Urban Fountains: squares’ charm and revitalization

The key role of fountains in urban architecture to regain the heart of communities
Urban Fountains: squares’ charm and revitalization


In contemporary architecture, ornamental fountains increasingly increase their importance year after year. Walking in cities or villages it is easy to hear the unmistakable sound of water and therefore come across public fountains: we find them in the center of squares, in street roundabouts, overlooking the lakefront, set among the architectural details of some historic streets. Few cities do not even have one, because eventually everyone gives in to the charm of water. From artifacts aimed at enhancing the urban stage to epicenters of new sociality, the fountains manifest themselves in all their guises – from the most artistic to the most technological – redesigning city spaces with their jets of water, in a kaleidoscope of shapes that he makes them become representative city symbols.

Scenic backdrops, majestic monuments, or artifacts aimed at everyday life, for millennia fountains have played an important role in delineating the condition of the square and in the definition of redevelopment, thanks to their essence capable of underlining (and sometimes claiming) the identity of a place and his community. Therefore, when talking about fountains we must not dwell on the concept of mere furniture, as if they were a sort of icing on the cake to be added at the end of a project to make it more interesting and engaging. On the contrary, public fountains have constantly constituted an inspiring element for design, transforming themselves into emblems of urban redevelopment, places of social life, and iconic symbols capable of underlining their emotional impact and evoking a sense of emotional involvement in the free use of spaces public.

When designing a square, the fountain must be present from the beginning, as an integral part of the architectural and urban elements that contribute to characterizing the nature and function of the area in question. However, what are the elements that transform a place into a square? Italian squares have recurring elements that help define it:

  • A large open area, which serves as a meeting point for people;
  • The surrounding buildings, which delimit it, whose architectural style gives the environment interest and – sometimes – value;
  • the presence of roads or pedestrian/cycle paths, which facilitate identification and access, but also pavements, benches, and spaces for socialization which encourage pedestrian mobilization and contribute to the creation of a welcoming environment;
  • Last but not least, focal points and attractions, such as monuments or fountains.

Representation of artisanship or works of famous artists, urban fountains become recognizable icons and promote tourism, producing an economic and cultural impact on cities and local communities. Rome is the most striking example of this, which with its fountains of inestimable value and beauty attracts 34 million visitors each year: consider that every year coins worth around one and a half million euros are thrown into the Trevi fountain, which are donated to non-profit associations that help people in difficulty.

During the 20th century, many internationally renowned artists contributed to the design and creation of urban fountains, creating works of art that blend sculptural elements with practical functions. There are numerous “fountain sculptures” created by and for famous artists of the twentieth century, such as the one created by Pablo Picasso in Céret, a small city in the south of France which dedicated the square to this great artist of the twentieth century. The Picasso Fountain was designed as a work of art and, above all, as an integral element of public space: the presence of water and its interaction with the sculpture make the fountain a focal point in the square, inviting people to contemplate the work and enjoy the surrounding environment. This fountain quickly became an important artistic heritage for the city, attracting visitors and art history enthusiasts, and transforming Céret into a cultural center and crossroads for internationally renowned artists.


Le Fontaine des Automates is a work of art located in the Igor Stravinsky Square in the center of Paris. Also known as the Stravinsky Fountain, it was created in 1983 by the two artists Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle, commissioned to celebrate the composer’s music and works. Sixteen mechanical and kinetic sculptures represent Stravinsky’s major works, including “The Rite of Spring”, “The Firebird” and “Petruska”. The sculptures are designed to move and interact with the water: some rotate, others oscillate, and still others feature water jets, and the overall effect is a dynamic spectacle immersed in a playful and imaginative atmosphere. Forty-one years after its creation, Le Fontaine des Automates is an icon of the Parisian art scene and continues to be appreciated for its liveliness, its interactivity, and its homage to the music of Stravinsky.


Whether it has an interactive or intimate character, the water square is a center of attraction, both for adults who walk and socialize and for children who play in the park, but it is also a cool spot during the summer season. The sound of the water, perceived even from a certain distance, encourages people to come closer. The fascination of the water’s movements rekindles in the observer that sometimes-dormant sense of wonder and emotional involvement.


In the common imagination, the square is a built landscape space, where the space defines the built environment and vice versa. For years the square has no longer been the “true” social center of the city because in many cases the street is the dynamic element devoted to developing and weaving urban sociality: in years marked by reflections on habitability and how to allocate growth exponential growth of the population, the square was overshadowed. Also, thanks to social media which has proven to be a real virtual square, in which the majority of teenagers prefer to meet surrounded by the four walls of their bedroom, the contemporary planning of cities aims to repopulate the “real” squares, bringing people back, especially young people, to live and enjoy city spaces as they did in the past. This is why fountains are increasingly in demand: to fill empty spaces with a dynamic, pleasant, useful, and attractive element that encourages meeting and exchange.


In conclusion, just as water is often symbolically associated with life and regeneration, in the same way, to redesign and regenerate cities, fountains become an emblem of rebirth and vitality. Promoting a city through a fountain is possible: a fountain can become a business card, a tourist attraction, and a spectacle, there are many types and they can all be adapted to the needs and style of the context.


Susanna Dei Rossi

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