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San Francisco, California

Vaillancourt Fountain

This concrete tangle of square pipes has stood as a proud thorn in the city's side since the '70s 

Designed and executed by outspoken Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt, this (technically) eponymous fountain has inhabited many roles in its tumultuous career as public art. Whether it’s been used for political rebellion, barely survived a massive earthquake, provided a rock show venue, hosted a Hooverville, or was vilified as an eyesore that cost too much to operate, its only mainstay quality seems to be longevity.

The Vaillancourt Fountain had its origins in the ambitions of Lawrence Halprin, a prominent Bay Area landscape architect responsible for such San Francisco hallmarks as the current iteration of Ghirardelli Square. Halprin championed the fountain project by Vaillancourt to the extreme. The fountain, he publicly proclaimed in 1968, would be regarded as on of America’s “great works of civic art [or] I am going to slit my throat.”

Today, the fountain appears freestanding. Its collection of spouts, ascending and careening sections of squared-off and hollow concrete, give off an industrial design meets 90’s pipe screensaver vibe that contrast with the trees in the surrounding park. When it was built in 1971, however, the fountain stood alongside the Embarcadero Freeway. The fountain seemed to grow off the thoroughfare, as if part of it had come to life. Despite, criticism flowed in from artists, city officials, and citizens who questioned both the safety and aesthetics of the project.

Vaillancourt saw the piece as a confrontational work that could act as a magnet for protest and dissent. He sealed this fate by painting, “Québec Libre” right on his own fountain on the day of its dedication. This statement in support of an independent Quebec also led to the fountain being nicknamed the Quebec Libre Fountain.

As the city of San Francisco changed, the fountain remained at the center of controversy. Rock band U2 famously performed a free concert in front of the fountain, during which lead singer Bono spontaneously spray painted ‘Rock and roll stops traffic’ across one of the fonts. The band, in a very un-rock-and-roll move, apologized after being fined by the San Francisco Police Department and then-mayor Dianne Feinstein called for the arrest of Bono.

The Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 damaged enough of the Embarcadero Freeway that the whole structure was removed. In one stroke, San Francisco (re)gained its famous waterfront and the Vaillancourt Fountain lost the reference which helped it make “sense.” Drought in the early 2000s forced the fountain to go dry. Afterward, city leaders saw that the move had saved the city $250,000 and 30,000 gallons of water and the fountain was sentenced to remain parched for the foreseeable future. The dearth of H20 brought a wave of homeless folks who saw the disused square fonts as excellent living space from night to night. 

A 2004 measure was voted on which aimed to tear down the fountain altogether. A cadre of private backers, however, arrived to underwrite the fountain’s water usage. This turn allowed everyone to cool off about razing the fountain, so long as the private monies paid for the water.

Know Before You Go

The Vallaincourt Fountain is inside the Justin Herman Plaza, which is located at the foot of Market Street at the Embarcadero, just behind the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

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