There is, perhaps no more solid , stable, and material art than architecture, and no more ethereal, evanescent, and volatile element than water. When the two combine, it is often for effects of singular magnificence and mystery. Water is spirit; feminine quicksilver to masculine sobriety. Fountains, cascades, channels, and pools are the supreme aesthetic grand geste that has traditionally completed the greatest building schemes of every age.
Whether it takes the form of an extravagant baroque torrent or a serene Asian pool, the character of water is primarily sensuous, and its pleasures are visual and auditory. It adds extra dimensions, to the customarily static three dimensions of building. It is a performance and a show. Its playful, changeable range runs from the breathtakingly theatrical to the mysteriously subtle. It is capable of broad jokes and tenuous elegancies. Above all, it is an unparalleled instrument of grandeur and romance.
Because it is often non-functional, water is the one design element with which the architect can be singularly free. A pretty pond, or a cleverly incorporated stream, may be a bonus and even radically alter the architect’s scheme, but they must bring them into existence to make them qualify as examples of this highly arbitrary and artificial art. The deeper implications suggest evanescent joys, cleansing of the spirit, the transience of perfection, the insubstantiality of dreams, the flowing continuity of life, and a consummate fleeting beauty- impermanent, like all great romantic beauties, and therefore more beautiful than the tangible and real.
In its greatest expressions, water transcends and transforms architecture. The Piazza Navona in Rome did not become a classic example of a great urban architectural space until the open plaza and all of its buildings were given scale, focus and meaning, by Bernini’s magnificently exuberant Fountain of the Four Rivers in the seventeenth-century, and until the statuary and basins of the two side fountains were completed in the following years.
At Versailles there is a bosquet, or clump of trees, arranged as an open air ballroom; an architectural space hollowed out of nature, its stepped walls were defined originally by cascades, with dry tiers of seats for musicians and observers and a marble dance floor at its base for the king and his court.