The Ft. Worth Water Garden has long been on my list of buildings to visit, but to be honest, it wasn't near the top of that list. That is largely due to my general dislike of the work of Phillip Johnson, the architect of so many large, over-simplistic behemouths that I have too quickly dismissed his work. The Water Garden is great. It is endlessly engaging, a beautiful meditation on the phenomenology of water, and a load of fun.
Designed by Johnson and Burgee and opened in 1974, the Water Gardens consists of three water environments - a cascading pool, a quiet meditative pool and an aerating pool. Each is quite large and stunning in their own right, but it is the Active Pool of cascading water that you can descend into that is the star attraction. A series of concrete aggregate steps terraces down 38 feet into a caldron of cascading water from all directions. It is hard to get a sense of scale and the power and overwhelming sound that accompanies you as you step down into this environment. It is thrilling and exciting, all the more so because the concrete steps and the walk around the bottom of the pool have no handrails or guardrails. It is incredibly intense and thrilling (and dangerous, having been the scene of four very unfortunate deaths in 2004).
The aerating pool provides a stark contrast to the vigor and threat of the Active pool and is composed of a series of vertical jets producing a fine spray that creates a strange, slightly vibrating mass of vapor, hanging above the pool. The water here is not so intense as the earlier pool, but far from a limpid pool, it is suspended between earth and sky.
The Quiet Pool does not draw the attention of the other two more dynamic spaces, but it is magnificent and where I owe a most humble apology to Mr. Johnson. The pool is set within a deep, high-walled court that you descend down into, the tapered concrete walls leading you downward as they are softly skimmed by a thin, silent skin of water. At the bottom of the space the large pool is quiet and beautifully reflects the blue Texas sky, but it is the surrounding trees that march along in a gentle rhythym that really sets the tone for the feel of the space. As intense and energetic as the Active Pool is, this Quiet Pool almost insists in a kind of cloister-like quiet and reverence. The inclusion of the trees was a brilliant idea and it connects the notion of water with nature and the life-giving and sustaining power of water, especially so in the harsh Texas plains.
My apology to Phillip Johnson is all the more needed because I have been to another great outdoor space that he has made and that I should remember more than his less successful works. The Roofless Church in New Harmony, Indiana is a brick-walled enclosure holding a park and a small domed structure. The power of the place lies in its very simple and careful composition of earth and sky, enclosure and opening. It is a beautiful space and one of the most inspiring pieces of architecture that demonstrates that simple materials used well and thoughtfully can make great places. The Quiet Pool also fits that description perfectly.
My visit to the Water Garden was early on a March morning with a slight chill in the air. I wasn't the sole visitor, but very nearly so. I can imagine the place has a very different feel on a hot July day, baking in the Texas sun, and the water takes on an even more elemental power. The Water Garden is a wonderful piece of architecture in its simplicity and is a kind of temple to the worship of water in all its forms. (A shame Mr. Johnson couldn't have done a ice and snow version in some snow-bound burg.)