The Vaillancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza gets no respect. The Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt titled the piece Québec libre! when it was installed in 1971. The City sent out a crew to remove the title from the fountain and did so numerous times after the artist himself repainted it — so much for respecting an artist’s work and artistic intent. Today the piece is universally known as the Vaillancourt Fountain in San Francisco. It also has a poor reputation in part fueled by San Francisco’s legion of self-appointed art critics and hack newspaper columnists. I LOVE the fountain, it’s one of San Francisco’s best works of public art and, of course, looks best when water is gushing through it.
Now, I would never be so disrespectful as to suggest modifying an artist’s finished work, but I would love to see some changes made to the setting for the piece. When the fountain was installed in 1971 it was placed in front of the Embarcadero Freeway and off ramps wrapped behind the fountain. Today the freeway is gone and the space is more open and welcoming.
Let’s re-imagine the Vaillancourt Fountain, or to be exact, Justin Herman Plaza. Currently the fountain uses fresh water. Imagine if an underground conduit pumped saltwater from San Francisco Bay into the fountain. Imagine if we remove some of the concrete perimeter. We could create a shore around the fountain filled with tide pools and native marsh plants. The fountain’s basin would even start to fill with native wildlife. Water could flow in and out, and like a natural salt marsh, act as a filter for bay water. Imagine restoring a small piece of Justin Herman Plaza to the state it was back before 1849. When there were tidal flats instead of skyscrapers. We successfully restored Crissy Field now it’s time to bring a bit of nature back to the concrete jungle at the foot of Market Street.