Lawrence Halprin dies at 93; designer made urban settings feel like nature

Halprin created the Crocker Garden Court, an urban sanctuary connecting the two office towers of what is now the Wells Fargo Center on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. At right is one of three bronze figures by Robert Graham.
(Los Angeles Times)

Lawrence Halprin, a celebrated modernist landscape architect whose urban designs often strongly evoke natural settings and include the FDR memorial in Washington and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, has died. He was 93.

Halprin, who also designed several public spaces in downtown Los Angeles, died Oct. 25 at his home in Kentfield, Calif., after falling and hitting his head, said his wife, Anna.

He was one of the most important landscape architects of the last half-century, said Robert Winter, an architectural historian and professor emeritus at Occidental College who wrote about Halprin projects in “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles” (2003).

Locally, Halprin’s best-known creation may be the Bunker Hill steps, a sweeping staircase that is divided by a raised water channel reminiscent of a natural rock-bedded stream. Completed in 1990 across from the Central Library, it meanders from 5th Street up to Hope Street.

“ ‘Memorable’ and ‘intense’ and ‘passionate’ are words that I prefer to ‘pretty’ when I’m making places for people,” Halprin told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1991.

Another ethos was also amply evident: a love of nature and cascading water that was nurtured by treks in the High Sierra and reflected in dozens of projects in California and elsewhere.

The influence of his wife, a pioneer of postmodern dance, was apparent in how he talked about design. He often spoke of his “choreography” and coined a word, “motation” -- a combination of “movement” and “notation” -- to help describe how he fostered movement through space.

In the 1960s he developed the master plan for the Sea Ranch, an environmentally friendly community of 1,500 homes on several thousand coastal acres about 100 miles north of San Francisco. His plan made the “houses look like they belong to nature,” columnist Art Seidenbaum wrote in The Times in 1968.

Halprin’s great desire, his wife said, “was not just to build houses but to create a community of people that appreciated and knew to live on the land lightly.” He gave workshops at the Sea Ranch to bring that about.

Among his many projects in San Francisco, he converted an old factory into shops for Ghirardelli Square and designed the Embarcadero Plaza and the landscape for the Lucasfilm campus at the Presidio. He also created the original design for UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and gardens at UC Santa Cruz.

In Los Angeles, he designed Crocker Garden Court -- an atrium pavilion that connected Crocker Center’s twin towers on Bunker Hill -- as a lush tropical garden with fountains and streams and as a setting for major works by sculptors. Later, he created a garden at downtown’s Central Library and Grand Hope Park, at Hope and 9th streets, which features a Postmodernist 53-foot yellow-and-red clock tower, fountains and lush plantings.

When Yosemite National Park needed help returning to a less developed state, Halprin was called in to redesign the 52-acre base of Yosemite Falls. Since 2005, visitors have been greeted by trails instead of a restroom and a parking lot.

Nationally, he was best known for the sprawling memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that opened in 1997. Granite walls frame four outdoor galleries, each representing the history that unfolded during FDR’s four terms. Fountains cascade through each area, and the stones become rougher as time elapses.

In planning the memorial, he drew every one of its 4,000 stones so that he could place each one exactly the way he wanted it, Halprin later said.

He wanted the memorial “to be an EXPERIENTIAL HISTORY LESSON that people could grasp as their own as they walked through it,” Halprin wrote in his 1997 book on the monument.

Charles Birnbaum, founder and president of the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, called Halprin “one of the most important figures in landscape architecture, nationally if not internationally. Larry built landscapes that the public loves.”

Lawrence Halprin was born July 1, 1916, in New York City to Samuel Halprin, president of a scientific-instruments firm, and his wife, Rose, a prominent leader of the American Zionist movement.

At 17, Halprin joined a kibbutz in what is now Israel and learned to value communal experiences, he later said.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences in 1939 from Cornell University, he earned a master’s in 1941 at the University of Wisconsin, where he met his future wife. After they visited Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Wisconsin, Halprin recognized his calling. He switched from plant science to “environments human beings occupy,” he told the New York Times in 2003.

He received a scholarship to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, then led by Walter Gropius, director of the Bauhaus school, and earned a degree in 1942.

During World War II, Halprin served on a destroyer that nearly sank after a plane attack. He was sent to San Francisco on survivor’s leave and decided to stay there. Halprin spent three years working for Thomas Church, who was nurturing an experimental approach to landscape architecture, before striking out on his own in 1949.

“There’s a difference between architects and landscape architects,” Halprin said in a 1994 interview. “They make objects. We don’t. We make experiences. . . . We’re not trying to find a form. The land is the form.”

In addition to Anna, his wife of 69 years, Halprin is survived by two daughters, Daria of Kentfield and Rana of Mill Valley, and four grandchildren.

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