FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Modernist landscapes are so futuristic, so weirdly alien in their urban surroundings, they look like sets for a sci-fi movie. In the case of the “Fort Worth Water Gardens” designed by Philip Johnson with partner John Burgee, the immense shapes of concrete that rise up topographically into a mountain and descend into a watery vortex are both a 1970s vision of public space and the setting for one of the era’s dystopian films.
Architect Philip Johnson had designed the international style Amon Carter Museum, which opened in 1961, about a decade earlier when he got invited back to Fort Worth by his previous patron. According to Frank D. Welch’s Philip Johnson & Texas, in 1970 “Johnson was called back to Fort Worth by Ruth Carter Johnson for a wide-open urban design project free of design restrictions,” and four years later the park opened to the public, a gift from the Carter Foundation.
The area for this urban project was just over four acres on the edge of the Texas city’s downtown, a dilapidated zone that was once known as Hell’s Half Acre. In the 19th century it had attracted the raucous crowds of cowboys, outlaws, railroad workers, and gamblers with its brothels, saloons, and dance halls. Needless to say, even with Fort Worth’s recently opened Sundance Square that’s aiming to attract more people downtown, the former ‘Cowtown‘ has cooled off considerably, especially when the whole area was cleaned up in World War I with help from the military. Compared to that history, the Water Gardens feel strangely sterile, with little reference to the past in its geometric landscape.
This strange, monolithic feel is likely what made it a prime filming location shortly after its opening for the 1976 sci-fi film Logan’s Run, which had its futuristic story about a society where people aren’t allowed to grow old filmed around the Fort Worth and Dallas area. The Water Gardens appear in the movie almost exactly as they do today, only the costuming of the people around them is different.
I visited the park on a recent evening, so while the November weather only called for jackets in Texas, I can’t vouch for the experience of exploring the relatively shadeless center plaza of the Water Gardens on a boiling July day. Sure, there is plenty of water, as the name promises, but it’s much more for contemplating than touching. There’s the peaceful zone where a swimming-pool-blue space of water is surrounded by sheets of water rolling down the steep 38-foot walls, and then there’s the aerating pond where spouts of water constantly spray up in a frenzy. But the showpiece is definitely the Active Pool, where the majority of the 19,000 gallons of water that cycle through the park in a minute (water conservation obviously not being the goal here) flow rapidly over broad terraces into a churning pool. If you like, you can even descend down a stone staircase, although there are no rails or barriers between you and the raging fountain.
As Franz Schulze wrote in his 1996 book Philip Johnson: Life and Work: “To follow the water over the rock surfaces was an experience at once bracing and daunting, exactly what Philip had in mind when he spoke warmly of danger as a motive in the art of design.” Unfortunately, this simulated feeling of danger became real in 2004 when four people drowned in one tragic incident. Modifications were made that were meant to be in keeping with the design, and a quiet line of memorial plaques was attached to the fountain’s exterior wall, and it reopened in 2007.
The Water Gardens are a vastly different experience from Johnson’s garden projects like the MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, where although tiered levels along the landscape guide an experience, it’s far from a bombastic play of concrete with the plants scurried to the edges as if in retreat. Yet at the same time there’s a feeling of an ancient influence, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon merged with a Brutalist fever dream. The Water Gardens are profoundly bizarre, but it obviously has a community that loves it to keep it standing while other Modernist landscapes crumble or are demolished in favor of contemporary city parks’ greener pastures, so it will likely be around into the future that was just once imagined on its concrete forms.
The Forth Worth Water Gardens are located at 1502 Commerce Street in Fort Worth, Texas.