Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Philip Johnson's Watergarden in Fort Worth


This week will feature a few dispatches from Fort Worth, TX where I will be for the week with a ULI Advisory Panel regarding a large public housing site. The arrival day allowed time for some exploration other than the project site.

Strolling through downtown Fort Worth (more about downtown in another post) brought me to Philip Johnson's Watergarden located at the edge of downtown, where 1974 dilapidated structures and lots dotted the landscape surrounded  by the Convention Center on one side, railroad tracks and an elevated maze of freeways on the other sides.
the meditative quiet pool part of the garden (photo ArchPlan)

It reminded me immediately about the Baltimore discussion about the McKeldin Plaza and its fountain created in the same period. Both are small parks and both play with water and a lot of man-made stuff: Concrete. Both are interactive in the sense that people can walk through the fountain. Like it has been said about the Baltimore fountain at the Inner Harbor, one could call the Fort Worth Watergardens an orgy of concrete with little plant material, more engineering than nature and an obsolete design. Except, Texans seem to be more generous.

Trying to understand the intentions of the design that was created here in the flat urban Texan landscape leads to a serious of experiences simulating those one would otherwise find in the mountains. A gorge into which a narrow stairway descends with water trickling down sheer walls left and right arriving in a deep depression occupied with a shallow reflecting pool surrounded by sheer walls with water seeping over them and a row of large conifers, a setting of tranquility and disconnect from the urban noise above. Next to that experience Johnson created that of an angular stepped concrete "mountain" formed of ledges on which people can sit and children can climb (and they do). Finally in the water trilogy, another large depression with water cascading down like wildwater on falls with narrow stepping stones traversing and descending into the abyss, allowing a rather dynamic experience where thanks to all the rushing water underneath the ground seems to shift. Seen from the edges people literally disappear on the descend. There are no railings on the mountain nor on the stepping stones above the water and modern man is awed by this amount of risk taking in a public park.
a narrow staircase simulating a gorge leading to the quiet pool
(photo ArchPlan)


The park was heavily visited on a Sunday afternoon in spite of its location on what is still an edge condition where downtown looses its way in the transition into a concrete orgy of another kind, the various freeways that surround downtown and are stacked three levels high, a city transportation approach that is truly obsolete but not questioned by many.

Would anybody design an urban park meant to be an oasis with so much concrete and som much potential for falling and injury today? Not likely. Should it therefore all be demolished? Certainly not! In that this park along with some museum buildings is part of the oeuvre of the late Philip Johnson, a chameleon of architecture, the watergardens seem to be pretty safe because they are seen as a work of art.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA Forth Worth, Texas


the wildwater portion of the gardens (photo ArchPlan)

people descending on precarious stepping stones (photo ArchPlan)
The mountain 

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