The Unsanctioned Art of Jim Garland
The beauty of water in the wild is unparalleled. Jim Garland harnesses this brilliance.
Jim Garland is a world-renowned designer of water features. Admired for their intricate and pleasing choreography, his innovative fountains are found in China, Dubai, Singapore, South Korea, and across the United States.
Garland earned a bachelor degree in architecture at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1980 and a masters in architecture at UCLA. He began working in water design in 1986 while teaching architecture and maintaining a private practice. He spent thirteen years with famed water designers Wet Design working on numerous large format projects around the world before founding his own company, Fluidity Design Consultants, in 2002.
His large-scale public water features combine elements of urban design, landscape architecture, hydraulics engineering, lighting and sound design. He spearheaded the $19 million redesign for the fountains at Longwood Gardens, the former estate of Pierre S. du Pont in Pennsylvania, and designed fountains for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sundance Square in Fort Worth, the National Mall in Washington, DC, and Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA.
Within the hierarchy of beautiful things, there is sunlight, Jim Garland says, and then, there is water.
Jim Garland: It’s beautiful, meaningful, powerful, authoritative, fantastic.
Trained as an architect, Garland is today a choreographer of spray, splash, and sound. Responsible, along with his colleagues at Fluidity, for water features in Dubai, China, Singapore, South Korea, and all across the United States. His design for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C. offers a respite, a place for contemplation. His Sundance Square in Fort Worth, Texas makes saturation fun. At the Hearst headquarters in New York City, water cascades across sculptural stairs—forever moving, forever alive. Despite his successes, Jim Garland upholds the outsider stages of his profession, calling it “unsanctioned art.” And he revels in the freedom.
Garland: Just unrecognized, unbelieved in… which is fine. What if you were a painter and nobody discovered painting before? And you were just doing painting and you discovered it was fantastic, and you were just gonna do it, and there were no critics out there writing about what you were doing, the successes and the mistakes you were making? How great would that be?
AJC: Welcome to your world.
Garland: Exactly. It’s fantastic. Immediacy is our ally because people are so immediately satisfied that we get to do anything we want.
Grounded in urban design and landscape architecture, Garland’s work also requires the intuition and insight of a theater architect, a hydraulics engineer, a lighting designer, and a visual artist. Out of these come three cardinal virtues Garland pursues.
Garland: One of them is superlative water expression. Just look at the water, exclusive of everything else. It’s maybe the best thing you’ve ever seen, outside of sunlight. And the next thing is how it’s integrated into the place—nested, anchored, woven in. So, you have to have a sense of architecture or urbanism to do that. The third thing has to do with experience and meaning. It’s about the emotion you feel in the end, and what is the meaning of that emotion.
A recent invitation from Longwood Gardens, the former estate of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, provided Garland with the opportunity to transform an existing, more than century-old fountain into a cinematic display of water jets and swirls, colors, and sound. Water like basket weaves. Water like eggs. Water touched by fire. The $90 million project expands the garden with a story. It illuminates, among other things, the music of the Beatles.
Garland: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a journey. Regardless of what John Lennon said, it’s a journey that’s drug-induced. It’s kaleidoscopic, it’s magical, it’s inspiring. It takes you somewhere new and better. That’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” So, what we tried to do—what we tried to influence the choreography to achieve—was not literally paint the colors of her eyes in the scene…
AJC: But you do do that as well.
Garland: It does do that.
AJC: And it’s lovely.
Garland: Perhaps. It’s a little literal.
AJC: Literal’s okay every so often.
Garland: It worked. But really, we wanted you to be in that boat. We wanted you to go on the river. We wanted you to see the marshmallow-colored landscape. We wanted you to be there and have the polarized glasses and see colors you’ve never seen before. And it’s a utopian gesture, yes, but not ashamed of that. You’ll walk away a changed person. You saw a better world, if only for a moment.
Garland is cognizant in his work of elements visitors might overlook. Take, for example, the sound of water—spilling, raining, rushing.
Garland: Most fountains in the world don’t sound very good. They have one sound. They have one pitch.
AJC: White noise.
Garland: White noise. But usually it’s in the upper-middle frequencies. But if you listen to rain in the forest, or the stream, or if you go to the ocean and listen to the waves, there are these great, sonoric effects. They’re rich, they have multiple frequencies, they interweave. People used to say, “Oh, the music of water.” They didn’t mean that. They meant the musical sound you hear in a stream going through a curvy rock shallow bed, right? That sounds great. Why does it sound great? Why does that water sound so very, very good and that fountain over there sound terrible? There are environments that you want to hear the fountain, perhaps, before you see it. So, we might do certain things that use heavier flows of water falling, maybe not so far, that will turn the corner. And we might layer the water’s sounds in a way that really sound unusually good. We have discovered that the best sounds actually don’t look so great. You have to design for one or the other in most cases.
Garland is also aware of water’s place in our lives today, of its abundance, or lack thereof. What are the social responsibilities of a fountain designer? Is there a conflict between our desire to conserve water and our human need to take pleasure from it?
Garland: This is a question that many people ask. It’s a good question, because we’re all told how rare fresh water is, and how valuable it is, and how, in lots of places in the world, it’s the most necessary and missing thing. And it’s almost not fair to ask the water feature practitioner a question like this. How can you possibly get an objective answer from such a biased position? But I could tell you what a landscape architect told me recently, such an interesting thing to say. I asked him the question and he said, “Water is a precious material and therefore, it should be used sparingly and only in important locations.” And that means in the public realm, and in a beautiful way. That’s the highest use there is, other than drinking and maybe bathing occasionally. That’s the highest use there is. What’s wrong with the public realm?
Water will inevitably flow. It will rain, it will fog, it will mist. With his fountains, Jim Garland tells the stories of that which we are all made of.