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A Natural Choice to Honor FDR

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 1997; Page D01

Like many of his generation, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin has maintained a strong identification with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unlike most, however, Halprin was able to do something big about his admiration: He designed the memorial to FDR that will be dedicated on Friday in West Potomac Park.

Architect Lawrence Halprin spent a quarter-century on the design.
(Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)
"I went through the Depression with Roosevelt," Halprin said on a recent visit to his creation, "and I came out of it with him. He was my commander in chief during the war." When the news of Roosevelt's death came over the radio in 1945, Halprin was in the Pacific, resting with crew mates rescued two days earlier when a kamikaze attack nearly sank their destroyer.

Halprin got the FDR Memorial job nearly a quarter-century ago. He completed design work in the mid-'70s and went through one round of design approvals. Then the project was put on hold for nearly a decade. When it was resurrected, it had to go through the design review wringer again. Although Halprin's original concept of a linear, narrative park remained the same, the design did go through a few major changes.

The waiting was hard, but now Halprin says he's glad the process took as long as it did. "In retrospect," he said of the monument, "it only got better and better. It became more mature."

Halprin, 80, a vigorous outdoorsman whose face has the look of weathered stone, has helped to redefine landscape architecture in a notable career spanning more than 50 years.

He is not a "landscape gardener," for whom plants are the end-all of design. Rather, he is an earth-mover who uses plants as but one part of his complex designs. Water, stone and concrete are equally important. As are people. Halprin is at his best when operating on a large scale in places where lots of people congregate.

It is certain that the FDR Memorial will attract people in droves to West Potomac Park. The memorial design, Halprin said with straightforward, if immodest, pride, "is the apotheosis of all that I have done." He noted that even at the very beginning, he knew the job "was going to call on the best I had to offer."

Even today, Halprin retains the high regard he had as a youth for Roosevelt's social programs. It was partly New Deal idealism that impelled him to leave his native Brooklyn at the age of 17 and join a kibbutz near Haifa, in what was then Palestine and is now Israel. Three years earlier, Halprin's parents -- Samuel, a businessman, and Rose, an ardent Zionist -- had taken him to Palestine to celebrate his bar mitzvah.

When Halprin returned to the United States to go to college, he earned degrees in plant sciences from the Cornell University School of Agriculture and the University of Wisconsin. In 1942 he received a degree in landscape architecture from Harvard.

In the postwar years, San Francisco was the most exciting place to be for a young man with Halprin's interests and education. A fresh, experimental approach to landscape architecture was being nurtured by practitioner Thomas Church, there were adventurous clients in the new Bay Area suburbs, and the landscape program at the Berkeley campus of the University of California was taking off.

Halprin, who had simply stayed put when he mustered out of the Navy (as a lieutenant junior grade) in San Francisco, went to work for Church. He and his wife, Anna, a noted avant-garde dancer, settled there to raise two daughters.

"Ambitious young designers from all over the United States flocked to the Bay Area . . . to see the gardens publicized in Sunset and House Beautiful magazines," wrote noted landscape architect Peter Walker, who got his professional start at Halprin's firm. When he went to work for Halprin in the mid-'50s, Walker recalled, "there was only one nonresidential job in the office."

This was soon to change. In the '60s the growth of suburban malls, parks and corporate compounds, and federal urban renewal programs in the cities, provided new, larger opportunities for landscape architects. Halprin, whose interests included urban design and regional planning as well as landscape architecture, was poised to take advantage of the new opportunities -- particularly in the cities.

Many of Halprin's biggest and best known projects -- Ghirardelli Square, Levi's Plaza and Market Street in San Francisco, Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, Seattle's Freeway Park, Lovejoy Plaza and Ira's Fountain in Portland, Ore. -- are works of urban reclamation.

The aptly titled Seattle park, for instance, repairs a rift that was caused by the construction of a 13-lane interstate. In his 1966 book, "Freeways," Halprin explained that "the trick is to perceive the old freeway as a part of the cityscape and tame it, rather than complain about it." In Seattle, he practiced what he preached. The city had planned a nice little park on one side of the burrowed highway. Halprin's vision was to bridge the road and fill both the broad bridge and the top of an adjacent parking garage with grass, trees, water and dramatic concrete forms.

Back in the early '70s, when Halprin and his firm created this design, such freeway-taming was not conventional wisdom. But, like other Halprin projects, the Seattle park set a heartening example that other cities would follow. Ghirardelli Square -- a collaboration with architect William Wurster, an old friend from Harvard -- was a model of how to recoup aging industrial buildings.

Most of Halprin's parks have a certain look. They are manmade places punctuated with plantings and emphatic architectural forms. The rough, cubic shapes -- be they waterfalls or buildings or benches -- are related to the architectural style called Brutalism that developed in the '50s and '60s. Brutalism tended to be all too brutal. In Halprin's hands, the style is humanized. There are massive forms made of exposed concrete in most of his parks, but people love to walk around and on them.

One reason for the success of Halprin's designs is that he is so skilled an observer of nature. He has walked thousands of miles in California's hills and mountains, a notebook always at hand. The notebooks -- there now are 250 of them, filled with vigorous ink drawings -- make up a vivid artistic autobiography. There are views of San Francisco and many other cities (Halprin is a relentless traveler), but natural scenes predominate -- long, medium and close-up views of mountains, valleys, trees, bushes, rocks, grasses and water. Always water.

The effect he is after, he has often said, is an "experiential equivalent of nature." Halprin's dramatic waterfalls at the FDR Memorial, and in many of his other projects, are an example of this -- they definitely look manmade, but their carefully controlled cascades and splashes have the feel and sound of nature. We react to them as we would to a "real" waterfall.

Halprin is an astute observer of human nature, too, particularly when it involves movement -- he often refers to his park design as "choreography." This reflects his many collaborations with his wife on dances and performances, as well as his lifelong study of how people move about in public spaces. He even coined a word, "motation" -- from motion and notation -- to describe his practice of plotting movements through his spaces with a system of personal hieroglyphs. As a result, Halprin designs in their initial stages often look like scores for very strange music.

Yet, however he arrives at them, the final results usually work as planned. The FDR Memorial, with its narrative focus on the 12 years of Roosevelt's presidency, is in some ways unique among Halprin's designs, but in other respects it is a summation of all he has learned over the years.

As late as last week, the designer was busy making adjustments to his memorial: The most recent pages in his latest notebook are studies of the waterfalls there, with notations such as "cut and shape" and "scallop this ledge."

Just before these pages, however, are sketches of the Yosemite Valley, one of Halprin's favorite California places. He has been hired to design improvements to the national park there -- better bridges, new trails and resting places. He'll head for Yosemite soon after the FDR opening festivities in Washington. "Otherwise," he said with a smile, "I'm sure I'd go into postpartum depression."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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