Ground Level: Lawrence Halprin’s Bunker Hill Steps


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One theme of last week’s Landscapes for Living conference at SCI-Arc, which I write about in a Critic’s Notebook in Wednesday’s paper, was the continuing, puzzling obscurity of landscape architects and their work in Southern California. As it happens, a main goal of our new Ground Level feature is to bring attention to overlooked street-level design around the region. Serendipity!

So today we’ll devote this space to one of many pedigreed-but-underappreciated examples of postwar landscape design in downtown Los Angeles: Lawrence Halprin’s Bunker Hill Steps, completed in 1990 directly across 5th Street from the Central Library and in the shadow of Pei Cobb Freed’s U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building in the city. In romantic as much as literal terms, Halprin’s design is meant to recall the Spanish Steps in Rome, a debt that makes this project a textbook example of postmodernism in landscape architecture. More practically, the steps provide a pedestrian link between downtown’s historic core and the newer architecture of Bunker Hill.


Bisected by a stream-like water feature, the 103 steps flow around and past artworks by Robert Graham and others. The project is one of a number downtown from the period by Halprin, a giant of postwar landscape architecture who lived in Marin County and died two years ago at age 93.

Halprin’s nearby designs include the Maguire Gardens at the foot of the library, Grand Hope Park and the glass-enclosed Wells Fargo Court (formerly Crocker Court) at 3rd Street and Grand Avenue. According to Charles Birnbaum — founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which organized last week’s conference — this loose network of L.A. projects contains Halprin’s “most diverse vocabulary of indoor and outdoor spaces.”


Critic’s Notebook: L.A.’s landscape architects labor in anonymity

— Christopher Hawthorne