Friday, September 30, 2011

Loved by Toddlers, Loathed by Adults

The Vaillancourt fountain in Justice Herman Plaza is frequently cited as one of the most reviled landmarks in San Francisco. Herb Caen Allan Temko compared it to a pile of poop, and one critic called it "Stonehenge unhinged with plumbing troubles."

The fountain turned 40 this year, but its longevity hasn't seemed to blunt people's distaste for it. Compare that with the Sutro Tower. It got a chilly reception from San Franciscans when it was completed in 1973, but the generation born since then has grown to love it. In fact, a small but vocal group seems downright obsessed with the Sutro Tower. (I think you know who you are.)

Photo courtesy of

The Vaillancourt fountain is formally called "Québec libre!" — an attempt by artist Armand Vaillancourt to raise awareness about the Quebec sovereignty movement. (You know, because San Francisco is clearly the epicenter of that struggle.) He irked local officials at the time by spray-painting graffiti on his own sculpture, which the city painted over.

Just this year, the fountain was voted San Francisco's fourth-worst piece of public art by Curbed SF readers.

But there is one group that has undying adulation for Vaillancourt's work: toddlers.

I walk by this fountain almost every day, and I always see young kids drawn into its fascinating mix of concrete and water. (I should note that the structure also is popular with birds, which very much enjoy crapping on it.)

Elliot is one of its fans. He enjoys hopping from block to block, and getting sprayed by water overhead.

You have to admire any fountain that looks this much like a sewage-treatment plant.

Complete with frothy, brown water.

So maybe there's still hope that San Francisco will warm to Vaillancourt Fountain. The next generation is clearly on its side.

UPDATE: Apparently it was Chronicle architecture critic Allan Temko who compared the fountain to poop, not Herb Caen.

From his obit in 2006:
It was Mr. Temko who first described San Francisco's 39-story Marriott Hotel as "the jukebox," and the Vaillancourt Fountain on the Embarcadero as resembling something "deposited by a concrete dog with square intestines."
BuboBlog regrets the error.