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AJ Kiosk: Themes

The different designs of the kiosks are engrossing; so too is their use of ceramics, writes Jay Merrick

Imagine a simple public drinking fountain. I mean the unremarkable kind that are little more than a partially enclosed standpipe surmounted by a small metal bowl and a cobra-headed nozzle, from which water spurts in small, softly lucent arcs. The momentarily pleasant act of quenching thirst at a fountain might also seem insignificant. It’s tempting to consign drinking fountains to the category of urban bric-a-brac so loved by that ardent 1960s townscaper and editor of the Architectural Review, Hubert de Cronin Hastings.

But is there, to rework the title of Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel, a god in these small things? Can the gulp factor become as important as the wow factor among planners, architects, and developers hunched over their World Class Mixed-Use Regeneration Design Kits?

When we drink from a public water fountain, it’s a humble act. Even if we don’t feel humble as we lean forward, we will surely feel humble as we drink. One typically has to bow slightly to drink from a water fountain, and in those few seconds we take the form of supplicants to the most important life-substance in our physical world; whether we’re bond dealers, homeless, job-pulped commuters, or lividly bulked-up xenophobes, we experience, in a modest one-to-one manner, a simple communion with nature.

That’s not possible with a nipple-tipped bottle of Highland McSpritz, whose polyethylene terephthalate skin crackles like burning twigs in our collaterally branded grip. Packaged drinking water becomes a Natural™ experience, a portable convenience rather than a basic connection with nature’s visible, and invisible, watercourses. Corporations own and profit from water issuing from taps, spigots and drinking fountains but, in terms of its own substance and fluid properties, the water flows freely; and we drink it freely as its fountainhead bobbles upwards from chunky little spouts.

There is both charm and an implicit civic critique in the design submissions for the Kiosk competition prompted by the AJ and its partner Turkishceramics. The kiosks designed by Adam Architecture, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Eric Parry, Hopkins Architects, Studio Weave and Zaha Hadid Architects are, with one exception, rather more than simple drinking fountains. Their different designs are engrossing; so, too, is their use of ceramics.

Eric Parry’s multi-purpose kiosk features tall elevations in a luscious blue glaze, a Postmodern take on 17th century Turkish meydan and sebil kiosks. Hopkins and Hadid find elegant ways to provide both water and shade: Hopkins with symmetry and a luminous arc of mother-of-pearl ceramic; and Hadid with the flowing asymmetry of a designer pasta shell, in white and grey tiling. Adam Architecture proposes a playful faux monumental drinking fountain whose features include a frieze patterned with drinking bottle shapes. Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s robotic-looking aquadroid has the stripped-down character of a commercial street furniture prototype. The most blatantly vivid design comes from Studio Weave: a Maypole wrapped in a swirling ceramic harlequinade; an ideal prop for a Lily Allen video.

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There have, of course, been contemporary drinking fountain projects in the City of London and the Royal Parks. Robin Monotti Architects and Mark Titman recently designed an 800kg multi-level stone drinking fountain for Green Park, London. And in Kensington Gardens the first of this next generation of drinking fountains for the Royal Parks has already been installed. The designs, sponsored by the Tiffany & Co Foundation, are effectively limited editions for specific Grade I-listed domains.

The prospect of unlimited editions of drinking fountains on common ground is more compelling. Well-designed fountains as ubiquitous as phone boxes once were in our towns and cities have far greater potential as a civic phenomenon. Imagine looking down on London, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, or Penge from 5,000ft on a bright summer day and seeing scores of drinking fountains - not as if they were iconic objects, but simply as glittering pinpoints of water.

Viewed in this way, the water kiosks become objective symbols of communally shared space and essential, uncomplicated purpose - refreshing trig-points of architectural, functional, and behavioural clarity across a nation whose democratic-cum-demonised urban spaces, buildings, and interiors are remotely observed by an estimated five million CCTV cameras. Drinking fountains constitute the most non-judgemental and natural demonstration of a town or city’s concern for its inhabitants.

Perhaps history can repeat itself. The first wave of British drinking fountains was propelled by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association in 1859. The first fountain was built on Holborn Hill, on the railings of the St Sepulchre-without-Newgate church on Snow Hill, and moved in 1867 to its current position at Holborn Viaduct. In 1897, Charles Dickens’ Dictionary of London noted that 300,000 people used 800 drinking fountains every day.

Today, the Drinking Fountain Association (a similar organisation, The Fountain Society, is presided over by the Prince of Wales) reports that there is only one fountain for every 100,000 Londoners; if that is true, we can probably assume the ratio of thirst to publicly supplied quench is similar in other cities and large towns.

This paltry presence is surely connected with the surging uptake of bottled water over the past 20 years; the acting out, perhaps, of a subtle fear that we pursue our daily lives in some kind of existential desert in which fatal dehydration, or poisoning from rashly drunk tapwater, can only be countered by squirts of Highland McSpritz.

How about it, town and city planners, developers, and architects? As you plot your urban regenerations, consider the very simple human and democratic possibilities of an object that does nothing more than dispense clean water on demand to passers-by. We would all like to drink from common ground. A thousand bobbles of gleaming water across Britain at any one moment, a thousand slightly bowed heads, a thousand pauses in daily life, a thousand moments of refreshment. No brusque rasp of carbonated bubbles or flavourings on the tongue. No doleful scrintch of polyethylene terephthalate. No glinting litter. We are all thirsty for civility.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent

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