Veronica Peerless talks to ‘fountaineer’ Andrew Ewing
“Water connects with everybody. Kids love to play in it and we all identify with it in some kind of essential way,” says Andrew Ewing, the ‘aquatect’ and ‘fountaineer’ who has been responsible for some of the most beautiful water features and installations seen in gardens and public spaces in recent years.
They include still dark water tanks, elegant reflecting ponds, small features and rills, such as those seen in the Chelsea gardens of Tom StuartSmith MSGD, Luciano Giubbilei MSGD, Dan Pearson MSGD, James Basson MSGD and Tom Hoblyn MSGD, and larger works including a palace garden for the King of Jordan in partnership with Arne Maynard.
Ewing tries to minimise everything about his work, so that all you notice is the water. “But it is also about the ephemeral things around it – reflections, play of light, sound and the pattern of waves,” he says. Working with a small in-house team, he works on around 10 projects at a time, on a mix of residential and commercial projects, plus show gardens. “I really enjoy collaborating with garden designers. It’s great to work with people who understand we can do something special and give us a bit of scope to develop an idea, taking it further.”
With a degree in sculpture and an MA in Industrial Design, Ewing has long been fascinated by water. This interest was heightened on an exchange program to Kyoto City University of Arts in Japan in 1997, where he studied using light and water as architectural materials, and was profoundly affected by the everyday ways he saw Japanese people treating and cherishing water, which were so different from that of the Western mindset.
After two years, he returned to the UK, and established his practice in 2000, specialising in working with water. Since then, he has taken commissions everywhere from the USA and Japan to France, Italy, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. What he has learned over the years is that water doesn’t always act like you think it will. “When you’re in the bath or doing the washing up, look at how the water behaves. If you put a bottle sideways under a tap, the water sticks underneath, defying gravity before it falls. If you pour water on to the back of a spoon, you get a beautiful fan of flat water… If you can capture a bit of that, you can create something very interesting.”
Of course, something that appears simple and effortless involves a lot of planning and expertise, and Ewing says he is both an artist and an engineer. “Water is very unforgiving, so everything has to be just right when you come to install it. First, you need to think about the aesthetics and what you’re trying to achieve – reflections, sound, movement. Then you think about the mechanics of delivering it. The technology around pumps has advanced quite a bit – we’re using digital controls to create patterns at the moment, making hoof prints across water as if a ghost horse has walked across the surface.”
Lighting is also key. “Some of our projects really come alive at night. The play of light can extend a water feature – it makes its effects bigger. You can fill a room with the dancing ripples of light from a pool. I generally insist that we do the lighting, not a lighting designer. My rule of thumb is: don’t light the water, light what’s going to be reflected in it, such as a tree.”
Maintenance is also another major consideration. “It’s very important that installations are easy to maintain – if it’s difficult, people tend not to do it.” One example is the well-known ‘Silence’ installation outside The Connaught Hotel in London’s Mayfair, which is cleaned every day. “The leaves from the trees above go over the edge and into grilles. Because it’s very shallow, you can turn it off and sweep the surface, then turn it back on again.”
For this extraordinary granite-edged pool (which releases clouds of water vapour beneath two trees, every 15 minutes for 15 seconds), Ewing worked with one of his design heroes, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. “His work has a refinement and a monastic quality.” But he is equally inspired by Jean Tinguely, the Swiss sculptor who helped create the Stravinsky fountain near the Pompidou Centre in Paris. “It’s like machines gone mad, with water all over the place.”
Ewing predicts more interactivity and playfulness in the future, thanks to new technology and the fact that people are more accustomed to having water around. He recently designed some ‘cycling fountains’ for a park in Lille, France. “The bicycles have an umbrella over the top and the faster you pedal, the higher the fountain goes.”
Whether the water is still and reflective or animated and interactive, he says that it simply brings life to a space. “Obviously there’s life already thanks to the plants, but water brings animation, a play of light, a different character. And it’s another element – in Japanese tea gardens they sprinkle water outside to represent morning dew. There should be more water, everywhere,” he says. “It just brings a bit of magic.”