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Blog art croppedBy Jim McCloskey

I returned from the “Designing Water” symposium at Longwood Gardens the other day filled with a complex set of impressions – three of which I’ll share with you here.

q  First, a visit to Kennett Square, Pa., to see Longwood’s Main Fountain Garden is a significant, bucket-list-level imperative for anyone who works with contained, controlled water. And if seeing the spectacle after dark is possible, then it gets even more urgent.

Before witnessing a performance of the painstakingly refurbished fountain for myself on October 17, I’d watched more than a few videos – some professional, others wonderfully amateurish – and once again must make the observation that seeing things in three vivid dimensions is undeniably superior to watching them unfold on a screen.

I felt like a kid in a candy store, watching the patterns emerge and fade, rise and fall, twist and turn (often in quite unexpected directions) and change colors and intensities at the drop of a hat. Looking back, my favorite moments were probably those in bright, uniform white, but the capabilities of the LED and water-choreography systems are simply phenomenal.

As we approached the balcony overlooking the Main Fountain Garden just before the start of the show, my first thought was to get a spot right on the railing, only to discover that my idea was high in mind among the scores of others who moved from the event’s dinner service to the rail with more alacrity than me. This was when I decided to take advantage of my height and went right to the middle, where I found myself standing behind the fountain’s designer, Jim Garland of Los Angeles-based Fluidity Design Consultants – another who was apparently drawn occupy to the best possible angle on the spectacle.

Do not pass up an opportunity to see this colossus among watershapes: It is so worth the effort – and you’ll get to spend time in one of the planet’s best botanical gardens as well!

q  Second, I am convinced that water-oriented landscape architects are among the sharpest folks at work in the world of modern design. A number of the presentations at the symposium, which was the product of a collaboration between Longwood Gardens and the American Academy in Rome, were truly outstanding, and even those that seemed a bit broad were invariably smart and insightful.

My thought is that this ingenuity results from the fact that water is now perceived as an endangered commodity – for good reason – and that putting it on display in landscapes involves jumping through so many regulatory and societal hoops that those who see value in fountains, rills, water walls and related waterfeatures have to be amazingly creative and eloquent to see their ideas come to fruition.

In general, the presenters at Longwood know what followers of WaterShapes have known for a long time:  People want to be around water.  But where it takes a persistent level of persuasion these days to get even residential clients to include watershapes as parts of their environments, it’s exceedingly difficult to sway cautious municipalities or commercial clients. Skill, passion and patience are all needed to break through these days, and I was heartened to see so much of all three qualities on such brilliant display.

q  Third, I wish the event had spent more time on fountains. I had hoped going in that they would be the event’s entire focus, but I suppose that was selfishness on my part.

From my perspective, however, fountains are wickedly fascinating and so worthy of attention that I could have spent the symposium’s full ten hours listening to less about wetland restoration – however worthy a topic it may be – and more about the roster of bright speakers’ thoughts on the current technological and social state of fountains and their future.

The only one who really went there was the abovementioned Jim Garland, which makes sense given that he’s a fountain specialist while the others all have broader takes on water in landscapes. He was also largely alone in looking forward, and the preview he gave us of one of his current projects was a real mind-bender: I can’t wait to see that one for myself.

In the meantime, you really should plan a trip to Longwood Gardens in the months when the Main Fountain Garden has its shows after dark. As I told my wife after seeing it in action, experiences of this sort are warmly affirming and explain why I’m so proud and happy to do what I do for a living!

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