at the bottom of the basin, it isn’t necessarily much safer: the slabs are a bit wider, but punctuated with numerous gaps to allow the water flowing down the terrace to reach its pump and drain at the bottom.
I suspect the depressed nature of the Active Pool helps shield it from the potential gusty winds for which the Texas Great Plains have earned a certain notoriety.
And without those winds, the spray of the the water rarely saturates the walkable slabs, preventing them from getting slippery. But the fact remains that this pool in particular is a bit scary for the uninitiated. Which makes it so great. And also makes it a relic—something that I suspect would be impossible to build today.
The Fort Worth Water Gardens owes its existence to the financial and cultural legacy of Amon Carter, the founder of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (he “founded” it by merging the Star with its prime competitor). Perpetually a booster of his hometown (and, like many enterprising Texans, a smart investor in successful oil fields), Carter and his wife Nenetta formed a foundation in 1945 that has funded over $700,000,000 in civic and charitable projects throughout greater Cowtown. The Water Gardens, conceived in 1974 as an oasis to beat the urban heat island (what better purpose for a fountain?!), owe their innovative approach to a visionary architect duo, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the former of whom would become the inaugural winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The earth-toned, cement-rich aesthetics of the Water Gardens definitely betray their 1970s origins—equally evocative of this time period is the comparatively low regard for liability. Sure, it has signs prohibiting swimming, and I’m sure there was the equivalent of a “Descend at your own risk” admonition that I simply missed. I cannot imagine how Johnson could design something today that involves a steps of unequal sizes without railings, where people can peer into churning, rushing water in a setting that could easily result losing balance if it gets too crowded. And since the Active Pool is unique and edgy and a bit anarchic, it’s a dream come true for the average daredevil under the age of 25.
Amazingly, I can find no record of serious injury. And, to the best of my knowledge, the Fort Worth Water Gardens has only countenanced one major tragedy directly related to the water features themselves: four people drowned in 2004, three of them children, after one fell in and the others attempted to save each successive one. According to the narrative, they were part of a church group having a conference nearby (presumably at the Convention Center) and their hotel’s pool was closed during the peak of the blazing Texas summer. They sought a quick dip, and the youngest girl slipped in, with the suction of the pump at the bottom of the pool generating an insurmountable maelstrom. Litigation from the families of the victims prompted the City to lower the water levels as part of a comprehensive safety audit a few years later. Incidentally, this tragedy took place at the Quiet Pool, not the Active Pool; the most popular of the three water features shows no historic record of any major injuries.
Perhaps, then, I’m merely pessimistic about the nature of such an experiential attraction in this Era of Safetyism. The very possibility of injury, particularly in that Active Pool (and of course the liability), would seem to preclude such an installation from every getting built today. Perhaps this serves to the advantage of the Fort Worth Water Gardens: its outmoded safety standards ensure that it has no imitators.
It is unique. But one other phenomenon also guarantees that no other Active Pool will ever exist anywhere: the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. An installation so overtly exclusionary could never pass the ADA sniff-test today, unless it can make some reasonable accommodation. But a wheelchair-friendly ramp would completely desecrate Johnson’s aesthetic vision and possibly vitiate the functionality of the terraced water flow. The decline is too steep; it would require an unreasonable number of switchbacks. Therefore, for those who can negotiate stairs, it’s best to enjoy the Fort Worth Water Gardens in their current untouched state, and hope that a single nasty slip-and-fall doesn’t relegate the entire plaza to the same scrapyard as your favorite old childhood rickety roller coaster.