Born in 1916, Brooklyn, New York Halprin had an intimate relationship with nature from an early age. Whether it was the secret hiding place in the woods, the grand tour of Europe at age twelve or studying at Cornell university, nature seamlessly moulded his life. It allowed for dreams. Play. Fantasies. Formation of a universe where he needn’t adjust or change his persona.
After the war Halprin took the decision to apprentice under Thomas Church, during which time Church built the famed Donnell garden in Sonoma. It was through Church that Halprin learnt about materials, plants specific to the west coast and the importance of efficiency within construction. Having learned about the new urban communities in Scandinavia, Church provided an ideal mentorship due to his sensitivity and ability to work with the environment rather than against. All that was missing was the cliental. Halprin struggled with the idea of working with a socially elite cliental. Interest wavered, as Halprin looked to expand to a broader, community based design and furthering the social importance of landscape. With that he left the office to form the foundations of his life’s work.
Lawrence Halprin, one of the world’s leading landscape architects, urban and environmental planner, teacher and visionary designer stood at the lead of design innovation. Over the course of a sixty-year career, his pioneering work would reshape, evolve and transform the way space is inhabited and activated through a new form of public space.
His projects summoned a new sense of community, sociability, whilst delving into the environmental realm. He produced a series of masterpieces including Ghiradelli square in San Francisco; Sea Ranch on the North California coast and the Freeway Park in Seattle.
A particular sensitivity is seen throughout the aforementioned projects. Ultimately the principle features have been thoroughly absorbed into late twentieth century urban development, though it stands say that Halprins projects initiated a revision of resource use and the value that presented.
A life in community
Halprin, L. (1970) R. S. V. P. Cycles: Creative processes in the human environment. 3rd edn. New York: New York, G. Braziller [1970, c1969].
Halprin, L. and Burns, J. (1975) Taking part: A workshop approach to collective creativity: A workshop approach to collective creativity. United States: The MIT Press.
Halprin, Lawrence. Lawrence Halprin: Changing Places. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1986
The Emsher distict, an assortment of industries including coal, iron and steel spread across the region causing fragmentation of landscape elements. Along with the periodical industrial crises due mainly as a reaction to economic factors, formed this new splintered and stagnant landscape. The International Building Exhibition Emscher Park (IBA) in the Ruhr District was attempting to set quality building and planning standards for the environmental, economic and social transformation of an old industrialised region. It was a competition formed upon reflection which explored new environmental and nature based ideas. Though the competition offered a platform to further develop the site, it wasn’t without the aid of a citizens’ action group, protesting against the demolition of the old Duisburg Meiderich Ironworks that allowed for the creation of the public park.
“My own way has been to design the outward forms of nature but emphasize the results of the processes of nature…This act of transmuting the experience of the natural landscape into human-made experience is, for me, the essence of the art of landscape design.”
Halprin opened his own office in 1949. At the same time, his wife, accomplished avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin, was formulating a dance studio in San Francisco. The couple established collaboration together exploring the common areas between choreography and the way users move through a public space. Costumes, stage sets and even the creation of a dance space dedicated to Anna at their home. The space incorporated a sequence meandering through a logging trail, opening out into a redwood grove where you would be met by floating dance floor deck twenty-five feet above the ground. It is here that you can see the initial foundations for his design philosophy – The RSVP Cycles.
“The more I focused my attention on the issue of choreographing movement through space, the more I was frustrated by the lack of an appropriate system to plan, design and even describe movement through the environment in any detail”. Working with variations of speed, he began to delineate types of speed and how that would work in the environment. Recognizing that landscape design requires, in Moholy Nagy’s terms “vision in motion”, Halprin translated notational systems for dance and music scores into a new landscape drawing convention. Called “motation,” this diagram documented and imagined movement through space over time in the landscape. Concerned about the hierarchical relationship between designers and the public a call was given out to architects, dancers, painters, sculptors and musicians from graduate schools around the country. Titled ‘Experiments in the Environment Workshop’ forty young students conducted a summer programme with the Halprin family. Frustrated by resistance from associates who had had bought into the old ways, the workshops helped the office as a whole to explore approaches to creativity and expand.
By the mid 1960s, after several trips to Europe, Lawrence Halprin and Associates were known more for their urban than suburban landscape projects, as they designed and built. Simultaneously, working with the workshops, a new creative approach was formed, The RSVP Cycles. Working with scores developed for his wife offered creative process that was made of four parts, Resources, Scores, Valuaction and Performance. This method gave not just Halprin but thousands of students a direction for approaching nearly every imaginable problem. These methods were unified with projects, where he reasserted the landscape architect’s role in regenerating the American city in doing so, they re-imagined a public realm for American cities that had been cleared by urban renewal programs and abandoned for new developments.
By the early 1960s, he was taking on new types of projects on formerly marginal urban sites and innovating with the very process of design, not only with forms and spaces. A formative shift from private clients and gardens to community and incorporating social lifestyles into public space. The organic nature of the Kibbutz exemplified a communal way of living that continued to be at the forefront of Halprins mind. Having experienced this form of architecture first hand, he began to implement similar elements into his designs. The Sea Ranch for instance can been seen as a response to environmental singularities and phenomena such as wind erosion, precipitation values, soil properties and weather/coastal patterns.
Integrating ecologists into the design process was something that for the time, was unprecedented, certainly in North America. There was also a certain reliance upon both the client and the inhabitants of the community itself. Halprin, in order for the community to function as he envisioned, required innovative architects excited about developing new forms and the client to respond to this, particularly as the forms could prove difficult to sell. The project also exemplifies Halprins dedication to reusing materials. Cypress hedgerows ran through large areas of the site, protecting inhabitants from the elements. Experiencing this on an initial site visit, he decided they must stay and in fact enhanced so as to accommodate any future developments.
He assembled a dynamic group of architects, ecologists, planners all of whom experimented with the master plan concept as well as exploring the site intimately. The designs shown above were chosen, built and in some of designer’s cases, bought by themselves. It was here that with wife Anna, he began to increasingly involve himself in her workshops.
Entering the seventies, the office had grown close to sixty people. The office experienced some struggle with the creative processes applied as well as others who flourished under the processes, even producing their own workshops. There was a feeling of exhilaration throughout the office due to firstly the success and range of projects being produced such as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington (1976), the Transit Mall (1965-1978); and Freeway Park, Seattle (1970-1974). Exhilaration came from the continuation of travel. In particular, a visit to Salvador Dalis studio and subsequently the meeting a creation of a film (Le Pink Grapefruit) with the notable surrealist.
By the mid-1970s, Halprin’s office had undergone incredible hardship due to the recent recessions, consequently the studio was considerably smaller. The staff reduced further still due to backlash against the design process. This undeterred Halprin who continued to push forward the method with talks given around the world. The method flourished. Still, at an age when many consider retirement, Halprin’s talent and enthusiasm was undiminished. The practice continued for a further three years, with projects spread right across North America.
Lawrence Halprin died on the 25th of October 2009. His work remains a fixated part of contemporary landscape architecture including the methods mentioned in which he examination of the design process took place. Though many continue to be divided by his space creation and processes, numerous designers continue to apply the methods he used as well taking inspiration from the forms and principles of the visionary. A revolutionary, collaboration advocate who continued to work across the field of design moulding their thorough visions for spaces. His combination of artistic instincts and ecological values ensures he will never be forgotten.