Urban projects won wide acclaim for American landscape architect

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lawrence Halprin, 93, a legendary American landscape architect who designed the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial along the Tidal Basin and San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, marrying ecology and aesthetics in scores of the nation's urban spaces, died Oct. 25 at his home in Kentfield, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Halprin designed scores of public places from Seattle to Fort Worth. Smithsonian magazine called him "one of the preeminent place-makers of the 20th century," and Charles Birnbaum of Washington's Cultural Landscape Foundation called him a trailblazer and one of the most important landscape architects of the modern era.

Most of his celebrated works are in and near his home territory of San Francisco, including Sea Ranch, a 5,000-acre stretch of the Sonoma County coast that sensitively wraps 1,500 houses into the natural terrain, Levi Plaza in San Francisco and the George Lucas film studio in the Presidio. He redesigned, and some say rescued, the pedestrian approach to Yosemite Falls in the national park and Stern Grove, an outdoor auditorium in San Francisco.

He also created the Charlottesville (Va.) Mall, Seattle's Freeway Park, Minneapolis's Nicollet Mall, Denver's now-demolished Skyline Park, Fort Worth's Heritage Park and Portland, Ore.'s, Lovejoy Plaza, Ira Keller Fountain and Pettygrove Park.

"The landscape as a stage set for human drama -- the choreography of serendipity -- is at the core of what Mr. Halprin, the tribal elder of American landscape architecture, has been creating for more than 50 years," the New York Times reported in 2003.

Years in the making

Of all his successes, Mr. Halprin called the FDR Memorial "the apotheosis of all that I have done."

It was not easily accomplished. The idea was debated for 30 years, and Mr. Halprin won the third design competition in 1974, but Congress failed to appropriate the money to get it started. Finally, after more design reviews, the memorial, an evocative sequence of stone-framed spaces, waterfalls and statues, was built and opened in 1997.

Critics have called the design brilliant, and tourists agree; within a year of its opening, it drew 3 million visitors. Open-air rooms draw people through FDR's four presidential terms, conveying a sense of what the United States was during the Depression and World War II. The waterfalls, built from South Dakota carnelian granite, provide an "experiential equivalent of nature," Mr. Halprin often said. He wanted people to climb the rocks, touch the statues and splash in the water, and they did until the National Park Service, nervous about accidents, banned wading.

Disabled activists objected to the initial lack of a portrait of Roosevelt in his wheelchair and were able to force the Park Service to add a now-popular sculpture of the president at the entrance. Mr. Halprin, who originally did not want to add the figure of Roosevelt using a wheelchair, eventually agreed to it.

"He believed that the most important thing about designing is to generate creativity in others, and to be inclusive -- to include the needs and experiences of people interacting with the environment, and to let them be part of its creation," his wife, avant-garde dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin, told the Marin Independent Journal.

Lawrence Halprin was born July 1, 1916, in Brooklyn, N.Y. As a youngster, he was twice New York City schoolboy player of the year in sandlot baseball. As a teenager, he spent several years on a kibbutz, near Haifa, now in Israel.

Mr. Halprin graduated from Cornell University and received a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1941. At both institutions, "I studied what amounted to ecology," he told Smithsonian, "but of course nobody called it that."

While in Madison, Wis., he visited Frank Lloyd Wright's nearby home, Taliesin, and decided to devote his life to landscape architecture. As a scholarship student at Harvard's Graduate School of Design in 1942, he studied with classmates Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei, under architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. He left school to join the Navy during World War II. During the invasion of Okinawa, a Japanese kamikaze plane sliced through the destroyer on which he was serving.

"The damned thing hit my bunk," Mr. Halprin told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. Two days later, he heard about the death of Roosevelt.

After the war, he settled in San Francisco and began working for noted landscape architect Thomas Church until 1949, when he founded his own firm. Upon his firm's 60th anniversary in late November, he planned to close its doors, Birnbaum said.

Multiple honors

Among his awards was the 2002 National Medal of the Arts, the University of Virginia's Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, a gold medal from the American Society of Landscape Architects and a Presidential Design Award.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Halprin is survived by two daughters, Daria Halprin-Khalighi of Kentfield and Rana Halprin of Mill Valley, Calif., and four grandchildren.

In Washington in 1998, Mr. Halprin told a Washington Post reporter that he had trouble letting go of his creation.

"I feel like an empty nester," he said on the first anniversary of the FDR Memorial's opening. He, too, had become a frequent tourist at the memorial, sometimes wandering unnoticed through the crowds. "When people tell me they love the memorial, I always have one thing to tell them: You really ought to see it at night."

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