Fountains of Ideas

It's hard to overestimate the pleasures of a fountain. The sound of falling water in a garden is a tonic; the sight of it--the smallest bubbler in a terrace pot--cools the mind. Ah, water. Relief.

In any season, flowing water brings an outdoor scene to life by catching sunlight, reflecting plants and drawing birds to splash and drink. In a dry climate, a fountain symbolizes plenty. It coaxes us into its presence. If it's hidden, you can't help but track it down. If it's visible, your eye goes right to it.

Garden fountains date at least to the 1st century, when the Greek writer Hero of Alexandria described elaborate contraptions that made water rise, flow and spill. At the same time, noted Romans such as Pliny the Younger, influenced by aqueduct design, were installing fountains throughout their villa landscapes. Pliny's outdoor dining room in Tuscany featured water spouting by every chair.

Our own courtyard fountains show the influence of Arab conquerors who brought Islamic gardens--divided into quarters by water channels representing the four rivers of paradise--to Spain beginning in the 8th century. From there, in the 1700s, Franciscan padres went to Mexico and eventually north to California to found missions and plant gardens.

Though the early mission fountains often were utilitarian--supplying water for drinking and washing--even ornamental fountains serve a purpose. They add welcome to entries and provide focal points for garden schemes. And while fountains tend to be associated with formal landscapes, you can use water playfully, too. Place it in unexpected spots. Make it interactive, evoking the childhood thrill of running through the sprinklers.

Whatever form it takes, a fountain doesn't need to be complex. All it requires is a small recirculating pump, a catch basin and an electrical current.

Fountain water not only creates a soothing effect, but it also can mask city noise. For Linda Jassim and Gwynne Pugh, this was the first issue to address when they created their garden on a busy Santa Monica street. "It all began with the fountain," says Jassim, a landscape architecture student who bought her house in 1999 with her husband, a principal in the architecture firm Pugh + Scarpa. After gutting and simplifying the little bungalow, they hired Sasha Tarnopolsky of L.A.-based Dry Design to give them a green view with a lot of water.

For the aquatic theme, Tarnopolsky created a sequence of interlocking decks that step down from the house to a lily-filled water channel. The use of various materials--from wood near the house to thyme-edged concrete to Tifgreen bermuda lawn--give each part of the small garden a separate character. The troweled stucco pond walls echo surfaces inside the house, linking indoors and out.

In keeping with the building, Tarnopolsky made the fountain simple: a frame of water that sheets down into the channel with surprising force. On close inspection, the channel takes on complexity. Fish flash in its depths, while water iris, hyacinth, sagittaria and pennywort--all planted in submerged pots--join the lilies at the surface.

When landscape designer Thomas Cox made a garden to create a view from a client's Pasadena living room, he took his cues from Moorish gardens and put a fountain at its center. "Water is the essence of life, so it belongs at the center of a composition," Cox says. "It stirs our feelings and makes us sense our connection to nature."

To cross the garden, you have to walk around the fountain, increasing your consciousness of its splash, its spray and nearby plants, including myrtle hedges and roses. Instead of rising from the middle, the water arcs from the sides of its octagonal pond, creating more of a liquid presence and nearly tripling its sound. The fountain, controlled by a timer, switches on in the early morning and shuts off after dark.

To enhance the calm of the scene, Cox kept the design simple. He created a visual axis from the living room window to a distant bench, and crossed that with a second axis between the landscape's two entry gates. Quiet grass paths follow these axes, which intersect at the fountain, and potted loquats anchor the plantings at each corner. Pale peach and pink roses gather near the trees, and the myrtle hedges tuck them in.

To screen and cool a dining terrace on her steep Los Feliz lot, landscape designer Mia Lehrer conceived a stacked concrete wall crowned with a hidden trough that spills water over the side to skip and slide down the rough stone. When it hits the ground, it disappears into a "pool" of tumbled blue glass, from which it's pumped back to the top. A king palm shades the terrace, and the splashing water suggests the sound of frisky, natural springs. Citrus trees, along with pots of succulents on the wall and ground, enhance the sense of enclosure, and a neighbor's "borrowed" bougainvillea blocks the sight of nearby roofs.

Designed in 1989, the fountain had to be baby-proof for Lehrer and architect husband Michael's three children. It also couldn't infringe on dining space required by a family of five. Playfulness was welcome, though. Hence the blue glass, oddball succulents such as sticks-on-fire and twisted rods of giant drill bits that are "planted" against the wall.

"Why not?" Lehrer asks. "The kids painted them. We were having fun recycling." The broken concrete and the tumbled glass were recycled too, and at night, buried lights illuminate the blue pond from below.

You can't have too much water in Burbank, especially when it's 100 degrees," says Nancy Handler, a hair stylist and landscape designer who turned a former laundry yard behind her house into a garden. At its heart is a shallow pond with a 4-foot-tall fountain that she wades in during heat waves. Or she sits at its edges, on a decomposed-granite "beach," enjoying its spray and musical splash. A submerged pump cycles the water through a high-pressure hose nozzle, and an electrical conduit runs from the pump and up through the beach, where it connects to a hidden plug.

"I use this area now; I didn't before," says Handler, who bought her Burbank cottage in 1998 but waited four years to install the fountain after planting a wildflower meadow and then a chamomile lawn. When both demanded too much weeding, she opted for the pond, surrounding it with soft decomposed granite, fruit trees, potted plants and a vintage bathtub filled with water hyacinths. But even the fountain needed fine-tuning, and it took awhile for her to find the right nozzle, adjust the spray so water didn't evaporate too fast and control the buildup of algae.

"Occasionally, and very reluctantly, I have to drop in a little bleach," Handler says. Twice a month, to prevent clogging, she skims out leaves from nearby trees. Otherwise, "I just enjoy it."


Resource Guide

Sasha Tarnopolsky, Dry Design, Los Angeles, (323) 954-9084; Thomas Batcheller Cox Associates, Altadena, (626) 798-2365; Mia Lehrer, Mia Lehrer + Associates, Los Angeles, (213) 384-3844; Nancy Handler and David Yeh, Secret Garden Landscape Design, Burbank, (818) 567-4660.

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