It was welcome news when the Metropolitan Museum announced earlier this week that it had chosen the firm OLIN to redesign the fountains on either side of Its Main Fifth Avenue entrance. These fountains, which were introduced around 1970 together with the grand steps, have never looked very good or enjoyed the spectacular urbanistic and popular success that has made the steps one of the iconic destinations on the Upper East Side. And for the past several years at least, either or both of the fountains have been out of commission. There are few things in an urban landscape as evocative of failure as a dried up public fountain.
The museum does not yet have plans or renderings for the work it intends to carry out. OLIN is the highly efficient firm responsible for the recent renovations to Bryant Park, the New York Public Library terrace, Columbus Circle and Battery Park City. What the firm accomplished in Bryant Park is an architectural miracle, and their work at Columbus Circle, though not quite as successful in purely visual terms, is perhaps an even greater urbanistic achievement: the site has been transformed — against all odds — from an initially superfluous ornament to an eyesore to a destination, which draws loads of people despite requiring braving a sequence of traffic lights to reach.
That is precisely what is needed with regard to the fountains in front of the Met.
When the Fifth Avenue façade was initially devised by Richard Morris Hunt and then McKim Mead & White at the turn of the last century (it was completed only in 1926) the public function of a museum started once you had passed through its doors. But more recent projects, like the renovations to the Louvre and to the Brooklyn Museum, have taught us that the area just beyond the entrance can and should serve a vital civic function. The steps already do this, but as things stand now, the moment you depart the steps all of that energy dissipates until you reach the vendors near the street.
What is required of OLIN should be quite clear. That the fountains should look good is a given. They should also be done in some flamboyantly classical style to coincide with the Edwardian aesthetic of the Fifth Avenue façade. But more important than the appearance is that the design team not only integrate the fountains with the steps, but also turn them into centers of energy and excitement where people go and where they dally, as was never the case with the present fountains.
How that is accomplished will require great finesse. But if OLIN could pull it off at Columbus Circle, they can do it anywhere.