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Excellence Endures

Photo by Darin Norman, AIA

In theory, the task of selecting the TSA 25-Year Award is fairly simple. The jury’s work this year, however, posed a dilemma—to recognize the best of the lot or to reject it because of tragic events in its past. Of the five nominees one clearly stood out. But as magnificent as the Fort Worth Water Gardens is, no one who knows the park’s history can brush aside the fact that six people have died in accidents there since its opening in 1974. That reality gave the jurors pause during their deliberations in Austin where they had gathered (with two in virtual attendance via telephone) to discuss the relative merits of the nominated projects. Shortly after the meeting began, four of the five judges said they had placed the Water Gardens at the top of their individual lists. But the fifth juror said he had listed it as third because of the catastrophes. Ultimately, after further discussion, the vote was unanimous. [See news article on p. 12.] Designed by modernist Philip Johnson and presented as a gift by philanthropist Ruth Carter Johnson to the citizens of Fort Worth, the Water Gardens sublimely contrasts a hard-edged feel of geology with the unceasing tumult of moving water. As the architect well knew, the hint of danger begets fascination. And, soon after the park opened 34 years ago, the sense of peril also induced anxiety among city officials about the potential for injuries. In fact, the city was sued in the 1980s after a woman slipped and broke her ankle. A more horrific accident occurred in 1991 when high winds toppled a light standard, killing Michael S. Barnett and Larry J. Watkins. But a worse calamity took place on June 16, 2004 when four people drowned in the Active Pool after one of them, an eight-year-old girl, fell into the roiling water. Recent heavy rains and a malfunctioning pump had caused the water level to rise to nine feet, about six feet above the normal level. The victims, all visitors from Chicago, were Myron Dukes, his daughter Lauren, his teenage son Christopher, and family friend Juanitrice Deadmon. After that tragedy, the park was closed and city officials undertook a $3.2 million renovation that included installing safety features such as metal railings and concrete benches to serve as protective barriers around the Active Pool. Also, the pool was re-engineered to maintain a constant two-foot level of water. Following the completion of the work, the Water Gardens reopened on March 4, 2007. Much to the relief of many who feared that the safeguards might ruin the excitement of the Water Gardens, the improvements were accomplished with sensitivity and intelligence. In his letter supporting the nomination of the Water Gardens for the award, Darin Norman, AIA, wrote: “Although recent changes have been made that lessen the perceived danger offered by this picturesque design, I believe that efforts toward safety have not detracted from Philip Johnson’s design intent. The majority of renovation efforts have focused on elements completely undetectable by the average visitor.”

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As one of the jurors for the 25-Year Award, I must admit to having reservations about choosing the Water Gardens. But at the same time I had no doubt that its architecture surpassed that of the other four contenders. Johnson’s design is unforgettably powerful. And because the power of that place is accessible for everyone to experience first-hand, the Water Gardens sends an important message about how public space can enliven the urban landscape. In exemplifying excellence in design and maintaining a beneficial impact on the public realm, the Water Gardens rises above the sad events in its history. S t e p h e n

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Before awarding the Water Gardens, judges considered its unfortunate past

S h a r p e

Recent improvements to the Water Gardens have not detracted from Johnson’s design.

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Texas Architect Sept/Oct 2008: Design Awards