Fort Worth Water Gardens – A Desert Oasis (1974)

Occasionally, as we wander through the deserts in our life, we find an oasis. And I would definitely say that ACL tearing and recovery is a desert.

The dictionary defines an oasis as something that brings refuge, relief or pleasant change from the usual, annoying and difficult.

And this does that.
And this does that.

These oases (and this is the plural, even though I too agree it looks weird) are necessary. They are necessary for our very soul. Studies have found that unusual architecture can be cathartic. On a very biological level, new architecture (or really anything that differs from the same apartment, same street, same office, same day) provides a new environmental trigger and cue. It can make you feel different, it can inspire you, it can lead to a change in how you feel and how you act.

And oftentimes it’s not the little things that call out as new. It’s the extremes that make you blink, stop, and process more than that regular repeating background hum of building and infrastructure. It’s the big, small, beautiful and ugly.

So in the desert, you find an oasis. In Fort Worth, you find the Fort Worth Water Gardens. And it’s an extreme. It’s big, and you feel small, and its both beautiful and a little ugly. And all together, it’s worth a stop.

Two of the water features and a huge, hunking area of concrete that becomes a public stage. This guy on the bike showed off some cool tricks.
Two of the water features and a huge, hunking area of concrete that becomes a public stage. This guy on the bike showed off some cool tricks.

Philip Johnson is one of the main reasons we have this park today (with some help from John Burgee, his collaborator). An extremely prominent modern architect, we know Johnson for his glass house. Yes, a completely glass house. While I don’t think landscape architecture has ever come to mind while I thought about Philip Johnson, it’s clear that it was definitely on his list of considerations. Part of the impetus behind his glass house was to enable you to still be part of the landscape and here he creates a new kind of landscape for you to experience.

The Mountain formed by tons of concrete. FYI, these steps are not one ACL friendly.
The Mountain formed by tons of concrete. FYI, these steps are not one ACL friendly.

The park itself is located in an area that was once known as Hell’s half acre since it was occupied with brothels and saloons in the 19th century. Now, it feels removed from the city that surrounds it, part because of location, but part because of how the landscape architecture makes you feel. Interestingly the Forth Worth Water Gardens relies on pounds and pounds of concrete, yet still is thought of as a “cooling oasis in the concrete jungle” of downtown.

After previously designing the Amon Carter museum, Johnson was granted a commission from the board to design this public space with absolutely no design restrictions. Later they would gift the park to the city of Fort Worth.

Let’s take a moment to pause, because this so very rarely happens. No design restrictions – cue the music to most architect’s ears.

So what do we get with no strings? A modern wonderland almost entirely based on the material of water.

Now fountains are age old. The first decorative fountain was erected in 1842 in NYC’s Central Park. Before that, fountains were more practically designed as their sole purpose was to distribute clean drinking water.

But this park is not just based around a fountain. It’s based on the nature of water, and has three very distinct fountains to admire, relax by, and even climb into.

The steps down. And yes! You can step down into this fountain.
The steps down. And yes! You can step down into this fountain.

The whole park examines the very nature of water; its ability to shoot, spray, gush, flow, and be quiet. Johnson focused on its playful characteristics and its ability to evoke different moods. The main form of the park is hard and rough and has that dystopian modernist feeling that you get with large swaths of concrete (even if it is sand colored). But the shining moments happen when these two vastly different materials interact. Here you have light, playful and flowing water, contrasted beautifully against the solid, rough, hard, and strong stone.

Or watch swirl past your feet....
Or watch swirl past your feet….

Johnson goes nuts. There is an aerating fountain that creates a mist that feels like a cloud. There is the serene meditation pool sunken down and surrounded by cypress trees. And then there is the fountain that YOU CAN LITERALLY WALK 38 FEET DOWN INTO. Johnson and Burgee work to make spaces that are open and exposed, closed and isolated, sunken, raised, viewable, and with a view.

The meditation pool is sunken and from above on the mount you get a nice view of it all.
The meditation pool is sunken and from above on the mount you get a nice view of it all.

I guess the strangest thing about this entire park is the quasi-dangerous feeling it gives off. In a litigious world where everyone is focused on safety, it’s not very often you find high concrete “mountains” without railings, or an active “waterfall” you can walk down into.

Careful please...
Careful please…

And there are reasons for the intense focus on safety that surrounds us. Tragically, this park has played a role in 6 deaths in its lifetime. Afterwards, significant work was done to increase safety, which included reducing the depth of the pools and adding some rails. But it still retains its “natural” feel (and unfortunately is still not ADA friendly).

While of course we want our parks safe, nature isn’t. The waterfall that Johnson and Burgee are recalling does not have railings and the mountains that you can find have steep, hard rock faces too. So in that sense at least, I have to respect Johnson for really going for it (although perhaps I would feel differently if I was chasing around a small child here). I respect his brutalist ode to nature (and it really does have that rigid, Brutalist feel); one in which you can feel the elemental fear of nature in a completely man-made park.

You go down, and the water runs down the walls around you...
You go down, and the water runs down the walls around you…

And if you find yourself in Fort Worth, check out this oasis. If you feel like it, climb down into the fountain (and please be careful, slippery is an understatement). Scale the heights of the “mountain.” Walk down into the serene meditation pool and watch that water flow down the walls around you. It might not be the breathtaking beauty of the Pantheon or astound you like the Kimbell. But, it’s definitely worth the look.

Take a break in this Oasis.
Take a break in this Oasis.

In one minute, 19,000 gallons will circulate through the park’s three fountains. And in that same minute, you will not feel like you are in a city at all. You might not even feel like you are in Texas, or on Earth.

Savor it.

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