Vaillancourt Fountain in Embarcadero Plaza, San Francisco

Vaillancourt Fountain in San Francisco

The Vaillancourt Fountain is a large fountain in Embarcadero Plaza that was designed by the Québécois artist Armand Vaillancourt in 1971. It is located at the foot of Market Street at the Embarcadero across the street from the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Vaillancourt Fountain was a product of the redevelopment of San Francisco that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The idea for the fountain began with Lawrence Halprin, a well-known Bay Area landscape architect who supported the project, proclaiming in 1968 that it would be one of America’s great works of civic art.

Modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who designed Ghirardelli Square and the United Nations Plaza, was selected for the redesign of Market Street from the Embarcadero to the Civic Center, the most visible two mile thoroughfare in San Francisco. He designed Justin Herman Plaza, now called Embarcadero Plaza, but hired Armand Vaillancourt to design the fountain. Vaillancourt, 38 years old at the time, had won the invitational fountain design competition that Halprin had judged.

Vaillancourt intended the piece to be a confrontational sculpture that would attract protest and dissent. He all but guaranteed this by vandalizing the fountain himself during its dedication, painting Québec Libre on the fountain in as many places as he could reach. This powerful statement on freedom is why the fountain is also sometimes called the Quebec Libre Fountain.

Controversy Around The Fountain

When it was built in 1971, the Vaillancourt Fountain stood next to the Embarcadero Freeway, making it look almost like a wild extension of the concrete thoroughfare.

Sitting in an irregular pentagon shaped pool, Vaillancourt Fountain stands 40 feet tall, weighs about 700 short tons, and is designed to pump up to 30,000 US gallons of water per minute. It was constructed with precast concrete square tubes that turn every which way and make no sense at all. There are two walk ways with stairs incorporated into the fountain that allow you to stand between the tubes look out over the plaza and city. Platforms at pool level allow you to walk into the fountain behind the falling water.

The deconstructed, industrial, modern design was criticized by city officials and citizens. Opponents of the work handed out leaflets at the dedication of the fountain describing it as a “loathsome monstrosity”, a howling obscenity, an obscene practical joke, idiotic rubble, and a pestiferous eyesore. Other artists also spoke out against the design, calling it a jumble of nothing and dynamited debris, and one even said it had been created by a figure of deranged talent.

The fountain has been a site of ongoing controversy, and over the years several attempts have been made to remove it.

  • In 1987, Vaillancourt Fountain was once again the center of controversy when U2 performed a free concert in front of the fountain and during the show, Bono spray painted the phrase Rock and roll stops traffic across the fountain. He had permission from Vaillancourt, but didn’t realize the city owned the fountain. Then-mayor Dianne Feinstein called Bono’s arrest and the band was fined by the San Francisco Police Department.
  • In 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake caused so much damage to the Embarcadero Freeway that it was removed and the Vaillancourt Fountain lost the one thing that helped it originally make sense.
  • Throughout the 2000s the fountain’s water was shut off several times for varying periods of time due to drought. In times of no water, the fountain became a haven for the homeless with tents set up inside and around the structure.
  • A 2004 measure aimed to tear down the fountain but private backers turned out to fund the fountain’s water usage.
  • Water was turned off from 2011 to 2017, when it was turned on again, but this time was the water was died to control the growth of algae and bacteria.

Know Before You Go

  • Vaillancourt Fountain is located in the Embarcadero Plaza at the corner of Market Street and Steuart Street, San Francisco, California 94105 across from the Ferry Building.
  • Embarcadero was formerly named the Justin Herman Plaza.
  • The fountain was dedicated on April 22, 1971. The budget was $310,000 but it’s actual cost was $607,800.
  • Vaillancourt Fountain could cost about $500,000 to reactivate, or more if upcoming tests show its equipment isn’t functioning properly, according to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.

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