The Sierra in the City: Lawrence Halprin and Levi’s Plaza

Levi’s Plaza Fountain, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Levi’s Plaza Fountain, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

In 1973 Levi Strauss & Co. left its cozy quarters at 98 Battery Street in San Francisco for the bold, upright world of the new Embarcadero Center, a series of four skyscrapers located near the city’s waterfront. Within a few years, however, Chairman of the Executive Committee Walter Haas, Jr. began to feel that all was not right. “The highrise at Embarcadero Center was not our style,” he recounted in an oral history, “I’d get in the elevator and people didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them.”

Embarcadero Center, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Embarcadero Center, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

While on a camping trip to the mountains with friend and San Francisco developer Gerson Bakar, Haas expressed his dissatisfaction with the Embarcadero site. Bakar suggested that together, they develop a piece of property at the base of Telegraph Hill, just below the landmark Coit Tower. “Of course I jumped at the opportunity,” Haas recalled, especially as plans developed for a five-acre campus whose tallest building would not exceed seven stories.

White Angel Jungle, San Francisco, Now the Site of Levi’s Plaza, 1933 San Francisco Maritime Museum

White Angel Jungle, San Francisco, Now the Site of Levi’s Plaza, 1933
San Francisco Maritime Museum

To create the corporate campus buildings, developers hired the local architecture firm Gensler and Associates and the internationally renowned firm, HOK. Inspiration for the buildings’ design came from the old brick warehouses surrounding the site, including the original warehouse for the historic Italian Swiss Colony winery (now Il Fornaio restaurant).

The task of creating a completely new environment around the buildings fell to noted local landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. A native of New York, Halprin and his wife, the dancer Anna Halprin, settled in the Bay Area just after WWII, eager to make the most of the varied landscapes of northern California and the opportunities for artistic freedom. Inspired by his wife’s modern dance and his time spent on an Israeli Kibbutz, Halprin sought to create spaces which encouraged social interaction in a multitude of ways.

Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009) Courtesy of Anna Halprin

Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009)
Courtesy of Anna Halprin

In 1960 Halprin was part of the design team for the University of California’s Sproul Plaza—which would later inspire social interaction writ large during the 1964 Free Speech Movement—and designed other landmark spaces, such as the Sea Ranch, San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, and Portland, Oregon’s Open Space Sequence of parks.

Sproul Plaza, University of California, Berkeley, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Sproul Plaza, University of California, Berkeley, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

Halprin took inspiration in his designs from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, especially Yosemite National Park, and included blocks of stone and boulders, along with water elements—streams and falls—in nearly all of his urban designs.

Lawrence Halprin, Yosemite Studies, 1970 Courtesy of the Halprin Family Archive and Edward Cella Art + Architecture

Lawrence Halprin, Yosemite Studies, 1970
Courtesy of the Halprin Family Archive and Edward Cella Art + Architecture

At Levi’s Plaza, Halprin created two parks, one on either side of Battery St., to represent, he said, Levi Strauss’ time spent selling goods in the Sierra (a common myth since debunked) and the creation of Levi’s dry-goods business in Gold Rush San Francisco. The so-called “Soft Park,” which sits next to the Embarcadero, is comprised of lawns, streams and falls. The “Hard Park,” adjacent to the main headquarters is a hard-surface plaza highlighted by a dramatic waterfall descending from a large boulder, surrounded by smaller falls and pools.

In the “Soft Park,” the site of summertime concerts, employees and the public can stroll the meandering grounds, (there are no straight lines from one point to another), or sit on benches, lawns or the concrete wall along Battery St. from which, Halprin noted in a video interview, visitors can embrace the park as fully or peripherally as they choose.

Soft Park Creek, Levi’s Plaza, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Soft Park Creek, Levi’s Plaza, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

The “Hard Park” is often the site of employee events and a popular spot for lunch and coffee breaks, with seating around its perimeter or the most preferred spots, on the concrete edges of the cascades and pools.

Levi’s Plaza Fountain with Levi Strauss & Co. Headquarters in the Background, 2015 Courtesy of Alison Moore

Levi’s Plaza Fountain with Levi Strauss & Co. Headquarters in the Background, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore

At Levi’s Plaza, the site of the Halprin’s own office for many years, Lawrence Halprin achieved his goal of two parks, different in style but both engaging the public as community. Walter Haas, Jr. was also pleased with the results. When told by his oral history interviewer, “They succeeded very nicely in bringing the Sierra to you,” he replied, “Isn’t that nice? The concept of that is wonderful.”

Alison Moore
Strategic Projects Liaison
amoore@calhist.org


Sources

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

 

Alison Moore

One Response to “The Sierra in the City: Lawrence Halprin and Levi’s Plaza

  • From a 1944 Sierra Club Bulletin book review Francis Farquhar(Past California Historical Society President) ranted:

    “But even if all these errors and omissions were corrected, I should have to keep this book from my children, for on nearly half the number of pages it is smeared with the expression “Sierra Nevada Mountains”, and any child of mine is bound to know that “sierra” means “mountains” and we don’t like double-talk.

    The purpose of this review is to plead for greater care in presenting geographical and historical subjects, especially to children.”

    See:
    http://www.thehighsierra.org/sierra_or_sierras.htm

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