Remembering the Forefather of Urban Renewal, Lawrence Halprin

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By Charles Birnbaum
Lawrence Halprin galvanized people into action with his grand cityscapes. The landscape architects of today are following his example—but at a different scale.

In his influential 1963 treatise Cities, the great landscape architect Lawrence Halprin wrote, "The city is man’s greatest work of art." For Halprin, landscape architecture provided an approach to reclaiming the urban environment, and he made ambitious use of it in scale, function, and design. In addition, "movement and its rhythmic structure," he wrote, brought cities to life—nothing was inanimate.

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A master of appealing to a variety of stakeholders in a project, from city government to citizens, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin frequently used illustrations to convey complex ideas.

Though present-day practitioners are dealing with forgotten and neglected spaces rather than urban renewal—characterized by aggressive large-scale site clearing that, at its worst, consumes entire extant neighborhoods—Halprin’s work provides context for understanding the current efforts to reclaim cities through the public realm and create beloved civic spaces.

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His design for Lovejoy Fountain, in Portland, features concrete slabs that echo the forms of the surrounding Cascades. Like the Portland Open Space Sequence as a whole, it coaxed nature into the city.

For example, Halprin’s linear, acre-long Skyline Park in Denver, Colorado, constructed in the early 1970s as part of a broader urban renewal project, is a downtown oasis composed of multilevel stepped plazas and fountains inspired by the nearby red stone foothills. In addition to creating a dynamic space for recreation, Halprin also engineered the park to deal with severe hundred-year floods. Another of the most successful redevelopment projects of the postwar era was the eight-block sequence of parks and plazas Halprin designed in Portland, Oregon—a chain of open spaces created between 1965 and 1978. Halprin wanted to create a theatrical place with individual nodes serving as platforms for everyday activity. Water, light, and, importantly, the movement of people, who became complicit actors rather than passive observers, create drama in the space.

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The major space in the Portland Open Space Sequence, the Ira Keller Fountain, opened on June 23, 1970. “Halprin knew how to engage the public, and his flexible, bottom-up approach often enabled him to get projects built,” said Laurie Olin, landscape architect.

Halprin’s creative arsenal was vast. He was personable and accessible, produced evocative drawings, and was an engaging speaker and gifted writer who connected with diverse audiences, from laypeople to academics. Consequently, he was able to build support for his projects from a diverse coalition including the general public (who often found his work "groovy"), the media (who were often laudatory), and municipal officials (who were desperate to bring people back to cities). 

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Claude Cormier’s design for Sugar Beach in Toronto is borne from the same spirit of reclaiming public space.

"Loving nature, he chose to work in and on cities, and in so doing he invented ways of working with communities that resulted in open-ended processes," wrote noted contemporary landscape architect Laurie Olin in Lawrence Halprin: A Life Spent Changing Places (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). "Halprin knew how to engage the public, and his flexible, bottom-up approach often enabled him to get projects built." 

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Skyline Park in Denver, Colorado, stretches over three city blocks. Halprin derived the sunken form from an eroded riverbed. Completed in 1974, the park also served as a stormwater retention site.

Like Halprin, Olin is a master choreographer who needed to sway politicians, developers, and New York City denizens to transform Bryant Park from dangerous to a desirable destination. While Halprin held cross-disciplinary workshops that included dance and motion studies to galvanize people behind his concepts, today’s practitioner uses a toolkit that ranges from community meetings to TED Talks. 

Present-day descendants of Halprin’s legacy include: 1111 Lincoln Road, in Miami, by Raymond Jungles, which channels the landscape language of both Morris Lapidus and Roberto Burle Marx, brilliantly knitting together intimate and civic spaces; and Claude Cormier’s Sugar Beach, in Toronto, which animated a dormant waterfront space with a design that blurs the lines between observation and participation. The ambitious, resourceful land use and active integration of human participation in these designs are very much in Halprin’s spirit—an enduring testament to his legacy.