There is more to the U.N. Plaza fountain than meets the eye, however, typical of the City of San Francisco it took three redesigns, one public vote and a lot of back and forth (much of it ridiculous), to finally get the thing built.
The fountain was designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. Halprin also was lead designer of the entire U.N. Plaza.
The fountain is intended to represent the seven continents of the world. Each “landmass” is tied together by the water symbolizing the ocean.
According to an April 26, 1977 San Francisco Chronicle article: The fountain was to be highly computerized. “On each of the nine spurting slabs of the fountain will be a wind measuring device and if it is real windy, the spurts will slow down or stop altogether to keep passerby from getting sprayed. Second, the computer will cause the depth of the waters in the fountain’s 100 foot wide basin to vary from bone dry to eight feet.”
According to the designer, Lawrence Halprin, this change in water height was to simulate the tides of the bay. None of these items were maintained properly and no longer work.
On the top stone far left is written: “The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man or one party or one nation….It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.” This is a quote from Franklin Roosevelt. The entire plaza was designed and built to honor the 30th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter that took place in the San Francisco War Memorial.
Installed in 1975 the fountain is made of 673 blocks of granite weighing between 3 to 4 million tons, it is 165 feet long and cost $1.2 million.
The fountain has had mixed reviews over the years. When it was dedicated in 1975, then-U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young described it as “a tribute to the U.N.’s goals of seeking peaceful resolutions to international rivalries.”
But then-Chronicle architecture critic Allan Temko described it as “pretentious schmaltz . . . whose ‘tidal pools’ are supposed to simulate global oceanic action but rarely work and merely toss around empty muscatel bottles.”
The Plaza has the distinction of being in the Hall of Shame of the Project for Public Spaces, and it has been a source of controversy, anger and neglect for many years.
If you are interested in learning more about the problems of UN Plaza and how the fountain fits into these problems, there is a fabulous 30 minute radio show that you can listen to here.
I want to thank Joel Pomerantz of Thinkwalks for going to the San Francisco library and sending me the entire file to “prove a point”. I am grateful for my friends that care about the minutia of San Francisco history as much as I do.