A Landscape Planned for Living: Lawrence Halprin’s Levin Family Garden
Gardens were a wonderful testing ground for details and a great learning experience for how things are constructed. When gardens were successful they provided great personal joy and led me to some interesting discoveries and friendships.
—Lawrence Halprin, A Life Spent Changing Places
A 2016 Sunset magazine article titled “Taming the Tilt” describes a hilly backyard in San Francisco’s Castro District as “unusable” and a “tangled mess of greenery.” The homeowners, notes the author, “craved a California-style outdoor space for grilling, entertaining and gardening.” The solution? Create three levels, or “rooms,” separated by retaining walls and filled with mostly native, drought tolerant plants, in subtle hues of gray and gray-green, with “hits of purple.”
There was a time, however, when this concept ran counter to the prevailing inclination to create landscapes that mimicked traditional gardens in less arid parts of the country. In 1951, Irma and Irving “Bud” Levin broke with that tradition.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in its article “A Garden Planned for Three-Level Living,” when the Levins purchased a San Anselmo, California, home with a slightly sloping half-acre lot—described as being “tangled, disorganized [and] run-down”—rather than fighting this “jungle,” they hired newly-minted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin to create a new kind of garden environment.
A Halprin Garden
Halprin’s design eliminated the old lawn and traditional plants and replaced them with a landscape on three levels, 50 percent of which was paved. Plants were chosen for their texture, shape, and arrangement rather than for their bright colors, and they included popular twenty-first-century choices like pampas grass, blue fescue, New Zealand flax, and ceoanthus. “Our yard was completely different from all the neighbors,” recalls Fred Levin of San Francisco, the Levin’s son.
The first level, closest to the house, was designed for entertaining “without effort.” Pebbled concrete was used to give an “interesting” texture and reduce glare. Level two was dedicated to the large swimming pool, which was surrounded by squares of concrete offset at angles to the pool, with borders of redwood benches and raised planters. The third level was a shaded picnic area bounded by a creek.
“Halprin’s design was [intended] to maximize spaces for entertaining, and my parents did so almost every sunny weekend during the year,” notes Fred Levin. “In addition to the pool area, there were spaces for kids to play and separate areas for adults to enjoy the day without the kids. It was planned for living as well as being visually enjoyable.”
At the time, Levin explains, “[Halprin’s] beautiful designs were considered low maintenance, which allowed my father to enjoy the weekends with friends and family.” In what would become a Halprin trademark, utilitarian functions such as the garage, garbage bins, and gardening supplies were tucked away behind trees and shrubbery.
The Bay Area climate allowed a wonderful amount of outdoor living, and there was a great demand for new houses after the years of the war. . . . We [landscape architects] represented a new and burgeoning field and it was exhilarating to help define it as we struggled to meet the enormous pent-up demand.
—Lawrence Halprin, A Life Spent Changing Places
A California Style
Today, Lawrence Halprin is mostly known through his work at The Sea Ranch along the Sonoma coast in northern California and his numerous public spaces, such as the towering Ira Keller fountain (Portland, Oregon), Freeway Park (Seattle), Bunker Hill Steps (Los Angeles), Stern Grove, Levi’s Plaza, and Letterman Digital Arts Center (San Francisco), and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial (Washington, D.C.). His urban landscapes are recognized as socially engaging, vibrant, and interactive places. Most include a water element—a “choreographic force,” as described by Halprin scholar and landscape architect Alison Bick Hirsch—such as a fountain, waterfalls, and streams.
Early in his career, however, Halprin laid the groundwork for these landscapes in his private commissions. Along with his first employer, Thomas Church, he set the stage for the “California style” of domestic landscapes.
Halprin was an exuberant follower of the landscape architect Christopher Tunnard, who was an advocate of the Japanese use of “form, line and economy of material.” “Extreme simplicity of effect is sought,” wrote Tunnard in his influential book Gardens in the Modern Landscape. “The grouping and arrangement of plants is of far greater importance than the colour of their flowers.” Tunnard also appreciated the Japanese style of “placing of stone, the management of contour lines and the use of water.”
In his landscapes, Halprin, like Tunnard and Church, didn’t seek to imitate nature but to evoke nature within the landscape. “The great challenge for the garden designers is not to make the garden look natural but to make the garden so that people in it will feel natural,” he noted. “I knew [our garden] was different from all other backyards I had seen,” says Fred Levin. “Even homes with pools did not have what we now call a Halprin feeling. They were more formal, lots of flowers, no concrete decks or redwood benches or terracing.”
A Choreogrpahy of Gardens
Halprin also partnered with, and was greatly influenced by, his wife, the avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin. In “The Choreography of Gardens,” he wrote: “We are no longer content to sit stiffly in the garden in our best Sunday clothes protected from the sun by a frilled umbrella. Our gardens have become more dynamic and should be designed with a moving person in mind.”
“If [the garden] flows easily in interesting patterns of terraces and paths, varying its texture of paving underfoot . . . and foliage backgrounds . . . all rhythmically united, then it can influence people’s movement patterns through its spaces, taking on the fine sense of a dance.”
Lawrence Halprin, “The Choreography of Gardens”
A New Home
Fred Levin’s family moved from Marin to San Francisco when he was around nine years old, but his parents took with them cuttings from the Halprin garden. Levin notes that he was “definitely influenced by the memory of [Halprin’s] work.” At his own Marin County home years later, “in addition to using pampas grasses, we had dusty miller hedges which were cuttings from . . . the original plants he used in my parents Marin house.”
“Relationships are extremely personal with garden clients. . . . Everyone has extremely intense feelings about their own home and garden because they reflect not only who people are but also who they want to become.”
Lawrence Halprin, A Life Spent Changing Places
Fred Levin remembers his childhood backyard as being unlike any other he knew. Indeed, the Levin garden was part of movement—along with publications like Sunset magazine—that sought to imbue western landscapes with new life and a unique dynamic, a difference that defines the California style that we now know so well.
- Charles, Birnbaum, Newport Discoveries: A Rare Christopher Tunnard Garden Reappears, https://tclf.org/content/newport-discoveries-rare-christopher-tunnard-garden-reappears
- Kathleen N. Brenzel, “Taming the Tilt: How Smart Design Turned Two Steep, Oddly Shaped Lots into Outdoor Rooms to Envy,” Sunset Magazine 236, no. 1 (January 2016)
- Alison Bick Hirsch, City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America (University of Minnesota Press, 2014)
- Alison Bick Hirsch, “Lawrence Halprin: The Choreography of Private Gardens,” Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 27 no. 4 (2007)
- Dr. Joseph E. Howland, “The Best Christmas Gift for the Family,” House Beautiful (December 1951)
- San Francisco Chronicle, “A Garden Planned for Three-Level Living,” October 21, 1951
- Don Stanley, “The Swimming Pool Story,” San Francisco Examiner, June 12, 1956
- Christopher Tunnard, Gardens in the Modern Landscape (London: The Architectural Press, 1938)
Learn more about Lawrence and Anna Halprin at the California Historical Society’s exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971 (January 21–July 3, 2016)—funded by the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Foundation, and the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation—and at http://experiments.californiahistoricalsociety.org/blog/.
“I am delighted that Experiments in the Environment has come 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