May 2010

Fountain Head

  • The Dubai Fountain at Burj Khalifa has nearly 1,500 individually choreographed water jets and some 10,000 fog jets.
  • Fuller makes magic with water, fire and light in WET’s high-tech laboratory.
  • The Dubai Fountain spans 30 acres.
  • Lincoln Center’s renovated waterworks
  • Lincoln Center’s renovated waterworks
  • CityCenter
  • Bellagio
  • Mirage

Mark Fuller and his team of technical wizards at WET have revolutionized the world of water design
by SAMANTHA DUNN / portrait by ERIC OGDEN

Here’s a story Mark Fuller likes to tell: He’s showing his sister and her family around while they’re visiting from Utah. They stop by Fashion Island in Newport Beach for the obvious reasons—and because his company designed the fountains there.

The beach is just a hop, skip and jump from the mall, so down they go. His nephew, having never seen the ocean, runs to the shoreline. Astonished, the boy turns back to his mom: “Did Uncle Mark make this, too?”

Well, dear, of course not. But only because Mother Nature beat him to it.

Water Entertainment Technologies, the company Fuller cofounded in 1983, is arguably the most advanced design firm of its kind. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve likely seen the WET works at Universal CityWalk, the Grove, the Gas Company Tower and the Music Center, to name a few.

WET installations around the world number in the hundreds, from New York’s Lincoln Center to the Tokyo Dome. Their hallmark is the artful treatment of water as a primary element and not an adjunct to a solid sculpture. The movement, texture and luminosity of the substance are feted for all their mesmerizing appeal.

“I recently heard someone say every project that gets done today has some sort of water feature. I’m not really a blow-my-own-horn kind of person, but I wanted to say, ‘Yeah, we kind of changed all that,’ ” says Fuller.

At five-foot-six, Fuller is more the endearing, nerdy professor than the P.T. Barnum type. But what he lacks in bluster is more than made up for in the grand scale of WET’s projects. Most recently, his team created an extravaganza at the newly opened Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, crowned by fountains the size of two football fields that can shoot water some 500 feet up.

That—and many WET creations—might never have happened were it not for Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn, who came to Fuller in the early ’90s with an idea to create a water display for a new hotel unlike any the world had seen. “I didn’t even begin to appreciate what this was going to mean for us,” he says, “and what kind of an impact it would have for the use of water in architectural design from there on out.”

The project was, of course, the fountains at the Bellagio. “I’ll sit down on an airplane, and someone will ask what I do. When I say I’m the founder of WET, I get this blank look. Then I mention the Bellagio, and without fail they say, ‘You’re kidding me! That’s amazing!’ ” Steven Spielberg is reported to have called the nine acres of jet sprays, music and lights—a veritable Fantasia in H2O—the “single greatest piece of public entertainment on the planet.”

After getting degrees at the University of Utah and Stanford, Fuller spent five and a half years at Disney Imagineering, back in the days when there were still designers who had worked with Disney himself. “The spirit of ‘What would Walt do?’ was still very much there,” he recalls. One of his greatest lessons: “Not every idea works, but you can’t be afraid to try.”

Sprawled in an industrial area near the Burbank Airport, WET’s Sun Valley headquarters has an unassuming exterior that belies the world of invention within, where chemists, designers and engineers explore ways to take nonpotable water, put “the sparkle” back into it and use it in fountains. They also test corrosion-resistant materials so that seawater, which would otherwise eat through stainless-steel fixtures, can be harnessed for installations.

WET likes water features that can be enjoyed year-round, no matter how harsh the environment. Recently, installations in Vail and Salt Lake City incorporated jets of fire. “I have this Norman Rockwell image—instead of a bonfire, a group is merrily warming themselves by a fountain,” he says.

Raised in Salt Lake, Fuller has an appreciation for water only those who have lived where it’s scarce can understand. “Things we call rivers in Utah, back East they call creeks!” he jokes. “Today, we have water all around us, so how do you make people see it with the eyes of a child? How do you capture that magic? That’s what drives us.”

SAMANTHA DUNN’s latest book is Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation.

VIDEO: See the dancing waters of WET’s Dubai Fountain