A Life Spent Changing Places

Lawrence Halprin, best known for a series of iconic masterpieces—including the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco—recounts how his personality and recurring themes along his life path contributed to his legacy in landscape architecture.

A Life Spent Changing Places

Lawrence Halprin. Foreword by Laurie Olin

2011 | 280 pages | Cloth $45.00
Architecture | Biography
View main book page

Table of Contents

Foreword by Laurie Olin

Chapter 1. Family and Tribal Heritage
Chapter 2. The Grand Tour
Chapter 3. Poly Prep
Chapter 4. Return to Palestine
Chapter 5. My College Career
Chapter 6. World War II

Chapter 7. Beginning My Career
Chapter 8. The Israel Thread
Chapter 9. Growing Pains
Chapter 10. The Rebellious Sixties
Chapter 11. A Time for Introspection
Chapter 12. A Transitional Search
Chapter 13. After the Show Was Over
Chapter 14. The New Millennium
Chapter 15. Reflections


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Laurie Olin

Lawrence Halprin was a great landscape architect. He was also a strong advocate for community, sociability, cities, and nature. The remark that "Every great artist inhabits a genre, and remakes it" could find no better proof than in his life and work. He produced a series of masterpieces of iconic stature: Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco; Sea Ranch on the north California coast; the Lovejoy and Ira Keller Fountain sequence in Portland, Oregon; Freeway Park in Seattle, Washington; the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.; and Stern Grove Theater in San Francisco, to name some of the best known. He knew plants horticulturally and could use them architecturally. Many of his greatest works were executed with humble, ordinary building materials: concrete, asphalt, stucco, wood, soil, and plants. As he matured and whenever he could, he utilized natural stone and water.

Between 1949 and 1961, long before he produced the works for which he is known today, he designed more than three hundred residential gardens in the San Francisco Bay region. Two of these were major steps in his development and have entered the canon of midcentury American landscape design. The first was at his own house (1952) designed by William Wurster, an architect he'd met as a student at Harvard. A key element was a detached redwood dance deck made for his wife. On this nonrectangular platform she developed many of her avant-garde works, with a number of young dancers who were to become future leaders in the field such as Merce Cunningham. Anna Halprin credited its free shape and multilevels with helping her to explore space, the body, its senses, and its perceptions. In turn Halprin has credited his experience with her work as having had a major influence in developing his ideas of movement and sequence in spatial terms. The other generative early project, the McIntyre garden in Hillsborough, California (1959), he designed with Joseph Esherick, another architect with whom he was to work later—most importantly at the Sea Ranch. In it one can see Halprin beginning to survey and reflect upon the history of landscape design and see that he was trying his hand at materials both contemporary and timeless, particularly masonry and water, with ideas drawn from well-known historical works to see how he measured up.

By the late 1950s, with a large body of domestic-scale projects behind him, his practice began to expand to take on commercial work such as shopping centers with architects Richard Marsh Bennett outside Chicago and Eero Saarinen near Dallas. Aspects of these commercial developments anticipate the important civic plans and spaces, fountains and plazas he was to design later. In these early suburban malls we see his use of concrete, stepped levels, and angular shapes; sequences of spaces that narrow, swell, change direction; fountains; and idiosyncratic custom furnishing. These projects, like some of his finest later work, have unfortunately been so heavily copied and thoroughly absorbed into the vernacular of late twentieth-century urban development that they now appear as cliché. At the time, however, he and his staff were designing and building a new kind of public space, flowing free-form pedestrian ways between shops in the new marketplaces of America.

The period from 1956 to 1961 was one of enormous personal, intellectual, artistic, and professional growth, during which he began taking trips to the high Sierras, hiking, sketching, and photographing the mountains, rocks, and vegetation, and especially the water in all its moods and situations. Although he had drawn for pleasure and amusement since college days it was in this period that he began regularly keeping sketchbooks for drawing, recording his observations and making studies and notes for projects. A fierce appetite for experience and persistent observation recorded directly on the spot honed his visual acuity and fed his design repertoire. This graphic skill became an important tool in Halprin's design process, contributing significantly to his success.

In the summer of 1961 Halprin took a trip with his daughter Daria to Europe and Israel largely to study their cities, streets, plazas, waterfronts, great gardens, and classical sites. One outcome was the book Cities, published two years later. This survey and meditation on the character of both ordinary and outstanding furnishings of European civic spaces almost immediately fed directly into a sequence of commissions in which he explored and experimented with urban design typologies. These were to include Ghirardelli Square, Embarcadero Plaza, and Market Street in San Francisco; Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis; the Seattle World's Fair site; and a pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this work Halprin developed experimental processes he called scores and motation, personal and somewhat idiosyncratic systems to graphically record, study, and script human movement through sequences of space and topography and to describe the particular character of the each space.

The Ghirardelli development (1965) shows Halprin revisiting the ideas and character of his earlier suburban shopping centers through the filter of his recent European experience. When asked for ideas regarding the site of an abandoned nineteenth-century chocolate factory above Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, he suggested that rather than clearing the buildings for new development, which was (and often still is) the habit of the day, he suggested the project should save most of the brick structures, while at the same time cutting into them so as to open views to the bay below and creating a series of stairs and ramps linking their levels and the adjacent streets to a collection of shops around several small plazas. It was a brilliant and pioneering example of adaptive reuse producing a form of urban theater within commercial development.

Another typology he challenged in this period was that of the traditional street as it had evolved, choked with automobiles, in twentieth-century America. His experiment with a transit mall in Minneapolis intrigued designers all over while it terrorized engineers and puzzled businessmen. His proposal asked why couldn't the road or bus-way wander sinuously within the right-of-way, like a river, creating varying and more generous widths alternately on either side for pedestrians instead of the habitual narrow straight sidewalks. This arrangement would allow for amenities such as bus shelters, art, fountains, planting, and seating (all of which he also designed) along the course of the street that simply would not fit on the normal twelve- to sixteen-foot-wide walks of most American streets. Nicollet Mall set in motion several decades of experiment and street improvement projects in the core of American cities and towns.

Halprin's plan for the five-thousand-acre Sea Ranch project was a innovation in twentieth-century American design. Spending a great amount of time on the site, Halprin, walking, drawing, and studying it, proposed to preserve the character of a former sheep ranch with ten miles of rugged coastline, hedgerows, and meadows. His response to and exploitation of the wind, rocks, spaces, and views prefigured subsequent ecological planning a decade later.

Working with the Portland, Oregon, Redevelopment Authority in 1965, Halprin proposed an open-space system consisting of three one-acre parks linked by pedestrian lanes. The resultant squares, Lovejoy Plaza, Pettigrove Park, and the Auditorium Forecourt (now known as the Ira Keller Fountain), brought together Halprin's creative energy and one of his deepest inspirations, that of a particular group of streams and waterfalls in Yosemite National Park. The first plaza contained a representation of a mountain, an abstract one in concrete, sharp edged, with a waterfall coming from its top that tumbled and fell into a calm pool with stepping-stones below, inviting people to participate. It was like nothing else in America at the time in its palette, forms, or imagery. Pettigrove Park in the middle of the development is quiet and green, a stunning contrast to Lovejoy Plaza, consisting of a series of mounds, trees, paths, low walls, and benches. The canopy and green surfaces that rise above one's head and fill the visual field form an oasis, a refuge that is as unexpected as the waterfall at Lovejoy. The strength and pure forms of the mounds is striking even today. The culmination of the Portland sequence is the giant Auditorium Forecourt fountain plaza. Here tons of water fall with a roar from an upper plaza to a sunken basin eighteen feet below. As at Lovejoy the elements are concrete, water, and plants. It is a pure landscape. There are no benches, no lights, and no furnishings. The cubic forms of concrete are superb, with an aggregate of different sizes exposed in the various parts. Some of the plaza is fine and delicate, barely more than a sand finish, some pebbly, while other areas have large river cobbles. It is a splendid abstraction of a glaciated mountain landscape.

With the Portland projects Halprin changed the course of landscape architecture by reintroducing representation and reference as content in design. His early postwar gardens, like those of his mentor Thomas Church and contemporaries Robert Royston and Garrett Eckbo, were skillful in their expression of an evolving western lifestyle. They solved problems and created particular spaces and zones for activities such as automobile parking, children's play, swimming, barbecuing, adult social gathering, and sunbathing. They were the epitome of functionalism and exemplars of a relatively new version of suburban life, often possessing striking geometric form. In Portland, Halprin took the forms and technique he had acquired and produced a work of art that was as representational as any figurative painting could be about a western regional landscape. He retrieved one of the most powerful aspects of historic landscape design without the trappings of neoclassical iconography. It was abstract, modern, and powerful. People responded to it.

Halprin lived with contradictions in ways that for him were complementary rather than oppositional. He loved cars and driving; he loved to walk and hike; he loved cities; he loved farms; he loved wild nature. He chose to live in the woods next to Mount Tamalpais on the peninsula north of San Francisco and to have a sequence of offices in the bustling center of the city. He admired both urbanity and highways; writing and publishing books about both while trying to work out ways to plan for each that were equally expressive and logical. Literature and criticism to date in the field of landscape architecture, its history and theory, have focused primarily upon his gardens and urban plazas, and to a large extent have not assessed the many urban planning and design projects he and his office undertook. This may be due partly to the time it takes for such work to bear fruit, partly to their lack of visual panache, and partly to the fate many have eventually suffered.

If one measure of his greatness is the number and quality of handsome and important places he created, another is how he contributed to changes in the practice of landscape architecture and the processes of public works. Larry Halprin managed to do so while rejecting the office practice and business model that evolved during his lifetime and was employed by many of his contemporaries and competitors partly in order to do projects at the scale he frequently worked at. Hideo Sasaki, Garrett Eckbo, Ed Stone Jr., Ian McHarg, Peter Walker, and other contemporaries who began with small practices developed offices that adopted corporate structures, often with large staff, multiple partners, and branches. Halprin approached and backed away from this situation, managing to maintain a studio atmosphere with personal and artistic control of all the work.

Aspects of several of his methods in one guise or another have become accepted and normal, at times even obligatory, public processes throughout America and Europe. Recording and designing events he borrowed an appropriate term from music, the score, while working with artists, psychologists, scientists, and designers and with key assistants and friends to develop what evolved into his RSVP process of workshops in an attempt to resist preconceived forms and ideas, or determinist quasi-scientific methodologies. Halprin strove to work in a way that would allow an open process with feedback that engaged clients, communities, stakeholders, and designers equally through a series of exercises and explorative activities individually and as a group. Despite the strong influence of Jungian psychology and a genuine (and generous) liberal political urge to respond to the needs of others, Halprin consistently controlled the design response to this input, maintaining a strong personal artistic expression in form and imagery.

Halprin's first professional public goal-oriented workshop took place in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1979. After putting civic leaders and influential businessmen through orientation and sensitivity exercises in the older heart of the city, he coaxed them through sessions that led to goals, a program and a framework that encompassed public and private transportation, parking, and mixed-use commercial and residential developments, as well as pedestrian ways, public plazas, and parks. This led to an ambitious plan for eight miles of the Trinity River corridor that included drives, parks, and recreation areas reminiscent of some of the best of the WPA projects of the Great Depression, as well as proposals for reshaping portions of the river, landings, and commercial and residential development. With this and other schemes in his office at this period, Halprin was thirty years ahead of his time. Some aspects of the plan were taken up and realized by the business community, albeit only those that facilitated commuters and commerce in the downtown, while few of the civic spaces or park proposals were implemented. It was only after the beginning of the twenty-first century that some of his proposals for the river and its development for residential use and recreation have been revived and one of the only public spaces he managed to realize in Fort Worth, Heritage Plaza, overlooking the Trinity River, derelict at the time of this writing, is in the process of restoration.

Unlike a number of other leading American landscape architects of his generation Halprin had little involvement with academia. For reasons of personality and the pressure of his practice, by the 1970s Halprin had come to avoid the environmental design school at Berkeley, where he had once had close friends, even running a couple of experimental summer studios. His alma mater, Harvard, was far away and didn't seem very welcoming, either. He and Ian McHarg, who had published Design with Nature in 1969, were great admirers of each other's work. McHarg managed to persuade him to come to the University of Pennsylvania to spend time with the students in their design studios during the period that he was deeply involved in the Roosevelt Memorial and traveling to the East Coast for periods of time.

In the heart of Portland, Seattle, and Denver Halprin explored and produced bold and original public spaces through the use of abstract imagery, forms, and processes derived from hauntingly beautiful environments of the American West. In his design for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in the nation's capital, which followed, his interest shifted from nature to culture, from plants, rocks, and water, to art, language, text, inscription, and figurative sculpture. In this project, begun in 1974 but delayed for more than a decade by difficulties with Congress and funding, he almost single-handedly revived the use of figurative sculpture and the use of words as central elements in an architectural scheme. Banished from architecture and high-style art in the early decades of the twentieth century by Adolph Loos and modernists such Wright, Le Corbusier, and Gropius from whom he'd learned so much, the use of sculpture or any sort of verbal hortatory element on buildings or gardens had become one of the biggest taboos.

The atavistic urge to recall the stone and earthen structures of pre-Columbian America he employed in Denver's Skyline Park gave way in the Roosevelt Memorial to memories of Bronze Age sites and ruins of the old world. As with the Portland and Seattle projects, which have been overly and poorly imitated, this memorial has been so envied by others that it has influenced a number of other narrative-based memorials that tend toward interpretive tableaus, becoming quasi-museums that are not as iconic or fitting as his work may yet become.

Larry Halprin helped to change how landscape architecture is practiced and how it is perceived today. Loving nature he chose to work in and on cities, and in so doing he invented ways of working with communities that resulted in open-ended processes for their involvement in formulating public design. Unlike his talented contemporaries whose projects frequently remained (regardless of how successful) works either of formal, social, or ecological performance, his work embraced all of these aspects while restoring the power of narrative and representation to landscape design. Larry Halprin's work is thoroughly grounded in the classical and ancient past, while no more copying or mimicking it than the natural world he so loved, thereby offering a profound lesson for students and professionals alike.

Invited to a conference at Harvard in 1991 entitled "Urban Ground" and focused upon design criticism regarding the landscape of cities, something Halprin had concerned himself with for most of his life, he was direct and spoke in a way rarely heard in academic circles. He began talking about Jungian notions of things we all experience and have in common: sex, food, love, and sequences of movement—of entry, processional, and arrival. While interested in and accepting that there is such a thing referred to as 'Common Ground," he bluntly asserted that it isn't an "image." "It is about time not space." For him the two were nevertheless linked. Closing he said simply, "If one moves differently through space in time it is very different. The act of being in love takes time irrespective of space." Despite having made a series of unforgettable physical creations, he was devoted to process to the end.


As my name was called I jumped to my feet and raised my arms in victory. I was on stage with the president and vice president of the United States and flanked by senators and dignitaries from near and far. It had taken me twenty-three years to bring the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial design to fruition and on that warm May day in 1997 I was exuberant, joyful, relieved, and very proud. I gave the president and First Lady a personal tour and then stood for hours shaking hands and enjoying perhaps the most satisfactory day of my life. I knew there were parties to attend as friends gathered to share in the celebration but I wasn't ready to leave. I wanted to watch the memorial serve its purpose and produce the results I had envisioned for so many years. It was the pinnacle of my career and a personal homage to a man I considered our greatest president. I wanted to stay and savor the moment.

In 1916, when I was born, FDR was thirty-three years old. By the time I became aware of politics he was governor of New York and then the thirty-second president of the United States. I listened to his fireside chats and followed his social programs. He was my commander in chief when I was a young naval ensign. I was on a destroyer in the South Pacific when I heard he had died in Warm Springs, Georgia, during his fourth term as president. As the tough sailors on our ship cried over the loss of a great leader, it was unimaginable that I would someday build a memorial to honor him.

I began this book by reviewing how I started down my life path and became that man on the podium as well as the man I am today at ninety-two. I looked at the resources I was born with, and the manner in which family, school, and my own internal motivations initially gave me direction. I sorted through the important recurring themes in my life and looked at how I've modified and recycled them. In fact, this is the way I begin all of my projects. It is part of the RSVP Cycles process that I use for designing, problem solving, and decision making. I am not surprised to find that I can also use it to see how I have invented and reinvented my life. It was originally my intention to write down my life for the benefit of my grandchildren so they would know where I came from genetically and culturally as well as how I migrated geographically from the East Coast to the West. Somewhere along the way, however, the book became a much larger project, and I hope it will be interesting to a much larger audience.

My life, and probably my very nature, has led me to be process oriented. To study form making in nature you need to understand the physical forces that are at work. To begin a community design project you need to understand the physical and human forces that are at work, and to understand a person you must also understand the many forces that formed them. I hope this autobiography reveals the process that made me who I am.