The white plasticky rod on the left, is one of London’s new water fountains – sponsored by Thames Water and specially selected by a panel of “international experts” and the Greater London Authority to be inserted into 50 public streets and squares across the city. The arches and scarab shell on the right are the very first water fountain erected (besides St Sepulchre’s Church) by the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association in 1859 and sponsored by Samuel Gurney MP.
Both were built at a time of profound public policy need. In the nineteenth century it was one of public health and (it was gradually realised) clean drinking water. The River Thames was filthy, awash with rubbish, effluent, untreated sewage and water-borne cholera. There was inadequate free drinking water and between 1831 and 1866 a series of cholera outbreaks killed around 40,000 people in London alone. Punch said during the Great Exhibition in 1851, “Whoever can produce in London a glass of water fit to drink will contribute the best and most universally useful article in the whole exhibition.” Within a short time, the fountain was being used by around 7,000 people. Within 6 years the Association had erected 86 fountains (rising to 140 and 153 cattle troughs within 11 years).
Today the concern is not the health of the individual but the health of the planet and the despoliation of our oceans. Since the invention of polyethylene terephthalate bottles in 1973 the use of disposable plastic bottles has risen from almost none to about a million every minute, 480 billion a year. Less than half are collected for recycling and only about seven per cent are turned into new bottles. Most end up in landfill or in the ocean. Londoners buy three plastic water bottles a week.
Two centuries. Two important needs. Both implying better access to free and clean water “on the move”. There, however, the comparison ends. For the collapse in quality across one hundred and sixty years is profound and goes far beyond mere “design”. The fountain on the left is not just, to quote widespread criticism on social media, ugly, top-heavy, crass, garish and jarring but it is an object. Its form, positioning, colour and nature says “I am a temporary plastic thing meeting a need as cheaply as possible. I won’t be here for long.” Ironically, for a fountain intended to lance the dragon of an overly-disposable culture, it is itself a disposable object. It is not part of the city. It is not civil. It does not talk to the street or the neighbouring buildings but advertises at them. It might almost be selling sunglasses. Or blue paint. It is built for the next few weeks.
The fountain from 1859 is not an object but a modest bit of vernacular architecture. It is part of the city. It is civil. It talks to the past with its Romanesque arches and mini columns. But it is also clearly of its time and place with the pleasing busyness and over-elaboration in which the Victorians delighted. It is built to last and says so in stone.
In fact, the new fountains are not cheap. What looks like plastic is partly metal. And, the overall programme cost (£50 million) implies an eye-popping £100,000 bill per fountain (though this presumably includes some fee for ongoing maintenance). Thus, we have the worst of all possible words, an ugly and expensive object that looks disposable but which is designed, and priced, to last.
This is testament to a profound failure of civic pride in our public buildings and street furniture which impoverishes our daily lives with ugliness and which is also profoundly “ungreen”. Ugly objects rarely outlive their initial use or funding stream as no one fights to save them. But beauty more often endures. Many of the proudest buildings in England’s towns and cities are civic buildings: the Houses of Parliament, Rochdale Town Hall or St George’s Hall in Liverpool. But somehow, somewhere, we have lost not just the ability but the desire to create public buildings of beauty and moral worth. One witness recently told the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which I am co-chairing:
“I was working on a PFI project … and we were told by the contractor to put in a more expensive material that looked cheaper because there was real sensitivity about anything in the NHS looking expensive.”
This is ridiculous, almost Kafkaesque. A hospital is a noble building built for a noble purpose. It should not be built to look disposable and cheap. We need to rediscover the confidence and ability to create public buildings and objects of popular beauty and civic pride. When our approach to design is trapped by a narrowly utilitarian approach we build unsustainably and for the short term. Quick green not deep green.
The idea that public street furniture cannot be simultaneously visible, beautiful and useful is clearly wrong. Arguably the most successful example of all time is the British telephone kiosk whose design was inspired by the grave of Sir John Soane. In 1924 Giles Gilbert Scott was about to become a trustee of the John Soane Museum and the design was clearly in his mind when he made a submission to the Royal Fine Art Commission’s telephone kiosk competition.
His design was derivative with its Soanian reeding and dome and it was also brilliant: a miniature building rather than a mere thing. “Design classic” hardly does it justice. Resistance to the placing of telephone kiosks had been widespread but with the appearance of this new design it collapsed. By 1940 Britain had 35,000 telephone kiosks. These kiosks were not objects inserted into streets which they spoiled but small buildings built in streets which they edified. They became a symbol of London, of Britain, even of the British culture of order, good governance and liberty under the common law.
In the 1980s the newly privatised British Telecom started destroying the old phone boxes and replacing them with the “KX”. Like London’s new water fountain (their equivalent) their conception was trapped by narrow arguments of utility. They were, apparently, cheaper to run (the aim) but they were widely reviled.
The Guardian commented: “BT has done its utmost to turn the phone box from one of the most famous and elegant pieces of street furniture into the most boringly ugly.” Campaigns were waged to save the classic design but to little avail. But here’s the rub: you may have noticed, humanity’s infinite potential for creativity has invented mobile smart phones. We don’t need phone boxes anymore. So, what has happened? Well no one has fought for the ugly rash of 1980s grey and glass boxes to survive. They have vanished from the English street like ghosts at cockcrow, forgotten and unlamented. However, the classic, popular, beautiful pattern has not just survived, it has astonishingly made a revival. Many were listed. Charities and companies exist to find kiosks new homes and uses. Engineers and designers make good livings helping communities achieve this. Kiosks have been re-invented as defibrillators, pocket libraries, repair booths, even coffee shops.
The moral? The moral is, frankly, Keatsian. “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” We find new uses for objects which please us because they please us. Ugly and garish things are inherently wasteful because they are thrown away. When we create water fountains in 2019, particularly water fountains whose aim is to help us live less profligately, we should build in this spirit. It is incredibly easy to tell what is ugly, flimsy and tacky. London’s new water fountains, however much they may please “international experts” are trapped by their utility and by a short term, and certainly flawed, cost benefit analysis. They will not last or define London to future generations.
Meanwhile, what about that very first water fountain erected by the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association in 1859? Presumably it has long vanished, wiped out by the Holborn Viaduct which completely altered that part of London? Of course not. Relocated twice, it remains very near its original site and is now a proud Londoner of one hundred and sixty years. Sadly, in recent years they seem to have turned off the water. Investing a little money in turning it back on again would be a truer act of deeply sustainable leadership and an excellent use of corporate or charitable funding.
Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and co-chair of the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.