COVER STORY : The Sound of Water : Burbling fountains, with their cooling mists, are the focal points of many Valley parks, plazas and malls.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The architects employed to resurrect the earthquake-ravaged Northridge Fashion Center have based their rede sign around a series of airy courts, each accentuated by a burbling fountain.

"The attention it draws and the entertainment it provides--people respond to water," said Mark Lauterbach, a project designer for RTKL Associates Inc. in Dallas, which has finished initial plans for the center. "If you go into any shopping mall that has a fountain, you always see kids sitting around and playing with the water."

This fascination with jets and streams, cascades and bubbles, reaches back thousands of years. It is the stuff of history, myth and religion. It is a bewitchment that incites men in business suits to try their luck at sprinting between the watery jets of a ground-level fountain at CityWalk in Universal City. Or incites grown-ups to close their eyes and toss a coin in the fountain at Encino Place.

"So many coins that it jams the filters in the fountain. We have to clean three times a week," said Tom Pashaie, the mall's co-owner. "What can you do? People want to make wishes."

And, on a smothering summer day in the San Fernando Valley, they want to feel a little cooler. Waiting for an audition at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood, Barbara Piniero found herself drawn to a fountain in the plaza.

"We live in a desert so the presence of water is essential," the Santa Monica woman said. "It's the sound. Very calming."

The first fountains were natural springs often thought to harbor spirits. Ancient Greeks built statues of gods and goddesses around these sites. Christians called their Lord "the fountain of living waters" while, in Islam, fountains were associated with paradise. And the myth of the Fountain of Youth sent Juan Ponce de Leon searching the New World.

But gushing waters nurtured more than spiritual life. Whether natural or engineered, the fountain served as a source of survival, a place where villagers could fill their buckets each day. At the same time, they could pour out gossip. So fountains became a social gathering place, said Kenneth Nakaba, chairman of the Landscape Architecture Department at Cal Poly Pomona.

Modern designers have not lost sight of this. In Los Angeles, they have placed fountains in parks and public squares, in commercial plazas and shopping centers.

At Encino Place, for instance, the fountain serves as a focal point for rows of shops. A sculpted muse rises from the splashing water, peering from tiptoes at the passing rumble of Ventura Boulevard.

The attraction of such a feature is two-fold, architects say: Some people watch the fountain, others watch the people watching the fountain.

Shoppers look on as children reach for water that glides down granite panels in the Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park. At CityWalk, visitors who race through the fountain are often cheered by others standing at a safe, dry distance. Lauterbach hopes for a similar dynamic at the Northridge mall.

"We're creating an environment that's entertaining," he said. "Fountains provide a background sound, noise and animation."

These aesthetic considerations arose mainly after the advent of plumbing, when there was no longer a need to visit the main square for fresh water. In the great cities, waterworks such as Rome's Fountain of the Four Rivers served as a soft element of nature amid hard-edged masonry. On private grounds, they became a status symbol.

Romans adorned their gardens with waterworks. King Louis XIV decorated the Palace of Versailles with tiered fountains.

"It was a matter of how many fountains can you have in your garden, how big can they be and how many splashes can they make," Nakaba said.

This tradition carried to the 18th Century and North America, where Eastern architects borrowed from their European background while Spaniards decorated the Western missions with fountains.

Perhaps the Valley's first fountain was the one at San Fernando, Rey de Espana in Mission Hills. Of simple brick design, it was copied from an existing fountain in Cordoba, Spain, and fed by waterworks constructed in the early 1800s. Today, the fountain sits dry in Brand Park while a replica flows in the refurbished mission's east garden.

Not far south, the Burbank City Hall offers a water feature from a much later period. The Depression-era building features an Art Deco, black-and-turquoise fountain. Set between staircases, it cannot serve as a gathering spot. But its colors, its jets and falls accentuate the massive structure that rises in the background.

Similarly striking fountains adorn Forest Lawn in Griffith Park. In Sherman Oaks, The Grand complex has a waterfall in its lobby. In North Hollywood, the Television Academy's fountain serves as an homage to the Emmy Award. A replica of the statuette stands on a black-tile pedestal with water cascading all around.

"I like the concentric circles," Piniero said. "The symmetry is very nice."

But even the most grandiose fountains maintain an aspect of function. The sound of running water can have a soothing effect on the psyche, said Achva Benzinberg Stein, an associate professor of architecture at USC. Experts also say the evaporation of splashing water cools surrounding air.

This effect was prized in the Middle East, where fountains were thought to originate. The look and sound of water softened the surrounding desert's harshness. Fountains provide similar respite in Los Angeles centuries later.

"Water is the soul of the Southland," architecture critic Leon Whiteson opined in a 1993 article in The Times. "Without it, the vast metropolis would have remained a small town lost in a semidesert, instead of a good, green place rich, first in orchards and now in lawns and gardens."

So, on a recent weekday, Bruce Lerner emerged from the Nestle building in Glendale and stooped to hold his hand over the spurts of water that shot from a low, star-shaped fountain. And, across town, Mashariki Walker, 14, pushed her 2-year-old brother, Bahati Usafi, in a stroller to the edge of the Television Academy's fountain. They sat sharing a Popsicle.

"I thought he would like it," Walker said, pointing to the fountain's splashes. "It's kind of refreshing."

A Dry Approach

The splashing of an elaborate fountain does not cool Achva Benzinberg Stein.

An associate professor of architecture at USC, Stein grows hot under the collar when discussing much of the waterworks she sees in Southern California. To her, several jets and walls of cascading water seem ludicrous in a semiarid climate.

"Anything you design that does not teach about the natural environment, in my opinion, is not desirable," she said.

Los Angeles, after all, is a city that has always grappled with the scarcity of water. Great aqueducts have been built. Seasons of rationing have been enforced. While Stein does not oppose the use of water in architectural design, she believes that such use should express the reality of the setting.

"You don't need to have reflective pools or large fountains," the professor said. "Everywhere you go in California, you see places where there is only a little water or water only occasionally. In some gardens, they have dry creeks to remind you that there may be water."

As for the human desire to feel cool on a hot day, the professor suggests that tree shade goes further to reduce the temperature than minor evaporation or the sound of splashing. In that respect, she fears that most fountains are designed primarily to soothe the egos of their designers.

"If it's just for looks and sound, I mean, we are not the children of Louis XIV."

All it would take to stem the tide of elaborate waterworks, she said, would be a few innovative designers. Stein is not holding her breath.

"L.A. landscaping starts at the end of the hose," she said. "I think it's crazy. And I don't think it is beautiful when it's just splashed everywhere. We have overdeveloped eyes and underdeveloped brains."

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