|Dimensions||12 m (40 ft)|
|Location||Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco, California, United States|
Vaillancourt Fountain, sometimes called Quebec libre!, is a large fountain located in Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, designed by the Québécois artist Armand Vaillancourt in 1971. It is about 40 feet (12 m) high and is constructed out of precast concrete square tubes. Long considered controversial because of its stark, modernist appearance, there have been several unsuccessful proposals to demolish the fountain over the years. It was the site of a free concert by U2 in 1987, when lead singer Bono spray painted graffiti on the fountain and was both praised and criticized for the action.
The fountain is located in a highly visible spot on the downtown San Francisco waterfront, in Justin Herman Plaza, where Market Street meets The Embarcadero. The Hyatt Regency Hotel is at the edge of the plaza, adjacent to the other four highrise towers of the Embarcadero Center. Across The Embarcadero is the Ferry Building, and the eastern end of the California Street cable car line is on the other side of the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
When Vaillancourt designed the fountain, the Embarcadero Freeway or Interstate 480, was still in existence along Market Street and the Embarcadero. The fountain was designed with the freeway environment in mind, but it was built to bring people there. At the time the city was expanding and wanted to build a plaza. What is now Justin Herman Plaza, was once an empty dirt lot under the freeway surrounded by piers, warehouses and ship yards.
Design and construction
Vaillancourt Fountain was a product of the redevelopment of San Francisco that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The Transamerica Pyramid was constructed from 1969-1972 and BART was also being constructed, the Embarcadero Station would eventually open in 1976.
Justin Herman, for whom the plaza was named, was a leading figure in this process and the executive director of the redevelopment agency in charge. Modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was selected for the redesign of Market Street from the Embarcadero to the Civic Center, the most visible two mile thoroughfare in San Francisco. Halprin had designed other spaces in the city such as Ghirardelli Square and the United Nations Plaza. He designed Justin Herman Plaza, but hired Armand Vaillancourt to design the fountain. Vaillancourt, 38 years old at the time, had won the invitational fountain design competition that Halprin had judged. Halprin was quoted as saying that if the fountain didn't prove to be among the "great works of civic art ... I am going to slit my throat".
The fountain is about 40 feet (12 m) high, weighs approximately 700 short tons (640 t), and is constructed out of precast concrete square tubes. The fountain is positioned in a pool shaped like an irregular pentagon, and is designed to pump up to 30,000 US gallons (110,000 L) of water per minute. ' The fountain looks unfinished, like concrete that has not been completely mixed. Up close, it is very rough and textured. There are several square pillars or cubed tubes that form a semi circle inside a pentagon shaped pool. The natural colored pillars jut out and crisscross from the corner of the plaza “like the tentacles of some immense geometrical octopus….breaking open.” There are two bridges, or walk ways (with stairs), that allow the public to stand in-between the tubes and have a view overlooking the plaza and city. The fountain and plaza are easily accessible to the public at all times and in all conditions, rain or shine. The fountain's budget was US $310,000, and it was dedicated on April 22, 1971. The Los Angeles Times reported that its actual cost was US $607,800.
Just before the dedication, the slogan "Quebec Libre" (a reference to the Quebec sovereignty movement) was painted on the fountain at night, and the graffiti was erased. During the dedication, attended by Thomas Hoving, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, a rock band played, and Armand Vaillancourt himself painted "Quebec Libre" on the fountain in as many places as he could reach. A redevelopment agency employee started to paint over the slogans during the ceremony, but Herman stopped him, saying it could be done later. When asked about why he defaced his own fountain with graffiti he responded, “No, no. It's a joy to make a free statement. This fountain is dedicated to all freedom. Free Quebec! Free East Pakistan! Free Viet Nam! Free the whole world!” Vaillancourt said his actions were "a powerful performance" intended to illustrate the notion of power to the people. "Quebec Libre" has been an alternate name for the fountain since.
The fountain has been considered controversial since its construction, and criticism of it has continued over the years. Hoving, in his dedication speech, said of the fountain had some of the daring of Baroque sculpture and that "A work of art must be born in controversy." Herman himself said it was "one of the greatest artistic achievements in North America."
At the time of its dedication, the San Francisco chapter of the National Safety Council said that the fountain "may be a safety hazard". Opponents of the work handed out leaflets at the dedication of the fountain describing it as a "loathsome monstrosity", a "howling obscenity", an "obscene practical joke", "idiotic rubble", and a "pestiferous eyesore". Art critic Alfred Frankenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle responded that "its very outrageousness and extravagance are part of its challenge" and therefore, it "can't be all bad." He added that the fountain was intended to be participated in rather than just observed. An early comment by architecture critic Allan Temko, often repeated over the years, describes "technological excrescences" that had been "deposited by a giant concrete dog with square intestines". Another pithy remark that gained press attention, from critic Lloyd Skinner, was that the fountain was "Stonehenge, unhinged, with plumbing troubles".
Artists have been critical of the work as well. Sculptor Benny Bufano called it "a jumble of nothing", artist Willard Cox likened it to "dynamited debris", and sculptor Humphrey Diaquist said it had been created by "a figure of deranged talent".
The fountain has been called the "least revered modernist work of art" in San Francisco. Due to its size, it has been said that it "dominates the landscape" of the north side of Justin Herman Plaza. It has also been said that the design intent was "to mock and mirror the clumsy, double-decked roadway", referring to the elevated Embarcadero Freeway which separated the fountain from the waterfront at the time of construction.
1987 U2 free concert
On the first leg of The Joshua Tree Tour by the rock band U2 in 1987, they performed concerts at the Cow Palace just south of San Francisco on April 24 and April 25, 1987. On the third leg of the tour, concerts had been announced for November 14 and 15, 1987, across the San Francisco Bay, at the Oakland Coliseum.
On the morning of November 11, 1987, local radio stations announced that U2 would hold a free concert that day in Justin Herman Plaza, with the stage set up in front of the Vaillancourt Fountain. Within a few hours, a crowd estimated at 20,000 people gathered in the plaza. The concert was jokingly called "Save the Yuppies", in reference to the 1987 stock market crash that had taken place three weeks earlier.
The band closed their nine-song performance with their hit "Pride (In the Name of Love)". During the instrumental portion in the middle of the song, Bono, lead singer of the band, climbed onto the sculpture and spray painted graffiti on it, reading "Rock N Roll Stops The Traffic". Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who had been waging a city-wide campaign against graffiti that had resulted in over 300 citations during the year, was angry and criticized Bono for defacing a San Francisco landmark. She said, "I am disappointed that a rock star who is supposed to be a role model for young people chose to vandalize the work of another artist. The unfortunate incident marred an otherwise wonderful rock concert." Bono was issued a citation for misdemeanor malicious mischief. U2 manager Paul McGuinness said, "This is clearly not an act of vandalism. This act was clearly in the spirit of the artwork itself." The numerous callers to Ronn Owens' radio talk show on KGO-AM were evenly split, with younger listeners defending the singer's action and older ones not. Bono soon apologized, saying "I really do regret it. It was dumb." The singer explained that he thought that he was honoring the artist's work and that the artist had agreed, but later Bono realized that the city owned the fountain. The group covered the cost of removal of the graffiti.
Armand Vaillancourt flew from Quebec to California after the incident, and spoke in favor of Bono's actions at U2's Oakland performance several days later. Vaillancourt said, "Good for him. I want to shake his hand. People get excited about such a little thing." The sculptor spray-painted a slogan of his own on the band's stage, "Stop the Madness".
The episode received further attention when it was featured in U2's 1988 documentary film Rattle and Hum. There, footage of it was shown over, and interspersed with, the band's opening number, "All Along the Watchtower", a song by Bob Dylan that had been a big hit for Jimi Hendrix. This has led some people to misidentify the song being played when the spray painting occurred. In any case, the fountain and plaza ended up on one U2 fan site's list of recommended group-related places in the U.S. to visit.
Proposals to demolish
Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the elevated Embarcadeo Freeway was so badly damaged that it was torn down, and was replaced by a boulevard at ground level. An architect hired by the city also proposed demolition of the fountain, but no decision was made. In 2004, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin renewed the call to demolish the fountain. The water supply to the fountain had been turned off for several years, because of California's energy crisis of those years. Armand Vaillancourt immediately pledged that he would "fight like a devil to preserve that work". Debra Lahane, a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission, said that "it succeeds as a work of art if it provokes dialogue and discussion. Art that engages the public has had a measure of success." Within a few months, the water was flowing again, and plans to tear down the fountain were abandoned.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vaillancourt Fountain, San Francisco.|
- San Francisco Chronicle - photo of Bono spray painting the Vaillancourt Fountain
- Art Inventories Catalog: Smithsonian American Art Museum - Vaillancourt Fountain, (sculpture)