By David L’Heureux
For years, Montréal’s arts district has been the venue for music and theater performances, art exhibitions, festivals and all manner of cultural events. As part of a revitalization process in the area, notes David L’Heureux, the city recently unveiled the Place des Festivals and a spectacular watershape he and a distinguished design team built at its heart as a gathering place for residents and visitors of all ages and a civic focus for fun, relaxation and visual joy.
Throughout North America in recent years, cities have turned to a variety of watershapes to enliven and, occasionally, revitalize their public spaces.
These watershapes are more than the wonderful fountains long found in public parks and plazas. Indeed, the recent success of projects including Chicago’s Millennium Park and its ambitious combination of significant waterfeatures with gardens, architecture and art has demonstrated the tremendous potential that lies in crafting interesting, multi-functional places for people to gather.
Canada offers a spectacular recent example of this trend in the form of Montréal’s Place des Festivals – a public square highlighted by a grand deck-level fountain that now forms the core of the entire district around it, which has been renamed the Quartier des Spectacles.
This area has long served as the venue of choice for art festivals, jazz clubs, museums and galleries but had become a bit run down. About three years ago, the city decided to spruce up the area and establish it once again as a regional hub for recreation, tourism and cultural activity. The fountain’s impact in this program is augmented by the fact that it stretches along St. Catherine Avenue – the most famous street in Montreal and, as such, a byway for the lion’s share of the city’s tourist traffic.
It’s worth noting that this square is only the first of three major projects planned for the arts district, all under the direction of the Montréal architecture firm of Daoust Lestage. One of the driving factors in the entire scheme has been to ensure the future of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal by having the district serve as its permanent home.
We at Crystal Fountains (Toronto) were brought into the project early on to partner with Daoust Lestage and the fountain design/installation specialists at Piscines Soucy (Québec) in developing a system that would become Canada’s largest and most complex public watershape. We had worked on similarly large projects in various capacities in the past (including the abovementioned Millennium Park), so we came to the process well aware of the demands and challenges involved in creating iconic watershapes.
|Linear jet arrays surround a circular core in this long, narrow space, and the intention from the start was to create a spectacle in water and red and white light that would befit the artistic orientation of the surrounding community. The fact that the jets are inherently interactive is, according to the designer, just a ‘side benefit.’|
The architect of record was Réal Lestage, a brilliant designer who envisioned the complete redefinition of the space. From the start, he made it clear that he didn’t see the fountain as the typical sort of sequenced deck-level fountain in which the main purpose is to drench children while parents stand by and watch. Rather, he wanted the fountain to work as art befitting the character of a community that includes the nearby Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, one of Canada’s most prominent art museums.
It was, of course, to be a deck-level system with programmable vertical jets with no barrier to pedestrians – thus it was still to be interactive – but he always described that as being a side benefit. The main ambition, he stressed, was to create a spectacle of moving water and light that would fit in an arts-oriented urban setting.
We didn’t get that at first, seeing it instead as an opportunity to use variable lighting effects with water in countless colors and patterns – something you’d commonly see, for example, with a large interactive fountain in a shopping mall. Lestage quickly narrowed the range, letting us know that we’d be using only red and white lights to create a simple yet stirring graphic statement.
He also had firm ideas about the configuration of the jets as well as the material we’d use for the decking (both of which I’ll discuss below). Here as well, although we fully embraced his basic concept of using the water as a sculptural element, it wasn’t until later, when we saw the system operating in concert with the landscaping, the detailing on the benches, the lighting systems and other project elements, that we were fully able to appreciate just how well his ideas worked with the overall setting.
In other words, we knew from the start that this project would be special from an artistic standpoint, in terms of scale and with respect to the role the fountain would play in the urban environment. For all that, however, we weren’t seeing it with Lestage’s eyes and found ourselves enjoying every minute of the process as his vision unfolded before us.
Much of the credit for making it all work goes to Piscines Soucy’s Stéphane Drouin, who worked hand-in-hand with Lestage on the design. Helpfully, this was the second collaboration for Crystal Fountains, Piscines Soucy, and Daoust Lestage – the first being the award-winning Promenade Samuel-de Champlain project in Quebec. We were all comfortable knowing we’d worked well together then and had developed a level of trust as well as familiarity with each others’ skills and working styles.
In the early stages of the project, we worked closely with Piscines Soucy to build a working mockup of the fountain to demonstrate to the architect as well as city officials that the equipment being used would operate reliably. (From the start, the city’s representatives played an active role in system assessment, basically to ensure long-term reliability and serviceability. Ultimately, they contracted with Piscines Soucy to provide three full-time maintenance technicians for the fountain alone – a huge commitment to its ongoing performance.)
|The intensity of the LEDs used to generate the red color (and the halogens that provide the bright white) creates the wonderful impression that the water itself might be colored – all part of the vivid, dynamic design program.|
The mockup took us three weeks to build, and we ran it another three weeks. With everyone satisfied by its performance as well as its appearance, Drouin and his team then began their work on site. They broke ground late in May 2008 and were at it through June 2009. Testing and programming took up the time between completion and dedication ceremonies on September 7, 2009.
The square itself is approximately 460 feet long and 100 feet wide, and we were lucky in one key respect: Although we were working in a thoroughly developed urban space, Drouin encountered no significant problems with existing underground structures beyond the need to reroute a variety of utility runs.
For all that, it was truly a massive undertaking. In all, the system includes 226 deck-level jets (150 of our own Choreoswitch jets and as well as 76 custom jets.) In addition, we situated an array of nine of our Dynamite Blast jets at the center of the fountain space. As arrayed across the space, the jets are laid out with a circular geometry centered on the blast jets that transitions to linear rows on the perimeter.
By the time Drouin finished his work, the system included more than two-and-a-half miles of plumbing and another three-and-three-quarter miles of electrical conduit. The water flows via gravity to a 2,650-cubic-foot surge tank that holds about 20,000 gallons – about the size of an average residential swimming pool. The overall system, which was designed in conjunction with François Menard of the mechanical engineering firm of S.M. Group International (Montréal), is driven by an array of 16 stainless steel pumps (manufactured by Goulds Pumps of Seneca Falls, N.Y.) ranging between five and 75 horsepower with a total system output of 205 horsepower on 600-volt electrical service.
Although Drouin would probably shrug off such praise, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that his company’s work in the equipment room was nothing short of phenomenal: The organization and attention to details of plumbing and wiring are themselves a work of art.
For our part, we worked closely with the design team through every stage of the project, serving as equipment supplier, developing operating specifications, providing drawings and assisting where we were needed with installation advice.
AT THE CENTER
From our perspective, perhaps the most exciting element in the entire composition is the array of big jets located at the very center of the fountain.
These units, which we developed on a custom basis for use in Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain (for details, see WaterShapes, April 2005, page 50), generate thick “blasts” of water that can rise as high as 35 feet – although in this application we limited that extent to just 20 feet. This is the largest application of these nozzles to date, and they’ve been set up to work independently or in sync to create massively unified columns of water.
|The visual perfection of the finished plaza was matched by the thorough planning and careful installation of its hydraulic and electrical systems: The equipment room, for example, is a marvel of organization and serviceability, while the performance of each of the more than 200 jets bears testimony to the fact that they all had to be individually adjusted to account for the deck’s pitch.|
We love their powerful presence, but the key here is that, when they operate in conjunction with the surrounding jets, the big jets are only role players in creating meticulously layered images of dancing water.
The difference between this application and the Crown Fountain is obvious: Where the Crown Fountain features the jets in a horizontal orientation as part of a totally custom panel system, the Place des Festivals installation is vertical and uses the jets on their own to add visual drama to an otherwise conventional deck-level system.
As might be expected in this context, Lestage had a very specific look and texture he wanted with these jets, so we went through an experimentation phase with different patterns and hole sizes. Ultimately, we settled on a different nozzle plate for the jet at the center of the array; the other eight all have the same configuration.
While these jets are remarkably dynamic and have a vigorous appearance, as was true of the Crown Fountain they’ve been scrupulously designed here to be low impact with respect to human contact: Although the volume of the flow is substantial, it is dispersed across the surface of the nozzles’ face plates in such a way that it poses no hazards.
There’s no containment structure at the fountain’s perimeter, so the beautiful granite decking Lestage selected had to be pitched slightly toward the center for drainage. This posed a challenge in that all of the jets are vertical in a slightly pitched field: Ultimately, we had to customize each jet in the system to suit its specific spot. For most of the jets, this wasn’t much of an issue; for the Dynamite Blast nozzles and their tiny apertures, however, it took plenty of adjustment to make certain the water would shoot straight up into the air.
|The acid test for any space designed to attract a crowd is whether people actually show up – and this one passes with flying colors. Almost immediately, the Place des Festivals was recognized for its contribution to the community, making just the sort of impressive splash that should encourage construction of similar projects elsewhere.|
Lighting was included by using a combination of our LED and halogen fixtures, all of which have been set up to illuminate the jets to their maximum heights. Although we can create a variety of colors using the LED technology, Lestage’s design – as mentioned above – called for red and white only, with the red handled by the LED fixtures and the white by the halogen fixtures.
Some see this use of red and white as symbolizing Canada’s national colors, while others prefer a more artistic metaphor involving the flesh and divinity, a common juxtaposition in various art traditions. Regardless of how one interprets things, the red/white scheme is vivid and dramatic, especially when fully choreographed in such grand scale.
When the square was dedicated last September, the fountain system made quite an impression on the local media, which hailed the space as an important contribution to a city that has always been proud of its beauty and cultural traditions. Everyone seemed happy with this beautiful centerpiece and the way it struck a harmonic chord for the whole area.
Certainly, we were thrilled as part of the project team to see Lestage’s vision become reality and for it to be so well received. Indeed, the experience reinforced the point I made in starting this article that cities are doing well these days by investing in their public spaces in ways that inspire and delight both residents and visitors.
Judging from we’ve seen here and are seeing in many other urban centers, the use of water in these revitalization projects is growing. For those of us in the watershaping industry as well as all those who enjoy these systems, that is certainly a point worth celebrating!
David L’Heureux is co-owner and director of commercial sales (North and South America) for Crystal Fountains, a fountain supply and design company based in Toronto. A 30-year veteran of the fountain industry, he has experience in all aspects of the company’s operation, including project management, and has worked on fountain designs and installations of every size and type, from residential waterfeatures to major metropolitan fountains. He is also an instructor for Genesis 3’s fountain-design school, having taught classes in fountain lighting and assisted with the main fountain course.