As many in the design and architecture community have already learned, the legendary landscape architect Lawrence Halprin passed away on Sunday, October 25.
The Harvard-educated Halprin helped revolutionize public and open space design in the 1970s, with his attention to works that functioned well on a human scale and encouraged interaction, very much in the egalitarian tradition of parks and public realms created by Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons. Portland, where the Olmsted brothers designed the North and South Park Blocks, and where Halprin designed two fountains (the Keller Fountain and Lovejoy Fountain), was the common thread. Halprin also worked on the transit mall in downtown Portland, the landmark Sea Ranch project in Northern California, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial in Washington, DC, and much more.
Randy Gragg (pictured at left), the longtime Oregonian architecture critic who now is editor of Portland Monthly and Portland Spaces magazines, is an authority on Halprin and a big fan. Last year he helped bring to fruition "The City Dance of Lawrence and Anna Halprin" with choreographer Linda K. Johnson, and currently Gragg is working on a book about the designer, due in December. Recently I interviewed Gragg by email about his thoughts on Halprin and his passing.
Me: Did you ever get to meet Halprin personally? If so, what was that (or what was he) like?
Randy: I met with Larry on four different occasions over the last few years. The first three times, he was very weak and a bit spacey. During a hospital stay for minor surgery a couple of years before, he had contracted a virus that nearly killed him. Nevertheless he was still working finishing up projects in Yosemite and San Francisco. He was very gracious but his memory of the specifics of he work in Portland was not strong.
The last time I interviewed him, I had done a lot of archive research both at the PDC and at larry’s archive at Penn and I came armed with lots of letters and pictures. As well, I understand he had changed his meds. He was an entirely different person. Still gracious, but full of memories prompted by the artifacts and pleasantly combative about anything he thought I was misinterpreting. It was really fun and I saw the fiber of the man he once was: The very typical successful visionary – part seducer, part iron will, and no doubt.
You seem to have developed a particular interest in the Halprins even amongst the broad array of people you've covered. What is it about Halprin that looms so large for you?
Boy, I sure did: years of my life and, now a book: "Where the Revolution Began: Lawrence and Anna Halprin and the Reinvention of Public Space". We’re having a big release party December 5.
So I knew the fountains from history and visiting my first few weeks in Portland back in 1990. But it was landscape architect Peter Walker who really alerted me to the profundity of their influence—particularly Lovejoy – on the history of landscape architecture: Nature meets theater in the city. My first major piece on Larry was back in 2003, inspired by developer John Russell’s efforts to prune the trees around Keller Fountain and Pettygrove Park.
My friend, the choreographer Linda K. Johnson, sent me a book on the work of Larry’s wife, Anna Halprin, who is often credited as the inventor of Postmodernism in dance, was developing her most influential work at the time Portland’s plazas were being designed. And suddenly I was hooked on these two characters and what the Portland work really meant: to landscape history, urbanism, and dance.
On my Loeb Fellowship, I spent a lot more time researching and when I returned I burrowed into the PDC’s archives. And, whoa, there was this incredible story of the reemergence – and battle over – public space in Portland. You don’t get to Waterfront Park or Pioneer Square or Jamison Square or Tanner Creek Park or South Waterfront’s ambition’s to knit habitat to high-density urbanism. Mike Houck will probably disagree, but I really believe the whole idea of “nature in the city” – in a true urban sense -- begins with Halprin. To put it how Houck might: Halprin put a fucking watershed in fucking downtown; sure, it was a fucking metaphor, but it still fucking matters because it planted a seed in people’s fucking brains.
Well, last year’s performance, The City Dance of Lawrence and Anna Halprin, is the mother of all memories: about 1000 people watching incredible dances choreographed by Tere Mathern, Cydney Wilkes, Linda Austin and Linda K Johnson all to music by Third Angle Ensemble. I still get chills and tears watching the video – which we’ll screen at the December book event. Linda K, Ron and I – and Third Angle’s board – worked for a solid year on that project and I’ve never had a more fulfilling group experience in my life. It still blows me away that most of those people who came that sunny Sunday afternoon lined up – for like 20 minutes – at the end for the final piece to join hands and circle the little Source Fountain. My eyes are all teary writing this.
The South Auditorium district overall seems to have a controversial history and mixed success given what was torn down to build this area, etc. How might this area of town be re-imagined in the future in a way that really makes the Halprin fountain an oft-visited centerpiece again?
Well, I don’t get all misty over the neighborhood that was lost. There were a few OK buildings that got torn down and, yes, some people were displaced. But the record shows the PDC did a pretty good job in finding them homes, mostly better homes, according to interviews I read. Keep in mind, Portland’s neighborhood movement was spawned in Lair Hill as activists banded together to fight further expansion of the urban renewal area southward. Healthy cities are self-correcting.
As for the South Auditorium’s mixed successes urbanistically, it really is one of the MOST successful urban renewal districts in the country from that period. For one, it got finished. Two, the apartments always fetched top dollar and eventually sold for a record amount when they were converted to condos. The area is much loved by those who live there. You can’t say that about many mid-century American urban renewal areas.
The offices directly adjacent to the plazas have had a more mixed history, but that’s because the owners have done a shitty job of marketing them. Could the area be improved? Sure. The retail never flourished because the original developers and the architects, Skidmore Owings Merrill, didn’t understand what we know about urban retail today: It needs to be in a retail district. They thought the apartments and the cars going down First Avene would be enough, but the parking and signage is too hidden, the cars going too fast, and there’s not enough residents to support the retail alone. Had the orginal design put the retail over on fourth, it’d be a different story.
Looking ahead, I actually LIKE that these are somewhat hidden spaces. They’re special and don’t need Project for Public Spaces kiosks and flower ladies and crap hanging from the light poles. Would changing some adjacent uses help? Sure. While I personally would love to have an office or even live in the office spaces adjacent to Lovejoy Fountain – they’re the most Miesian spaces in town, absolutely beautiful, particularly on the east side of Lovejoy—they probably could be replaced with more intensive development to put some more eyes on the plaza (as long as the great Hot Pot place is saved!) . And the retail around the little Source Fountain totally needs to be rethought.
But the real jeopardy ahead, to me, is the upcoming Lincoln Street redo for MAX and the Montgomery “green street.” So remember, people, Larry Halprin’s fountain plaza sequence is the FIRST green street, and to go into Houck speak again, DON’T FUCK WITH IT. The designers on these projects need to act respectfully and keep their faddish bioswales and grass clumps well away. It’s OK for a little rainwater to trickle into the pipes through the wonderful drainage system Larry integrated into the concrete scoring (even if most of the time, it’s plugged up, due to poor maintenance). It’s history. It’s metaphor. It changed the city for good and great ways.