News
11.04.2009
Lawrence Halprin, 1916-2009
Charles Birnbaum remembers a pathbreaking modernist landscape architect
Halprin in his studio at Sea Ranch, in Sonoma County, California (1963).
Courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation

Ever since 1970, when Ada Louise Huxtable dubbed Lawrence Halprin’s Auditorium Forecourt Fountain in Portland, Oregon “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance,” much has been written about this maverick trailblazer. Always looking back while looking ahead, Halprin described himself on the dust jacket of his urban treatise Cities (1963) as “a landscape architect in the tradition of the Olmsteds.” While breaking ground as a modernist designer, he did not always turn his back on Picturesque traditions.

Halprin passed away at his home in Kentfield, California on October 25 at the age of 93. It was just two months earlier that his office had celebrated 60 years of practice in the Bay Area and scheduled to close its doors for good this November. Larry was looking apprehensively toward retirement. With his richly illustrated autobiography now complete (to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press) and a number of his celebrated designs such as the Portland Chain of Open Spaces experiencing a newfound appreciation, Larry no doubt would have continued his frequent visits to Sea Ranch (co-designed in 1963 by Halprin with Charles Moore and Joseph Esherick), to once again be a Sunday painter and to enjoy nature and his grandchildren.

Halprin at Lovejoy Plaza in Portland, Oregon (1966).
Courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation

A love of design, people, nature, the shaping of cities and spaces, and the blurring of lines between his personal and professional life energized Larry. Optimistic, sensitive, thoughtful, and cherubic, he will be remembered for his built legacy as much as for his multidisciplinary workshops, which gave rise to his RSVP Cycles (Resources, Scores, Valuation, and Performance), a process that recognized that creativity, like nature, is not necessarily linear, while soliciting creative “input”—which could take the form of an interpretive dance or a sculpture made from popsicle sticks and Cheerios—from everyone from artists to the residents.

Just four years ago, still going strong at the age of 89, Halprin and his office completed three capstone projects: the astonishing trifecta of the Letterman Digital Arts Center and its signature eight-acre meadow at the Presidio; the WPA-inspired outdoor theater at Stern Grove; and Yosemite Falls. Ironically, it was because these projects were still to be built that scholars were late to evaluate Halprin’s work, and unlike Dan Kiley or Philip Johnson—who both would live to see multiple National Historic Landmark designations listed during their lifetimes—Halprin was not as lucky, and instead witnessed the demolition and redesign of several of his projects from the 1970s, including Nicolette Mall in Minneapolis, Skyline Park in Denver, and the sculpture garden at the Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. In addition, two of his revolutionary 1976 Bicentennial Commission projects, Seattle’s Freeway Park (the first park over a freeway in the U.S.) and Fort Worth’s Heritage Plaza (the progenitor of the outdoor rooms that would be employed at his FDR Memorial) were also targets for less-than-sensitive design proposals that threatened their integrity.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. (1997).
Courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation

 
The amphitheater at Stern Grove in San Francisco (2005).
Courtesy Stern Grove

It was this shared concern to guide these landscapes into the future and give them a voice that served as a personal bond between us. Since 2003, as part of my work for the Cultural Landscape Foundation, I had the opportunity to film Larry at his offices in downtown San Francisco and Larkspur, California, as well as at his home and dance deck in Kentfield and at Sea Ranch. In a 2003 interview, Larry said of his projects, “I treasure them all just like you treasure children. Some of your children are more problems than others. But even so, you love them. I don’t think from my point of view that there’s much difference in my attitude about my children and my works of art.”

Just a few weeks before Halprin passed away, Heritage Plaza was recommended by the Texas Historical Commission for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now at the National Park Service awaiting approval by the Keeper of the Register. Let the celebration and rediscovery of his legacy begin.

Charles A. Birnbaum

Charles A. Birnbaum is the founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.