The year 2019 marks the ninetieth birthday of the sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. In a career spanning almost seventy years, this iconoclastic artist has earned a reputation for both his talent and his extraordinary personality.
He was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal in 1951 but his passion for immoderation quickly took over and, feeling too limited by the walls of the venerable institution, he took the street in 1953.
He then tackles his first monumental work, the tree on rue Durocher, a real public performance.
For two years, he would carve a tree on Durocher Street in Montreal. Very controversial, this sculpture would be a source of discussion among passersby who do not know how to approach it. Symbolizing the relationship between art and nature, it remained in place for several years before finally being transported to the National Museum of Fine Arts of Quebec. Today it is considered that the work has contributed to the awakening of ecological awareness in Quebec artists is considered one of the key works of our art history.
The tree on Durocher street (VIDEO):
Over the next two decades, Vaillancourt built a solid reputation both in Quebec and abroad. Thus he found himself in San Francisco in 1971 where he spent two years creating a monumental work, the fountain at Embracadero Square.
The Vaillancourt Fountain is the product of the San Francisco redevelopment that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The Transamerica pyramid was built from 1969 to 1972 and BART was also under construction. The Embarcadero station finally opened in 1976.
Justin Herman, for whom the place was named, was a figurehead in this process and the executive director redevelopment agency. Modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was selected for the redevelopment of Market Street, from Embarcadero to Civic Center, the most visible traffic lane in San Francisco. Halprin had designed other spaces in the city, such as Ghirardelli Square and the United Nations Square. He designed Justin Herman Plaza, but reached out to Armand Vaillancourt to design the fountain.
Vaillancourt, then 38, won the design contest launched by Halprin. Halprin is said to have said that if the fountain was not part of the “great works of civic art, I will cut my throat”.
The fountain is in a prominent location on the waterfront of downtown San Francisco, on Justin Herman Plaza, where Market Street meets Embarcadero. The Hyatt Regency Hotel is at the edge of the square, next to the other four towers of the Embarcadero Center. Across the Embarcadero is the Ferry Building, and the east end of the California Street cable car line is across the Hyatt Regency.
When Vaillancourt designed the fountain, the Embarcadero Freeway or elevated Interstate 480, still existed along the Embarcadero. The fountain was designed for the highway environment, but it was built to bring people into an extended public space, as the San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic, John King, called “an act of distraction until the fall of the highway in 1991 “.
The fountain is approximately 12 meters high, weighs about 700 short tons (640 tons) and is constructed from prefabricated square concrete tubes. The fountain is placed in an irregular pentagon shaped basin and is designed to pump up to 110,000 liters of water per minute.
The fountain looks unfinished, like concrete that has not been completely mixed. Up close, it is very rough and textured. There are several square pillars or cubic tubes that form a semicircle inside the basin. The natural colored pillars protrude and intertwine from the corner of the square “like the tentacles of a huge geometric octopus … open” allowing visitors to stand between the tubes and have a view of the place and the city. A series of platforms at the basin level allow pedestrians to enter the fountain and behind the waterfall. The fountain and the square are easily accessible to the public at all times and in all conditions of rain or good weather.
The budget of the fountain was 310,000 USD. It was dedicated on April 22, 1971.
Just before the unveiling of the fountain, the slogan “Québec Libre” was painted on the fountain at night but the graffiti was erased. At the inauguration, hosted by Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Armand Vaillancourt himself repainted “Québec Libre” on the fountain in as many places as he could reach. An employee of the Redevelopment Agency started hiding the slogans during the ceremony, but Herman stopped him, saying it could be done later.
When asked why he had degraded his own fountain with graffiti, he replied, “… This fountain is dedicated to freedom, free Quebec! Free Pakistan! Free Viet Nam! Free the whole world!” Vaillancourt said that his actions were “a powerful performance” intended to illustrate the notion of power to the people. Québec Libre has since remained the alternative name of the fountain.
After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the raised Embarcadero Freeway was so damaged that it was demolished and replaced by a ground level boulevard. An architect commissioned by the city also proposed the demolition of the fountain, but no decision was made.
In 2004, San Francisco city supervisor Aaron Peskin reiterated the call to demolish the fountain but Armand Vaillancourt immediately promised to “fight like hell to preserve this work”. In a few months, the water was flowing again and the plans to knock down the fountain were abandoned.
Controversial since its construction, negative and positive reviews have continued until today. Hoving, in his dedication speech, stated that the fountain had some of the boldness of Baroque sculpture and that, in his opinion, “a work of art must be born into controversy.” Herman himself said it was “one of the greatest artistic achievements in North. America.
Charles Birnbaum, renowned Halprin expert, said the architect “always wanted people to interact with his water games” and that Justin Herman Plaza “was meant to be a total environment, a space animated by both the Man and Water “, so the fountain was designed to draw the public into an otherwise secluded area of the waterfront by the Embarcadero Freeway.
Today, both in Quebec and abroad, the work of Vaillancourt retains his subversive side and in his tenth decade, the artist and the man leave no one indifferent.
Let’s bet that our man still has some surprises up his sleeve….