Ruth Asawa walking tour, San Francisco Fountain, Union Square, 1970-1973

My god, I love San Francisco. It is somehow the North American city I’ve spent the least time in, and I’m always awed that anyone would live anywhere else. At the end of our most recent trip, our young son watched us pack up the suitcases and asked what we were doing? Packing? He asked why? We told him it was time to check out. He asked why? We said we needed to head back to Atlanta. He asked why? We told him we lived there. He stated, “I want to live here. This is better. We should stay.” It was difficult to argue. 

We were staying between Chinatown and Union Square, and one day, as everyone else napped, I snuck out to see some art. Yerba Buena Center for The Arts was between shows. The de Young Museum was closed for the day. The exhibitions at SFMOMA were not to my taste. So, I headed out on foot. Over the next 2 hours and 5 miles, I embarked on a Google Map-guided walking tour, visiting four of the nine public works that Ruth Asawa created for San Francisco. The first stop was the Aurora Fountain along the Embarcadero, a stainless-steel version of origami. Despite the material it is made from, there is a delicacy and intricacy to the work’s repetitive nature of the 120 welded steel triangles, which can convey depth, dimension, and complexity through what would typically be the manipulation of flat, two-dimensional paper.

The next stop was up to the Buchanan Street Pedestrian Mall (Nihonmachi Mall) in Japantown, where in the mid-1970s, architect-planner Rai Okamoto envisioned a neighborhood similar to bustling Tokyo’s bustling Ginza district. The street is covered with a flowing cobblestone pathway, linking two corten steel fountains installed in 1976. These fountains resemble origami lotus blooms with large, round petals arranged in layers, giving them a complete and elegant look. The lotus flowers are often associated with purity, enlightenment, and spiritual awakening. They are admired for their ability to emerge from muddy waters and bloom into beautiful flowers, symbolizing purity and transcendence over obstacles. 

The Nihonmachi Mall’s opening ceremonies occurred on March 27, 1976. However, the fountains were deactivated a year later due to water rationing caused by drought. Although water was reinstated in 1979, the fountains suffered from neglect, leading to functionality issues and rust problems. By 1992, there were discussions about removing them altogether. Asawa acknowledged that they had never operated as intended and consented to their removal in 1995. A Mall Preservation and Renovation Organizational Group joined forces with the Ruth Asawa Fountains Task Force to fund the recasting of the fountains in bronze and enhance the water pumping system. The rededication ceremony was held on October 20, 1999. 

A fun component that is not to be noticed here is that Asawa’s engagement with the planning of the plaza extended beyond the origami fountains to encompass the entire mall’s design. Okamoto was a student of Josef Albers at Yale and was introduced to Asawa’s wire art in the 1950s. She spent three transformative summers working with Albers and Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College, starting in 1946. The architect allowed Asawa to play an active role in designing benches adorned with side panels featuring Japanese festivals and fairy tales crafted from dough art and created in collaboration with the children of local shopkeepers. 

From here, I hiked back to Union Square and the extremely busy driveway of the Parc 55 Hilton Hotel. The scene was chaotic, with cars loading and unloading suitcases and a boisterous bachelor party returning to the hotel, hopefully for their own mid-day nap. You must play a real-life version of Frogger with a never-ending line of confused Uber drivers. Still, here you’ll find the seven sculpted panels that makeup “San Francisco Yesterday and Today,” which offers a vibrant tapestry of San Francisco’s historical and contemporary landmarks. She assembled a team of friends and family to meticulously mold scenes from baker’s clay, over 700 pounds of flour, and salt dough spread over Styrofoam to add depth. These panels were then cast in glass-fiber-reinforced concrete, marking a new artistic medium for her. The first panel depicts the Golden Gate Bridge, juxtaposed with traditional Chinese and Western sailing ships, as well as rowboats and huts of the Miwok and the Ohlone native Americans who once inhabited the area (the Ohlone name for San Francisco was Ahwaste, “place at the bay”). The Irish Piper Band parades past the majestic Beaux-Arts City Hall in another panel, symbolizing its triumphant reconstruction following the devastating 1906 earthquake. Everything in the bustling city is exaggerated to the Nth degree. While the fountains were so precise, this work is full of satire and caricature. 

Recognizable figures and landmarks are portrayed with whimsy, every scene bursting with energy and humor. All the little details. One of my favorite moments shows King Kong standing preciously at the top of the Transamerica Pyramid, holding a bunch of balloons that read, “Roof Top.” At the waterfront, a full Golden Bear Ferry is touching land at Fisherman’s Wharf. Emperor Norton is there to give his decree, “Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.” (Side fun fact: this work was unveiled on October 4, 1984, they sold tickets to the opening, which served as a fundraiser for the School of the Arts, embodying Ruth’s dedication to nurturing young artistic talents.

Now, it was just a skip and jump to the final, favorite stop, the San Francisco Fountain, which now stands within steps of a plaza between the back of a big glass Apple Store and the side of the Grand Hyatt San Francisco. Asawa’s vision of the city transcended mere ornamentation; she sought to infuse the piece with quirkiness and narrative to welcome all that passed into her imaginative world. To make it as distinct as the place it represents. The cylindrical bronze sculpture, adorned with bas-relief scenes, invites viewers on a visual journey through the city’s everyday vignettes. One of the first things I noticed was a nod to the area’s distinct counterculture legacy, as a nude couple laid out for a peaceful day on a blanket in Golden Gate Park. They only seem to have their shoes beside them, leaving me to wonder if they arrived this way? With his long hair and beard, glasses, and potbelly, the figure bears a solid resemblance to Jerry Garcia. 

The work comprises 41 distinct bronze plaques, each approximately 26 x 32 inches, adorning the entire circular wall of the fountain bowl, spanning over 14 feet in diameter. Notably, at the core of the drum’s towering wall, one can discern an “HH” symbolizing the Grand Hyatt right beside us. The orientation of the landmarks follows a geographical logic: south of Union Square to the left, north to the right, with the ocean at the top and the bay at the bottom. The fountain is filled with landmarks past and present, such as Powell St. Cable Car turnabout, the Opera House, Nob Hill, Ghirardelli Square, the hairpin turns of Lombard Street Fleishhacker Saltwater Pool, Chemical Engine House 44, the Dragon’s Gate of Chinatown, Jefferson Airplane, people whirling and swirling everywhere, coming together to live, work, and play.

Tucked between those people are playful representations of characters like Snoopy, Superman, and figures from “The Wizard of Oz.” There are reminders of Asawa’s tireless advocacy for arts education and her efforts to make art accessible to all. As the “Fountain Lady,” she created major public artworks and so often included the work and ideas of children; in this case, over 100 children from both Alvarado Elementary School, which she helped found, and from different parts of the city. This, of course, plays into the spirit of the work, the sense of movement and spontaneity, the sense of freedom. You read further into Asawa’s history, and it’s heartbreaking. In 1942, Asawa’s father was apprehended and placed in an internment camp in New Mexico while she and her family were held in Santa Anita, California. Later, when confined in the Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas, she was taught to draw by several Disney animators who were also confined there. Determined to be a teacher, she enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College. After three years of schooling, her degree depended on a fourth year of practice teaching. However, she faced the reality that no Wisconsin school would employ a Japanese teacher, so she opted to pursue Black Mountain College instead. 

And yet, when you look at this work, you do not see her resilience; you see joy. You see an artist who sought to bridge divides and foster connections within communities. The San Francisco Fountain is a testament to the power of art to inspire and bring a smile to so many faces. 

(On this same trip, I made it to see the spectacular “The Faces of Ruth Asawa” installation at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, but that is a story for another day.)