The Vaillancourt Fountain in San Francisco is one of my favorite fountains in the world. Big, bold, having several cascades and multiple viewing points (front, back, from above and inside), it attracts a large crowd on a sunny day. It was designed by Armand Vaillancourt, a Canadian artist and sculptor, and built in 1971. It is focal point in Justin Herman Plaza, which is located at the “foot” of Market Street (where it intersects the Embarcadero, near the Ferry Building).
Not everyone likes this fountain. Over the years there have been several attempts to have it removed. One San Francisco architecture critic, Allan Temko, called it a thing “deposited by a concrete dog with square intestines.”
It was built next to a two level (“double decker”) freeway called the Embarcadero Freeway or California State Route 480. The Freeway was hideously ugly. I think that this is important because it seemed as if Vaillancourt designed the fountain with the ugly freeway as his visual context.
Before this freeway was removed in 1989 (due to damage from a severe earthquake), from time to time, I would drive on it in the early morning hours, sometimes reaching speeds of 100mph. Of course this was a foolish thing to do, but the design of the freeway made it feel as if I was in some type of video game. I had a ‘performance’ car that ‘hugged’ the road: No sloppy turns and the freeway was always empty at 3am. You can see what driving on this freeway was like here:
Back to the fountain: It was the site of a free lunchtime concert by the Irish rock band U2 in 1987. I was lucky enough to be there – the site was not announced until a few hours before the concert and that was pre-Twitter, pre-Internet and pre-mobile phone, so there were only 20,000 who showed up. The band called the concert “Save the Yuppies” because the previous month the stock market crashed (Black Monday) and there were many Young Urban Professionals who were unemployed and/or lost ‘everything’ in the crash. During the concert, Bono, the lead singer for U2, painted graffiti on the fountain, proclaiming that “Rock and Roll Stops Traffic,” which, of course, any free concert in San Francisco in a public plaza would do. It was quite controversial for some, and the Mayor, Diane Feinstien, said that she deplored the vandalism.
Armand Vaillancourt was contacted and asked how he felt about the defacing of his fountain. He responded by attending U2’s concert the following day at the Oakland Coliseum. There he painted “Stop the Madness” on the U2 stage, and proclaimed that graffiti is necessary evil for expressing opinions, especially for those who do not have access to media outlets. (Again, this is before the Internet became common and accessible for most of us).
Here is a video of the free U2 concert:
Interestingly enough, a few weeks back I was researching the composer Conlon Nancarrow and discovered that he was part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group that I didn’t know much about. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the name given to the group of Americans who volunteered to fight against Franco and the Spanish Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. So why is this interesting? At the rear of the Vaillancourt Fountain there is a memorial to those who fought in Spain. The photo on the left shows the back of the memorial, with the sun illuminating the alabaster panels. There are a lot of inspirational quotes from artists, actors, politicians and writers. One of my favorites is: “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” Ok, maybe this isn’t all that interesting, but I like the photo.
If you have the opportunity, visit this fantastic fountain.