PROJECT STATEMENT: The creation of a fountain without a basin was an innovation that transformed fountain design. Historically, the Tanner Fountain was the first institutional project of the “Landscape as Art” movement, and it continues to prove that landscape architecture is an art, and the landscape architect an artist.
PROJECT NARRATIVE: One of the greatest challenges for the designer of a fountain relying on institutional care is preventing weary maintenance people from filling in the basin and, hence, transforming the fountain into a planter. When Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, commissioned the Tanner Fountain, he noted that a number of previous fountains had disappeared because the maintenance department had broken out their bottoms, filled them with dirt, and planted them with bulbs. In the spring the bulbs flowered and all memory of the fountain was lost. Bok asked if the designer could create a fountain that would survive this attitude. The result was a fountain without a basin, an innovation that transformed fountain design.
Sited in a pedestrian crossroads surrounded by buildings that include the Science Center, the fountain takes the form of a circle sixty feet in diameter. If, as has been suggested by critics, it is a symbolic representation of the Big Bang, the fountain insists on a specific earth-bound version of that event, for the circle is delineated by 159 granite boulders cleared from regional farms at the turn of the century and thus recalling the arduous process by which the first settlers to New England cleared the fields.
The boulders are placed in concentric but irregular circles that create an open geometric form. They are not placed in a classical way, but overlap the asphalt path pavement and the existing grass. They surround two existing trees. About two by four feet in size, the stones have been turned with their smooth sides up and buried so that only sixteen to eighteen inches of their surface is exposed.
The water for the Tanner Fountain is generated from thirty-two nozzles located in the center of the stone area. In the spring, summer, and fall they emit a mist that hovers like a cloud above the stones. At the center of the circle, where the stones appear to be most dense, the water mist produces a scrim that visually dematerializes the stones. The mist is refracted by daylight to produce rainbows. At night lights charge the mist with a mysterious glow. In the winter, when mist would freeze, the stones are shrouded with steam from the university heating plant. When quiescent, the fountain becomes the underpinning for the elegant displays of snow that Cambridge so unfailingly provides.
Located at one of the busiest crossroads of the university, the fountain was designed to be inhabited. Grass, asphalt, and concrete paths infiltrate the geometric form, inviting human participation suggesting or regulating what that activity should be--although the stones intentionally encourage sitting and leaning and are spaced to prevent through passages for skateboarders and rollerbladers. As a result, the Tanner Fountain is heavily used in all seasons. Children play. Students read, flirt, converse, meditate, brood. Spring rain, summer grass, autumn leaves, winter winds: All are emphasized by and in turn emphasize the fountain, which takes on the feeling of a natural object, one that points to the truth that humans too are part of nature.
Historically, the Tanner Fountain was the first institutional project of the “Landscape as Art” movement, growing out of the then-new Expression Studio offered by the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Design School. It continues to prove that landscape architecture is an art, the landscape architect an artist.