Beyond Buildings


The Heart of America's Landscape

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Lawrence Halprin was the Aaron Copeland of landscape architecture. He loved the drama of the American landscape and choreographed it (his favorite verb) into catchy, dramatic melodies played out in meadows and hedgerows, rocks, and fountains. He asserted landscape as the equal of buildings. He accepted what Americans had done with the landscape and celebrated even the car that was supposed to be destroying that environment. I can think of no more American landscape architect, and his passing this week ends the last romance we had with manifest destiny made present in landform.


I first learned to love Halprin at Sea Ranch. Though the architect Charles Moore usually receives the main credit for the design of this 10-mile-long strip of holiday homes on the California coast three hours north of San Francisco, it was Halprin who devised its basic structure: from the spine of Highway 1, rows of hedges ran down to the cliffs, separating clusters of homes from open meadows. The land appeared to be as it had always been, almost bare and shaped by the sea winds, but Halprin manipulated it into moments of shelter that contrasted with the sweep of the falling land to the limitlessness of the ocean.


I also learned to love Halprin’s work driving on I-280, the highway that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. For most of its length, it rides the low hills that form the penultimate upwelling of the American continent as it heads West, coursing along those curves and opening your view to the very last ridge, where pine forests crown the edge of the continent. The highway is as much a device for revealing the landscape as it is a conveyance for cars.


Most people know Halprin for the places that look more like parks, and in particular for the way in which he used stone and water to answer to the might of skyscrapers and concrete pavements. In San Francisco, Portland, and many other cities, he strewed boulders around plazas, then sent water rolling over, spouting up from, or coursing around these facts. The oases were abstractions and condensations of the geography on and out of which they were built, but also versions of the office blocks, the concrete highway pillars, and the sidewalks within which they sheltered.


It was this acceptance and civilization of what humans had wrought, brought into balance with a revealed essence of what has been there for eons, that let Halprin draw out the relationship between human and landscape that is at the heart of what makes American culture, when it works, so beautiful. It is fitting that Halprin is best known for the park he designed as a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. Fifty years after our last era of self-confident building of a common, civic realm out of the continent on which we live ended, he decreed a paean to that hubris that isolates us from the mediocrity of building and policy that now makes up both our nation’s capital and attitude towards our common ground.


Halprin’s work was strong, some might say too much so, but it had the advantage not only of being able to stand up to its surroundings, but to survive use and changes in taste. It will remain, now that he has passed, a monument and memorial to all that is grand and great about this country.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.