An American Fountain in Sochi

 Pavel Golovkin / Getty Images

Sochi may be a city of unfinished hotels, malfunctioning toilets, and uncovered manholes, but at least one thing is working: The gigantic fountain beneath the cauldron in Olympic Park‘s Medals Plaza is spraying like a firehose controlled by a snake charmer. Not coincidentally, the fountain was built by an American firm.

You probably don’t know their name, but you almost certainly know WET‘s work. They specialize in massive fountains that shoot water hundreds of feet into the air while moving in time with music and lights. They built the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas – the ones that Clooney and company stand in front of at the end of Oceans 11 – and the Dubai Fountain, the largest of its kind. These massive installations generally take several years to construct, which is why WET C.E.O. Mark Fuller was a bit surprised when Stroi International, the Russian Developer responsible for much of the local construction, approached him last March about a job is Sochi.

Fuller sent his designers to Sochi to see the space, where the Russians had already started pouring concrete. “We sit down with everyone involved because they’ve been living with this,” he says. And what do they talk about? Design and music. They decide the water jets should be arranged in the shape of the Olympic rings and that the fountain should sway to the strains of Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, and, because this is an international event, Michael Jackson.

From there, the WET team returned to its California headquarters, brainstorming ideas using their existing and new hardware like Lego pieces, sketching and animating mockups, and searching for as many original concepts as possible. One feature that’s wholly unique to Sochi is the layout of the fountain’s 1,000 underwater strobe lights. “Your eyes will follow these brightly lit columns of water up into the sky and you’ll see, for that moment, the Russian sky and the constellations,” says Fuller. “Our designers studied what the Russian sky will look like in terms of constellations at this time of year and we worked some of those into the patterning of our light layout. We’re sort of fanatics about details like that.”

With the design in place, Peter Kopik, WET’s Executive Designer, took the lead on choreography, creating routines that are both surprising and smooth. “It’s very much an interpretative and creative statement,” explains Fuller. “It’s not, as a person might think, like the water goes high and you make the music go loud, because that would be boringly predicable. If you think back to some of the really great motion picture scores, like Hitchcock or Spielberg’s Jaws, when the action is the most intense, the music is quiet and then it flips on you.”

Once the entire California-built mechanical frame was finished, it had to be shipped to Sochi and installed in the 247-foot-diameter fountain area, where testing began. Dry runs allowed WET’s engineers to make sure everything was working. The fountain was tried again at low volume so further adjustments could be made before the whole thing was filled and SCUBA crews became necessary to make changes. Then the water was poured and the fountain came fully to life. “When it’s a short timeframe, that’s kind of a pants-wetter,” says Fuller.

WET employees can now control the jets in real time from an iPad or order them to perform regularly scheduled routines. Still, Fuller worries about technical issues and public perception. “It’s like being a stage mother,” he says. “You’re not a performer per se, but your baby is.”

In the end, the only thing Fuller can’t reveal about the project is its final cost. He doesn’t actually know what Stroi spent, only that features similar to the Olympic fountain generally go for between $5 and $25 million. He describes the gargantuan installation set to become a lasting monument to the most expensive games in history as “kind of in the middle of our range.”