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Diana Fountain Is Put in Dry Dock

Weeks after opening, the London memorial is closed for review. Critics fault planners; officials blame the public.

August 03, 2004|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Like the figure it celebrates, the tribute to Princess Diana is already wrapped in controversy. The memorial fountain dedicated to Britain's beloved princess, expected to be one of London's most popular family attractions, has temporarily closed just weeks after its inauguration by Queen Elizabeth II.

First, unseasonal gales and rainstorms the day after the July 6 opening clogged the fountain's filters with leaves, its stream was flooded, and it became a marsh until repairs were made.

Then the oval channel of rivulets, waterfalls and pools -- meant to reflect the rough and smooth tides of Diana's life -- was invaded by families, tourists, dogs and litter. The clear running water, some of which an entrepreneur tried to peddle on EBay, became polluted, and the playground was labeled a slippery, dirty health hazard by the media.

"You could call it a victim of its own success," said a spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which was responsible for the final choice of the granite channel designed by American architect Kathryn Gustafson.

Just two weeks after the inauguration, three children paddling in the shallow stream were injured when they slipped and fell.

Critics were quick to accuse the authorities of a lack of foresight, bad planning and poor maintenance.

"I knew this would happen," said Vivienne Parry, a friend of Diana's who called the $6-million project a "puddle" when the design was chosen two years ago and had disassociated herself from it.

"This is not a national monument. It's a national nothing," Parry said in press reports last week. She was among many who accused the organizers of failing to foresee the buildup of algae on the granite streambed, making for a slithery, hazardous paddling pool.

Algae was not the problem, said Theo Moore, spokesman for the Royal Parks Commission, the overall authority for maintaining London's parks, including Hyde Park, where the fountain is located.

"The granite has been given anti-slip treatment, and the whole fountain is cleaned every Monday morning. There's no time for algae to accumulate. The algae argument simply doesn't hold water," Moore said.

Because the filters became blocked by leaves, he said, "the autumn-leaf system, which keeps the filters clear, now functions all year, not just in autumn."

Further anti-slither treatment has been given to some areas still considered risky, and reports on how best to administer and manage access to the fountain are being studied.

The real problem, Moore said, was the number of people who flocked to the memorial with their children and dogs. Park staff estimated that about 5,000 people an hour visited in the first few days after the opening.

"We have to find a way to manage the crowds, keep the space open for the public to enjoy, but keep dogs out of the water," Moore said.

Said the spokesperson for the Culture Department: "It's supposed to be an area for enjoyment and quiet contemplation. Nobody fully predicted how people would choose to use it."

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, who assisted at the royal unveiling of the fountain, blamed a few members of the public for the problems. "A small number appear to have behaved irresponsibly," she said in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph.

Designers, engineers, environmentalists, health and safety experts, and park administrators have prepared reports on the fountain. Once the Culture Department has considered the reports, the fountain will be reopened, most likely with provisos regarding animals, garbage and suitable children's areas.

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