The Design Observer Group


Posted 10.30.09


Donlyn Lyndon

Lawrence Halprin, 1916 – 2009



Lawrence Halprin, one of the most influential landscape architects of the postwar era, died October 25 in his home in Kentfield, California, at the age of 93.

Larry Halprin’s life was one of extraordinary reach and vitality. His career spanned six decades, and his works have engaged many people, in landscapes that are imbued with imagination and that invite exploration, in locations as diverse as San Francisco (where he lived and worked), Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Jerusalem and Yosemite National Park. In each locale the forms and materials differ, yet in each the dynamic variability of nature and the actions of people are embedded in their shapes.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, in Washington D.C., suggested new ways of thinking about memorials. Weaving a great history though granite chambers inhabited by sculpture and inscriptions, opening to the sky and the Tidal Basin, it becomes a place of choreographed participation, not simply a marker. Levi Plaza, in San Francisco, like other Halprin works, is an urban landscape of many choices. Set at the foot of Telegraph Hill, the upper floors of the surrounding buildings are stepped back from the city’s grid to create an expansive outdoor space, with views of the adjacent hillside. To one side water spills over terraces of granite and concrete into a series of pools and channels. Stepping stones offer spots of respite shaded by sycamores and enveloped by the sound of bubbling water. The rectangular terraces and steps of the plaza, while geometrically akin to the buildings above them, are disposed with a sensibility informed by natural places, fusing the grids of urbanity with the variability of nature. The flicker of shadow and reflected sunlight, the trickling and rushing of water, the movements of people, together create an unobtrusive and fascinating scene. Extending across Battery Street, the space seems to transform into a sylvan meadow with a meandering stream, buffered from the noise and traffic of the Embarcadero beyond.

Lovejoy Fountain, in Portland, deploys water in equally dramatic ways. A large but intimately scaled concrete construction, the fountain evokes a cascading mountain stream, and invites frequent wading. In Seattle, Freeway Park, a three-dimensionally configured landscape, thick with tree cover, vegetation and tumbling water, miraculously suppresses awareness of the concrete expressway that slashes its way just below.

These are works that required perseverance and persuasive power as well as professional and artistic vision. They all reflect a passionate confidence in the power of design to shape experiences and a dedication to creative exploration. Most fundamentally they reflect the commitment to being deeply alive and engaged, a commitment he shared with Anna Halprin, the distinguished and innovative dancer whom he married in 1940, and who remains active today.

One of his most significant works was the Sea Ranch, which Larry Halprin began planning in 1961, and which remained a significant part of his life. The community that evolved there, along 10 miles of the California coast in Sonoma County, drew form from Larry’s drawings and watercolors. His master plan for Sea Ranch joined the intentions of the development team with the tangible realities of the place and its local ecologies, and those of us who live there now live within a vision that he germinated.

It was a privilege to have known Larry Halprin as a longtime friend and colleague. Larry served for several years on the board of the Design History Foundation, which publishes Places, and early on he contributed to the formation of its vantage point. Two articles in the archive illuminate his ways of working and thinking: “Design as a Value System,” in Volume 6, No.1; and “Interview with Lawrence Halprin” in Vol. 12, No. 2, conducted by Randolph T. Hester, Jr.

Larry Halprin’s works and writings — some collected in a large archive at the University of Pennsylvania — constitute a stirring record of continual invention and passionate care for landscapes, for the forces they embody and the people who live within them.