A Water Sculptor's Biggest Splash Yet

The Fountains of Dubai, designed by Mark Fuller of WET.
Originally published May 2010.

One artist has been creating innovative works all across the globe with an unusual medium. Barry Petersen takes the plunge:

One Nobel Prize winner put it simply: There is no life without water.

It's a necessity of life, and sometimes an agent of death.

But to Mark Fuller, water is liquid gold . . . to be shaped and directed . . . the ordinary streamed into crowd-pleasing extraordinary.

"That was awesome!" That was cool!" said spectators outside the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

And every now and then, Fuller - equal parts artist and engineer - gazes with a touch of wonder at what he's created: fountains that dance, like the one outside the Bellagio.

"What we're focused on is just making people stop and think, 'Wow, I'm happy to be alive. This is a pretty neat thing. Somebody did this for me, and it's free!'" he said.

"We're constantly deluged with letters - people are writing and saying, 'We just got engaged by the fountains at Bellagio. We wanted you to know.' Or, 'We got married by the fountains.'

"I think the magic that we bring to these projects is something that sparks that sense of connection," Fuller said.

Mark Fuller has now created more than 200 fountains worldwide.

He's come a long way from his very first fountain, done for Disney's Epcot center in Florida…

He's also designed the fountain for Detroit's main airport. And the curtain is going up on one of his latest - the famed fountain at New York City's Lincoln Center.

"Creation sometimes starts with a bang," he explained, describing a "super shooter" that projects water 250 feet into the sky. "That's 25 stories," he said.

Fuller built his first fountain in the family garden in Utah when he was nine years old.

That childhood fascination led to the company he founded in Burbank, California: Water Entertainment Technologies (WET for short).

Here, it's not about water. It's about what Fuller calls laminar flow.

It's not really that complicated: A stream of water is forced through a series of smaller and smaller tubes, until the water molecules are marching together like soldiers on parade.

"We disciplined these guys!" he said. "And there is no spray. There is no drip. It's nothing. Zero."

(Left: The Fountains of Bellagio.)

Every schoolchild knows that fire and water don't mix, but not in the world of Mark Fuller.

"We've got the two most common elements on the planet here," he said in his lab. "I mean, both going back to the caveman - you've got fire and water."

It's not just the science of water that Fuller has changed. It's also the very concept of what a fountain is. A beautiful work of sculpture - say, Rome's famed Trevi fountain - just isn't enough.

"When you see a sunset, I think if a sunset got stuck, probably gets old after a while," Fuller said. "The fact that it's so fugitive, it's there for a few moments and gone, is what makes it precious. And everything in our feature is fugitive and temporal like that, changing, so you'll see it for a moment, and then you just have a memory."

Which may explain why, when Mark Fuller got a call from Las Vegas' new City Center Hotel and Mall, he decided he wanted more than ooh-ing and aah-ing.

Up came huge plastic tubes with swirls of water. There is a place to stare, and stroll.

And places to reach out and touch. The fountain and its audience are interactive.

Beneath the surface: a master control resembling missile silos in a nuclear submarine.

"We carve these as they come out of the ground," Fuller said. "So they don't just come up as pure cylinders, although that I think in itself would be pretty amazing. But we can make wild sculpture on them by eroding that ice as it emerges from that pool."

Artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh created with paint and a piece of canvas. Mark Fuller needs pipes and hydraulics, electronics and water cannons, and has vowed never to create the same thing twice.

Which brings us to what may be the greatest challenge he's ever faced . . . a commission from Dubai calling for nothing less than the grandest, most complex fountain ever built.

"The chairman who engaged us for that was enchanted with the Bellagio, and came to us and said, 'You know, I want you to do something very much like the Bellagio,'" said Fuller. "Well, the last thing we want to do is replicate Bellagio."

Instead, he created what's became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Middle East: the length of two football fields, it features 6,600 lights and 25 color projectors.

And, of course, cannons that shoot water almost 500 feet.

"We wanted people to be able to be there and not feel that they're looking at some huge spectacle, but we wanted them to feel personally engaged," Fuller said.

Not just for the people of Dubai, but for everyone . . . everywhere.

As Fuller says, it is "water come alive."

That from a man who's really just a nine-year-old boy at heart . . . playing with water.

For more info:
wetdesign.com (Mark Fuller's Company)
Hotel Bellagio Fountain
City Center
Dubai Fountain
New Yorker Profile of Mark Fuller