Lawrence Halprin and the Letterman Digital Arts Center

Luminous beings are we… —Yoda in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

Lawrence Noble (Sculptor), Yoda Fountain, Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2012 Courtesy of Wally Gobetz

Lawrence Noble (Sculptor), Yoda Fountain, Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2012
Courtesy of Wally Gobetz

We don’t know if the renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009) was a Star Wars fan, but we can say with some certainty that Halprin’s sublime landscape, which surrounds Yoda’s official home, is located in one of California’s most spectacular and luminous settings. Built in 2005 on the site of San Francisco’s historic Presidio, the Letterman complex, home to Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and LucasArts, is a stone’s throw from the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, and the city’s landmark Palace of Fine Arts. Even on gray days, when ocean-born fog pours through the Golden Gate, the former military site comprises one of the most stunning urban environments in the country. 

Lagoon, Marin Headlands, and Golden Gate Bridge from the Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Lagoon, Marin Headlands, and Golden Gate Bridge from the
Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

The Letterman Digital Arts Center is a fitting place for one of the last urban landscape projects Halprin, a war veteran himself, designed. Known for his park-like transformation of urban settings, including San Francisco’s Levi’s Plaza, Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill Steps, Portland, Oregon’s, Open Space Sequence of parks, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C., Halprin is also noted for his enhancements of natural landscapes, such as The Sea Ranch in Mendocino County and the redesign of the Yosemite Falls Approach in Yosemite National Park.

The Palace of Fine Arts from the Letterman Digital Arts Center Grounds, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

The Palace of Fine Arts from the Letterman Digital Arts Center Grounds, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

Born in Brooklyn in 1916, Lawrence Halprin came to the Bay Area after World War II, settling in Marin County with his wife, the postmodern dancer Anna Halprin. From the start of his professional career in the 1950s, Halprin strived to craft human-centered engaging landscapes for people and not simply for decoration. Strongly influenced in design by Frank Lloyd Wright, and in social philosophy by his time as a resident of an Israeli kibbutz, Halprin’s urban spaces encourage human interaction in settings that are often pastoral and evocative of mountain landscapes. Water features—creeks, pools, and fountains—are ever-present.

Creek and Buildings, Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Creek and Buildings, Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

The campus-like buildings of the Letterman Center surround artfully-crafted rolling greens hills, and a steeply descending mountain-like creek falls through the hillside toward a small lagoon. Stands of maples, pines, redwoods, and palm trees dot the hillsides. In typical Halprin fashion, paths wind around the site rather than cutting through in straight lines. Imbedded in the hillsides are large, flat, granite boulders reminiscent of a high Sierra meadow. The dome of the 1915 Palace of Fine Arts peeks over nearby buildings and the deep orange of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance mirrors the tile roofs of the Presidio and the brick of the Letterman buildings.

Boulders in Landscape, Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Boulders in Landscape, Letterman Digital Arts Center, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

Before the Letterman Digital Arts Center was created in 2005, the site was home to the Presidio’s Letterman Army Medical Center, named for Jonathan Letterman, medical director of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. In 1776, long before Letterman’s time, the Spanish established an army fortress, or Presidio, at the site at the entrance to San Francisco Bay where they most feared that threats to their far-flung outpost would arrive. After 1848, the U.S. Army took over the site, and General William Tecumseh Sherman was one of many noted generals who spent time there. During WWII the Presidio was the western headquarters for the Army’s operations in the Pacific, and the place where General John H. DeWitt signed the now much-maligned Executive Order 9066, sending 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps. After its closing in 1995, the Presidio, the longest continuously operated military base in the country, was turned over to the National Park Service, becoming part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Aeroplane View of Letterman General Hospital, date unknown California Historical Society

Aeroplane View of Letterman General Hospital, date unknown
California Historical Society

During the Second World War, Halprin was assigned to a Navy destroyer in the Pacific, which was itself destroyed in an attack by a Japanese kamikaze plane. As part of his recovery Halprin was sent to San Francisco, where he and Anna became enamored of the Bay Area’s sensibility and lifestyle, and the natural beauty of the California landscape.

Lawrence Halprin, Planes Stafing and Divebombing, Jap Portion of Hill 522, Battle of Leyte, 1943 Courtesy of Edward Cella Art & Architecture, Los Angeles

Lawrence Halprin, Planes Strafing and Divebombing, Jap Portion of Hill 522, Battle of Leyte, 1943
Courtesy of Edward Cella Art & Architecture, Los Angeles

In a sense, the lives of the Presidio and Halprin shared similar arcs: wartime became peacetime, dark times begat light-filled vistas, and guns and battlements were exchanged for verdant hillsides and gently-flowing streams.

Or, as Yoda might say about his serene Letterman home, “Your weapons, you will not need them.”

Presidio of San Francisco, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Presidio of San Francisco, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

Sources

The Presidio of San Francisco, Wikipedia

The Cultural Landscape Foundation—Lawrence Halprin

The Cultural Landscape Foundation__Lawrence Halprin (Oral History Interviews)


You can learn more about the renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and his wife, Anna, at the California Historical Society’s exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971, and its related programs, January 21–May 1, 2016.

“I am delighted that Experiments in the Environment will be coming to its home base in San Francisco, the home of radical, humanistic, and participatory innovation. The exhibit excites me as well because it is including a new section describing my collaboration with Larry and our work beyond the Experiments. As Larry inspired me with his sensitivity to the environment which influenced my experiments, I influenced him in my use of movement audience participation as I pioneered new forms in dance. This combined exhibition shows the impact we had on each other throughout our lives and I hope it helps people understand our work better.”

—Anna Halprin, 2015

Alison Moore

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