During the era of urban renewal, construction of the interstate highway system and suburban flight, Lawrence Halprin wanted to breathe new life into cities. His landscapes drew from Modernism, the rugged wilderness and dance, and paved the way for landscape architecture’s present role in citymaking.
Amid the glittering glass-and-steel towers and bustle of downtown Los Angeles, office workers could be forgiven for seeking a quiet garden with a fountain to enjoy during their lunch hour.
They might find solace in a series of four parks along Hope Street, created in the late 1980s and early ’90s by the late Lawrence Halprin. His modernist urban parks offer a feeling of serenity in the hectic core of big city life.
The landscape architect, a trailblazer in his field, is enjoying a renaissance, spurred on by a traveling exhibition that has now arrived in Los Angeles, and by a call to arms from conservationists intent on preserving his legacy against forces that would alter or tear down his monumental parks.
Halprin’s downtown LA projects include the Bunker Hill Steps, a massive concrete staircase connecting Hope Street with the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library on Fifth Street that is surrounded by plants and bisected by a flowing waterfall. Until recently, the water cascaded over rocky outcrops; but those were replaced by smooth bricks — a change Halprin’s fans say contradicts the original intent of the design.
The other projects include Grand Hope Park (on South Hope Street between West Ninth Street and West Olympic Boulevard, near the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising); the Maguire Gardens, adjacent to the Central Library on West Fifth Street between South Grand Avenue and South Flower Street; and the Crocker Garden Court atrium (now the Wells Fargo Court) at 333 S. Grand Ave., conceived as “an urban, indoor Garden of Eden.”
Many of Halprin’s West Coast parks “have been dismissed because of their very overt modernism [or] have been demolished or are under threat of demolition,” said Dora Epstein Jones, executive director of the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in downtown LA.
The museum’s current exhibition, “The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin,” celebrates the designer’s innovative parks, plazas and pedestrian malls with videos and more than 50 newly commissioned photographs.
By showing the wear and tear some of the parks have endured, the exhibition is intended to “open up very serious conversations about the future of landscape in Los Angeles,” Jones said.
Halprin’s best-known park may be the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1997, a series of four outdoor gallery rooms — one for each of FDR’s terms of office — defined by walls of red South Dakota granite engraved with quotations from the president, with each space containing a waterfall and bronze statues.
Halprin also was responsible for the Sea Ranch community’s master plan for 10 miles of California coastline near Sonoma; the transformation of an old chocolate factory in in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square; and Freeway Park in Seattle, a maze of brutalist concrete blocks and waterfalls designed with Angela Danadjieva, and the first park built over a freeway.
During the era of urban renewal, construction of the interstate highway system and suburban flight, Halprin wanted to breathe new life into cities. His landscapes were meant to suggest the rugged wilderness of nature.
“The water features that he created are abstractions,” said Los Angeles real estate developer Doug Moreland. “A lot of them are very blocky. But the power of the water coming over them reminds you of climbing on the rocks in the waterfalls.”
Ada Louise Huxtable, the late architecture critic for The New York Times, called the Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, Ore. — part of a series of Halprin-designed parks, plazas and fountains built in 1970 that knitted together the city’s downtown — “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.”
The A+D Museum show was originally staged last year at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., to mark the centennial of Halprin’s birth in Brooklyn in 1916. The Cultural Landscape Foundation organized the exhibition.
Halprin also is being celebrated in Los Angeles with a display of his little-seen drawings at the Edward Cella Art & Architecture gallery; a public symposium on Nov. 4; and a series of Los Angeles Conservancy-led walking tours.
A site-specific performance by the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre will take place at the Maguire Gardens on Oct. 24.
Halprin’s unique approach to landscape design drew from two formative experiences: the two years he spent living on a kibbutz in Israel after high school — which sparked an interest in farming and communal living — and his marriage and lifelong collaboration with renowned avant-garde dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin, who inspired him to think differently about how people move through spaces.
He met his wife, then Anna Schuman, after a dance performance at the University of Wisconsin’s Hillel chapter.
“We were attracted to one another instantly and he asked if he could walk me home,” she recalled. “And that started our relationship.”
Halprin loved to draw and carried notebooks everywhere he went. In 1939, Schuman suggested they visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s seminal Wisconsin home-studio, Taliesin East. Halprin’s excitement over Wright’s holistic approach to nature and architecture led him to shift his academic focus from horticulture to architecture.
He studied under Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, but World War II cut short his studies. He joined the U.S. Navy and was an officer on the destroyer USS Morris, which was hit by a Japanese kamikaze plane.
Halprin and Anna eventually settled in San Francisco, where he opened his own firm in 1949. He built a large outdoor dance deck for her at their woodsy Marin County home on the lower slopes of Mount Tamalpais, where she continues to teach experimental dance classes at the age of 97.
“Larry was always interested in dance,” Anna said. “He felt that the sense of movement in the environment was a vital part of the design. Otherwise, his design would become very decorative, and he wanted his design to be activated. He wanted people to be active, to interact, not just make pretty pictures.”
The couple led a series of multidisciplinary workshops, which led to a methodology for public input and collaboration he called the “RSVP cycles” — resources, scores, valuation and performance. He taught this design process at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s and continued to use it in his practice.
“This idea of bottom-up planning, which is so central to every urban design project today that happens in the public realm, this is something that Halprin really popularized and brought to the discipline,” said Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Halprin took his daughters, Daria and Rana, on two-week backpacking trips every summer in the High Sierra.
“Both his own work and travels abroad, and his relationship with the natural world, really informed his work as both a landscape architect and painter,” Daria said.
His travels took him to Israel, where he often visited as a child. His mother, Rose Luria Halprin, was active in Zionist causes and served twice as the national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, beginning in 1932.
Halprin was among the founders of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet near Haifa, and his time living on the kibbutz “really teaches him about the idea of community, the design of the communities and the … way in which people interact within a community,” Birnbaum said.
Halprin left his mark on modern-day Jerusalem with his designs for the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, the Haas Promenade (in collaboration with Shlomo Aronson), the Hadassah Hospital gardens and Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus.
Birnbaum considered Halprin a personal friend and mentor, and remembers him as “irascible. He had a huge zest for life.”
Birnbaum read this quote from Halprin at Halprin’s memorial service in 2009, which he believes reflects his personality: “My art, from my point of view, is intuitive. It’s not particularly intellectual. It depends on myths and symbols and basic primitive ideas of what human beings are like. And the rest of it is bull—-.”
There are three months of public events honoring Halprin’s legacy, including “The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin” on view through Dec. 31 at A+D Architecture and Design Museum; “Lawrence Halprin: Alternative Scores – Drawing from Life,” on view through Oct. 28 at Edward Cella Art & Architecture; LA Conservancy walking tours, a dance performance on Oct. 24 and a public symposium on Nov. 4. Find more information about all the events here.