1970 was a tense time in the city of Portland—and that would be putting it lightly. Police had notoriously clashed with protestors over the Vietnam War, and the city felt like a powder keg. Any large public gathering or event could set off another spark.
So, when Keller Fountain Park opened without incident, it was a triumph—and a much-needed reminder that however divided residents of the city might be, there were still safe places where they could join together in harmony.
Keller Fountain Park was the Oasis of Peace Portland Needed in 1970
Understanding the importance of Keller Fountain Park starts with putting it within its historical context. The notorious Kent State shootings took place on May 4 of that year in Ohio, spurring protests across the country. Among them was the “Battle of the Park Blocks” in Portland.
Protestors included students from Portland State University (PSU) and other schools. The situation escalated, and the riot squad eventually broke the protests by force. After 34 people required medical care, thousands congregated around City Hall.
In such a climate, it is almost a shock that the city decided to unveil its brand new fountain on schedule with a June 23 dedication. Today known as “Keller Fountain,” it was then called “Forecourt Fountain.”
The fountain was the work of landscape architecture firm Lawrence Halprin and Associates. Halprin selected landscape architect Angela Danadjieva as lead designer. Prior to working on projects for the firm, she had been focused on film set design. Being as the design team themselves had strong counter-cultural backgrounds, they understood exactly the importance that a new public space could play at that moment.
As quoted by Randy Gragg in 2003 in The Oregonian, Halprin is reported to have said at the dedication, “These very straight people have somehow grasped what cities can be all about. As you play in this garden, please try to remember that we are all in this together.”
The tension dissipated and much of the crowd waded into the water. There was delight and revelry—a very different spirit than that of the strife that had torn through the city in recent weeks.
The Design of the Fountain is a Mirror to the Region’s Natural Beauty
The fountain received accolades not only for its role in bringing tranquillity to a troubled city, but also for its design. In the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that it “may be one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.”
East of Portland is the Columbia River Gorge. Lead designer Angela Danadjieva was looking at a book that contained pictures of its waterfalls when she came up with the idea for the fountain’s design.
The walkway and flat paving stones around the base of Keller Fountain resemble large, flat river rocks along a shore. The terraces look almost like natural rock formations. Of course, the strong geometric shapes of the terraces make it clear that this structure is manmade.
It is not uncommon even today to see people wading in the fountain, especially children. While this can be tempting, Mark Ross of Portland Parks and Recreation has stated that people should not do this. The reasons relate both to the fountain’s design and the quality of the water.
So, if you do have a chance to visit Keller Fountain, try and resist the urge to get your feet wet as you marvel at one of the most groundbreaking modernist spaces of the 20th century. But be warned—it will be a challenge not to splash right in. The beautiful terraces look every bit as inviting as any of Oregon’s most breathtaking natural waterfalls.
For more architectural gems in the Pacific Northwest, read on about The Joel M. Pritchard Building: An Endangered MCM Classic. And of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!