Making dancers out of water

Rainbow-coloured plumes appear during a summer show at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Rainbow-coloured plumes appear during a summer show at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAM MARKEY

WASHINGTON • In his black rumpled suit and probing glances, Mr Jim Garland might be mistaken for a priest from a gritty parish.

But the eyeglasses betray a more artsy, secular mien: They are thick-framed and the colour of hardened caramel, and beyond them, he observes a world through which water moves.

Water is the stuff of life, but for Mr Garland, it is also the ultimate medium of expression and feeling.

From his studio in Los Angeles, he creates some of the world's most spectacular fountains. He is a peculiar blend of theatre architect, hydraulic engineer, lighting designer and choreographer, and there may be only a dozen or so people on the planet who do it at this level.

Above all else, he is an artist.

Mr Paul Redman, executive director of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, describes him as "the Elton John of the fountain world. He just has that level of charisma and passion, it just inspires you to reach higher".

Thirty years into his odyssey, Mr Garland, 57, is in the midst of his biggest project so far, the US$90- million (S$121.3-million) renovation of the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens.

When most people look at a fountain, they see its structure, but when Mr Garland describes a fountain, he talks about how it directs the behaviour of the water. He speaks of the Fountain of the Innocents in Paris, old and beautiful with cascades that emanate from an urn at the top.

But if the water flow were turned up a hair, he says, you would get a froth in the glassy cascade "so that it's lace that moves through crystal".

His mind is also drawn to the pair of fountains by British architect Edwin Lutyens in London's Trafalgar Square and the way the flow and the bowl work together so that "the bowl itself is completely coated in a membrane of water".

If you look at the fountain from the north, "you see thousands of droplets alive in the spray". Walk around so the sunlight is behind you and the water becomes more solid and the stone of the fountain is lit. These effects "take a long time to understand", he said.

At Longwood Gardens, the popular du Pont estate and garden near Wilmington, Delaware, the fountain was the grand gesture of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, a polymath who at one time headed both the Dupont chemical company and General Motors.

When the fountain restoration is finished next year, visitors accustomed to the summer evening show of water, lights and fireworks set to music will see new performances that will incorporate Mr du Pont's light and water show with its 138 "legacy" jets and 380 fountainheads, all framed in a formal Italianate garden.

But as each half-hour show unfolds, the audience will see that as spectacularly advanced as Mr du Pont's fountain was when it was built in the 1930s, fountain shows in the 21st century have been transformed.

The new Longwood fountain will have a total of 1,719 coordinated jets and streams, some emanating from robotic nozzles that swivel to make the jets dance; LED lights that will bring colours never before seen in fountains; bursts of water propelled by compressed air; fire incorporated into the columns of water; an advanced sound system; and software programming that will blend the spectacle together with split-second synchronisation.

"The old sound system was actually quite nice and the new one will shame it," said Mr Garland. "The old lighting system was superb - you might consider it an instrument. The new one is like an orchestra."

His 20-member studio, Fluidity Design, is part of a restoration team led by architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle. The landscape architects are West 8, based in Rotterdam and New York.

When you look at the Main Fountain Garden, which now looks like an excavation of ancient Egypt, "fountain" seems such an inadequate word to describe the 2ha site.

The principal fountain pool, the rectangular basin, sits at the far end of Longwood's Conservatory overlook.

Italianate arcades frame the space, decorated with 4,000 limestone panels carved in Italy. They have all been removed and cleaned for the project, and the tired soil and plantings of the formal garden also have been removed.

The backbone of the garden is an entirely new network of underground concrete tunnels that will house and provide maintenance access to the kilometres of plumbing, electrical and propane gas lines, and the pumps and valves that animate the water displays.

Between the allee and the overlook lie two parallel canals connected by a central, circular pool.

Together, the layout to Mr Garland suggests a thrust stage and the fountain jets a company of dancers. "Our intention is that they have a real personality and it doesn't look like a dancing fountain but that the performers are made of water."

The central water jet is his prima ballerina. "She has extra personality and skill level," he said. "It's going to be, I believe, mesmerising and have a lot of theatrical emotion."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Making dancers out of water'. Print Edition | Subscribe