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Philip Johnson Discusses the Inspiration Behind Fort Worth Water Garden

by Stephen Becker 8 Jul 2011 10:27 AM

KERA re-airs the 1985 documentary Water Garden this Friday as part of the KERA Classics series, celebrating the station’s 50 years.


Philip Johnson’s impact on North Texas’ visual landscape is far-reaching. In Dallas, he designed the JFK Memorial, Thanks-Giving Square and Comerica Bank Tower. In Fort Worth, he’s responsible for the Amon Carter Museum. And yet, it’s a creation that was intended to be sort of hidden that he’s maybe best known for.

The Fort Worth Water Garden was built in 1974 near the Fort Worth Convention Center. The idea was to create an urban oasis in the city and to reclaim a piece of Fort Worth that had fallen into disrepair.

Nearly 40 years after its construction, it’s difficult to imagine how it was even approved in the first place.

That’s the feeling I got after watching Water Garden, a documentary that KERA first aired in 1985. The 30-minute program will be rebroadcast Friday night at 8 as part of the station’s KERA Classics series.

The garden is endlessly interesting to look at. As Johnson, who died in 2005, says in the film: “Water does all kinds of funny things. It jumps, it’s quite, it makes mist, it makes film, it goes high, it goes low, it falls down and makes a noise.”

But the first few minutes of Water Garden also makes the space look mysterious and even menacing (admittedly, you can do a lot with camera angles and music, even back then). When we later see small children climbing up its stair-step walls and people descending its flat, rail-free steps down to the pool, it’ll make you wonder how this passed the public safety test.

And maybe it shouldn’t have – four people drowned there in 2004 when a child fell into the pool; extensive changes were made to make the garden safer before it was reopened in 2007.

It’s ironic, then, that Johnson seemed to be obsesses with playfulness. In the film, he discusses the influence that Disneyland and Alice in Wonderland had on his designs. He wanted people to interact with the park and to be curious about the surprises it has to offer. And the footage from the early 80s shows just how irresistible running water can be.

It’s a shame that it took those 2004 deaths to make the park safe. But it’s not like the adjustments really take away from the joys of being there. When Johnson and fellow architect John Burgee visit the garden, a young girl scales the structure’s steep steps in the background.

“It’s the first mountain a Texas kid ever climbed,” Burgee says while watching the girl.

It’s a simple joy that other kids probably experienced today.

Water Garden airs Friday at 7 p.m. on KERA-TV. It repeats Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.

photo outfront from Architravel.

  • Anne-Marie Blackwell

    I remember the 1st time I ever saw the fountains. I didn’t know where they were or even if they were real. I was watching the sci-fi movie Logan’s Run. The fountains appear at the end of movie as the portal back into the enclosed city. Great Design makes an impact. I have never seen the fountains in person but I do remember them.

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