Modernism's Olmsted

Famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin died this week at the age of 93. Halprin is highly regarded in his field, but in terms of urban planning many of his designs have not stood up to the test of time. Managing Editor Tim Halbur explores his legacy.

RIP Larry Halprin, you were Modernism's Olmsted. Thank you. @svrdesign via Twitter

Lawrence Halprin, a formidable force in American urban design and landscape architecture for more than half a century, passed away this week at the age of 93.

The notion that Halprin was "modernism's Olmsted" has spread among the obituaries, and as a pithy soundbite it is well chosen. Olmsted and Halprin have many similarities: both are highly regarded in the field of landscape architecture, both have made a significant impact on the built environment, and I would argue that both have mixed success when it comes to creating urban public spaces.

Olmsted introduced wilderness into the modern city, resulting in a handful of wonderful parks, most notably Central Park in New York. As Jim Kunstler has noted, he was influenced by the artists of his day including the Hudson River School, painters of dramatic, romantic landscapes of the unspoiled American countryside. The legacy of Olmsted was a persistent idea that parks should mimic the appearance of the natural world, with rolling hills and a sense of nature unconstrained by man.

The Ira Keller Fountain in downtown Portland.

Halprin too was drawn to the grandeur of nature, particularly the dramatic landscapes of the West where he lived and worked. In Portland's Ira Keller Fountain, tremendous waterfalls mimic the glacial scouring of the High Sierras. In his fountain for United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, water was originally set on a timer to recreate the tidal rhythms of the Pacific coast. At Sea Ranch, an enclave of houses on the Pacific Coast and probably his most successful project, Halprin held community workshops on the beach using driftwood to model the way the houses would relate to one another.

Olmsted is sometimes credited with coining the term "the lungs of the city" when referring to urban parks. Whether he wrote it or not, the idea was in the air: cities were viewed as congested places that needed room to breathe. Coming to prominence in the 1960s in San Francisco, Halprin's writings and work show a similar sense that cities are pent-up places and their residents need respite from urban life. He saw public spaces as a means of expression, a canvas upon which the city's residents were free to tell their own story. He was adamant that fountains be open for people to get in the water and play, with no barriers between them and nature.

The public spaces that Halprin designed express the idealism of the 1960s and the struggle characteristic of that era between social control and unfettered individualism. His wife was a dancer, and under her influence he developed a method of graphically 'scoring' the choreography of how people would move through an environment, which he called 'motation'. He was an early proponent of bringing the community into the design and planning process, running creative workshops that today would be called 'charrettes'.

Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces has been called in to update a couple of Halprin's designs, like Freeway Park in Seattle. A bold statement at the time, Halprin took an unattractive plot alongside an interstate and created a multilevel park. Kent says the design holds up today. "Freeway Park has the formula that we always look for. It has a lot of potential and activities at every level. It needed programming and strong management, but the bones were very good on it. So we were actually delighted with his work."

Seattle's Freeway Park.

In other places, Halprin's work has been more problematic. Perhaps society failed to live up to the idealism expressed in some of his designs, or perhaps the designs themselves fell short. Regardless, many of his public plazas, like Heritage Plaza in Ft. Worth, have fallen into disrepair and have been abandoned by the cities they were supposed to engage. Why?

As a graduate student, I conducted a number of post-occupancy observations of Halprin-designed spaces. What I concluded is this: Halprin's spaces often deliberately deemphasize social control, and as a result, they sometimes leave the visitor with a sense of unease, unsure of the rules of engagement.

Halprin's parks and plazas work best in areas where the setting itself compensates for the control and environmental cues missing from the design. Levi's Plaza in San Francisco is tucked away on a corporate campus, and is patrolled by security. The same goes for Halprin's new Lucasfilm campus in the Presidio. To users of these spaces, the plaza is either their place of work or their destination. The majority of Halprin's designs, however, were built in the very heart of the city, and were expected to accommodate all the needs of such a space – gathering place, thoroughfare, lunchtime retreat, concert venue, marketplace, and many more. Many of them failed to meet those needs, and are now closed or being replaced or remodeled just a couple of decades later. "The problem with United Nations Plaza and many of his other designs is that they are for the moment and didn't have a long shelf life," says Kent. "It was more of a design statement, not unlike the iconic architecture we're dealing with today."

The entrance to Levi's Plaza in San Francisco.

Halprin's lasting legacy suggests that he succeeded in changing the way people thought about the aesthetics of the city and what a park, plaza or fountain could be. In this way, he deserves to be an icon of landscape architecture, just as Olmsted is. And yet those same designs in many cases failed to achieve longevity – both because the materials themselves didn't last, and because the design wasn't well-suited to the way people actually use cities today.

As the population of our cities grows and demands more of the urban infrastructure, perhaps we can draw on the spirit of Halprin's creativity and imagination while recognizing that city centers require a level of functionality, longevity and usability that those designs didn't always achieve.

Tim Halbur is managing editor of Planetizen.



Fred Kent

This seems to be more about Fred Kent on Halprin than about Halprin.
Fred Kent is not a designer.
I do agree that there is a lack of visual cues for social control. Another way of looking at that is to see more freedom and responsibility given to the user, such as the public access to the top of Ira Keller Fountain in Portland. In this day and age of litigation, liability and corresponding reduction in personal responsibility, the trust in the public to be responsible and implement some self-control is a refreshing change.

I am not a designer

I have been studying public spaces since 1970 when I started working with William Holly Whyte. I also studied anthropology with Margaret Mead and was part of a group that was strongly influenced by Jane Jacobs, a fellow writer of Holly Whyte's. I also studied some architecture at Columbia University' graduate school of architecture and planning. I have always prided myself in not being an architect. That allows me/us to assess the results of design on human activity and sense of place. Having worked in over 2500 communities in over 40 countries, we do have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn't. When we criticize anyone in the design discipline some people circle the wagons around their discipline and tell us that because we are not a designer, we have no authority to make judgements on a designers work. Amazing! Normal people comment on designers work by using or not using the public space. Halprin had a lot of failures that people are trying to fix. I was in San Diego earlier this week and his Children's park has been and is a disaster by all accounts, and yet people are afraid to take it out. So it will be left as it is for another "x" number of years dragging down an area within the city that could be thriving. Branded designers don't create good public spaces.

Professional And Client

"When we criticize anyone in the design discipline some people circle the wagons around their discipline and tell us that because we are not a designer, we have no authority to make judgements on a designers work. Amazing! Normal people comment on designers work by using or not using the public space."

I agree completely. This is the usual relation between professional and client: for example, if my teeth are still painful after going to my dentist, I have the right to choose another dentist. No one would say that only dentists are competent to judge dentistry, and the pain I feel is not important.

The same was true of design until the twentieth century. Architects designed buildings that worked for their clients. If they didn't, they weren't successful architects.

It is only with modernism that the relation was reversed: architects and urban planners claimed to be the experts whose professional training gave them the competence to tell their clients how to live. You may not like living in a tower in a park or in a tilting Frank Gehry building that gives you vertigo, but we planners and architects know more than you do about design, so we should tell you how to live.

Designers create places that are used by everyone, and they should not have a monopoly on deciding what sort of places we all live in.

Charles Siegel

the emperor wears no clothes

I hope to clarify that;
1. I believe that designers and planners ultimately need to help generate solutions that work for those who have to live with the results on a daily basis. This means that is must be a collaborative process that engages the users of a place, their histories, hopes and dreams for the future.
2. Much of the work coming out as "iconic" does fall way short when it comes to meeting the above criteria.
3. There needs to be a balance between the functional success that #1 above would in theory address and inspiring design that is hopefully a positive reflection on the shared cultural values in a society that needs to be part of any civic space. Strictly evaluating the success of spaces based on either the "inspirational concept" or "functional pragmatism" results in failure.
4. In light of this balance, my gut reaction to this article was that it took Halprin, who tends to be seen as a "Designer" and critiqued his legacy almost solely from the "Functionist" perspective.

Mr. Siegel, please allow me the license to tweak your very appropriate closing statement thusly;
"Designers help create places that are used by everyone, and no one should have a monopoly on deciding what sort of places we all live in."

Ints Luters

LandArch's inferiority complex to FLO

no worries mr. kent. the landscape architecture profession has serious issues because they have been living in the shadow of Frederick Law Olmsted for 100+ years and havent been able to come anywhere close to rivaling his accomplishments. i mean you cant even talk about any landscape architect or landscape architecture work without mentioning or comparing to FLO, take this article as just one example. they also have issues because you and PPS are much more accomplished and successful in landscape and park design than any "landscape architect" today (even more so now that Lawrence Halprin has passed, plus he had a pretty low profile for the last few decades after his acclaim in the 60s and 70s). even all the famous avant garde park/memorial/LA design is by or at least heavily credited to architects not landscape architects (high line, la villette, vietnam mem, louis kahn's roosevelt mem, etc.). all the favorite and loved parks and squares are basic designs built prior to 1920. if you asked someone on the street to name any landscape architect other than an Olmsted they would have no response or would name the landscapers they hired to plant some trees in their yard. if they could name one it would then definitely be Lawrence Halprin. So 2 distinguished landscape architects in 150 years... FLO & LH (fine, 3 if you consider FLO Jr on his own).

- - -
yeah, or its like saying only professional chefs can critic and comment on how food tastes... pure BS.

Halprin's Mixed Urban Legacy

Tim, very interesting look at Halprin's legacy. I was surprised you didn't mention Skyline Park in Denver, which had so many problems with security that it was eventually demolished. Both it and Freeway Park in Seattle left me with the impression that Halprin was trying to create places for people to go for a nature walk in the middle of a city, ignoring all the surveillance, loitering and crime problems of unregulated public space.

This hasn't made any of the obituaries, but Halprin was decidedly on the wrong side of San Francisco's Freeway Revolt in the 1960's. Caltrans brought him in to "beautify" their designs for such ill-conceived atrocities as the Panhandle, Golden Gate and Presidio Freeways, and he took to it with relish. I did some research on this while in planning school and would be happy to share the paper if I can find it in my garage!

Comparison to Olmsted?

I was sorry to read of Mr. Halprin's passing. While many of his designs have not held up well over time (as is so true of so many cutting edge, high profile designers), he still deserves much credit for what he contributed to the field of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. Probably more on the design theory end of things, but still important.

I would however stop short of any comparisions to FL Olmsted. With no disrespect to Mr. Halprin, Olmsted, the father of Landscape Architecture, was a pioneer and a visionary in making cities healthier, safer and more liveable at a time when cities were anything but that. In my opinion Olmsted's projects have stood up well to the test of time. Yes, renovations have been necessary in many cases, but that is often because of the popularity of the spaces he designed (i.e. overuse), or can attributed to the fact that he designed in an era time when the modes of transportion were very different and recreational needs of the populace were very different than they are today.

I'd appreciate some examples from the author of FL Olmsted's "mixed success when it comes to creating urban public spaces". I'm aware of many his successes and have experienced many of these spaces personally in the 21st Century. I'm just not aware of any of Olmsted's failed projects. And please do not include examples of his son's work, as so many people seem to lump all of the "Olmsted's" work together when discussing the heritage of many parks and projects.

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Fair enough

You're right, LArch Planner, I stretched the parallels too far there. Olmsted's record, as far as I know, it is clean. As I went on to say, it is more the precedent he set that can be problematic.

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