Visions of Los Angeles: Landscape Architect Lawrence Halprin Transforms a City
“Great cities are not made by automobiles, freeways and high rises. Basically, they are made by open spaces and the people who use the open spaces.”
—Lawrence Halprin, c. 1987
It started in the 1950s with plans to revitalize an impoverished area of downtown Los Angeles. Bunker Hill—settled in the latter half of the nineteenth century—was once a cluster of grand Victorian mansions for the upper class. But as residents sprawled in all directions along with the city’s development in the new century, the area succumbed to poverty and neglect. By mid-century, a massive redevelopment project promised to transform Bunker Hill into a vibrant, modern place of buildings and plazas.
Development continued throughout the following decades. In 1980, a new proposal for revitalization of the Bunker Hill area, known as “A Grand Avenue,” was offered by the Maguire Brothers for a competition sponsored by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. The Maguire Brothers drew from a diverse group of architects and designers, including the architect Frank Gehry and the landscape designer Lawrence Halprin.
Although Maguire Brothers was not awarded the project, its plan became the foundation of development for the next 12 years. Lawrence Halprin lent his own visions to these public spaces in downtown Los Angeles. “In my case,” he explained in his book A Life Spent Changing Places, “I often found that when I lost one competition or opportunity, another opened up in the same place or with the same client.”
These opportunities took form in four projects: the Crocker Court (now Wells Fargo Court), Bunker Hill Steps, Library Square (now Maguire Gardens), and Grand Hope Park. This linear group of public spaces along Hope Street is described by Charles Birnbaum, president and founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, in the foundation’s publication What’s Out There Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Open Space Network
by Charles Birnbaum
These designs are responsive to the topography, embellished with public art, and reflect the context of the region through materials that allude to the natural environment and past cultural influences. They also express Halprin’s impressions of the Southern California landscape and its unique cultural history.
Crocker Court (Wells Fargo Court)
Completed in 1983 with architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and sculptor Robert Graham, the space is Halprin’s only atrium design. Conceived with developer Robert Maguire as “an urban, indoor Garden of Eden,” the interior public space was designed to display Modern sculpture. It is the only Halprin project where the landscape design, including the fountain, is subservient to the sculpture designed by Robert Graham . . . and other artists including Joan Miro and Jean Dubuffet. . . .
The fountains, channels, and runnels provide the sound of running water throughout the garden. Many of the plants have been changed in recent years. They were originally planted in different sizes and scales to one another with the intent of humanizing everything in the room. With this illusionistic goal in mind, Graham was commissioned by Halprin to create four sculptural centerpieces for the fountains. Each sculpture is of the same athletic female figure in different gymnastic stances, slightly smaller than life size.
Bunker Hill Steps
Completed in 1987 with architects Pei Cobb Freed Partners and developer Robert Maguire, this grand stairway and water garden was designed by Halprin to link downtown Los Angeles to the newly developed Bunker Hill section of the city. Postmodern in style and reminiscent of Rome’s Spanish Steps, the steps are choreographed as an urban experience similar to a city street, complete with terraced landings, retail shops, and outdoor cafes with a range of activities for relaxing, dining, or shopping. The terraces can be accessed by stairs or escalator. A “museum wall,” displaying sculptured grottoes and fountains, bounds the steps on one side while the other side curves around a seven-story building.
The staircases are bisected at the center by a raised, rocky ravine, with water cascading downward to a small basin at Fifth Street. They are edged with flowering trees, shrubs, and perennial plants, which also serve to frame views and screen the escalators. The bronze sculpture Source Figure by Robert Graham was added near Hope Place in 1992.
Maguire Gardens (Los Angeles Central Library)
This project is unique in Halprin’s body of work, one of the only projects where a new design also addressed lost historic landscape features from an earlier era. Completed in 1988 with preservation architects Hardy, Holtzman + Pfeiffer, developer Robert Maguire, and several visual artists, the gardens are linked to the Bunker Hill Steps by a pedestrian and mid-block crossing. The space, occupying a former parking lot adjacent to the Central Library, was intended to be a passive public park, with a restaurant, outdoor dining terrace, fountains, pools, overlooks, site-specific public art, and a generous lawn. These elements, Postmodern in style, all contribute to a dignified setting for the iconic Egyptian Revival library building, originally designed by Bertram Goodhue in 1926.
Halprin not only restored and drew inspiration from Goodhue’s stepped reflecting pool, but extended it westward from the Central Library to South Flower Street. Building on this central spine, Halprin employed pools and associated axial walkways to spatially organize new outdoor rooms and guide people’s movements. The art in the garden was designed by Jud Fine (reflecting pools, grotto fountain) and Laddie John Dill with Mineo Mizuno (Font Fountain).
Grand Hope Park
This Halprin-designed 2.5 acre park, completed in 1993 with the Jerde Partnership architects, anchors the southern end of the Network and serves as a gateway to the South Park residential, cultural, and commercial district. The park’s plan also incorporates the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising campus. Unique among the Open Space Network projects, this park’s client was the Community Redevelopment Agency. The center of the rectilinear park is occupied by a large lawn with a curvilinear path and edged by vine-covered pergolas, a children’s playground, and public art. The southern end of the park is more structured, with smaller lawn panels and benches set within wide paved terraces.
Halprin’s drawings articulated the locations for art opportunities. This culminated in installations by Lita Albuquerque (Celestial Source for the sunken water court), Adrian Saxe (wildlife figures), Raul Guerrero (Hope Street Fountain and decorative stenciling on pergolas), Gwynn Murrill (coyotes, hawk, snake), Tony Berlant, and Ralph McIntosh. The mosaic-adorned Clock Tower was designed by Halprin.
“‘Memorable’ and ‘intense’ and ‘passionate’ are words that I prefer to ‘pretty’ when I’m making places for people.”
—Lawrence Halprin, 1991
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
- Bill Boyarsky, “The Remains of Bunker Hill,” LAObserved, February 4, 2015
- Cultural Landscape Foundation, “What’s Out There Los Angeles”; http://tclf.org/landscapes/wot-weekend-LA
- Lawrence Halprin, A Life Spent Changing Places (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011)
- “Los Angeles: Library Restoration Wins National Design Award,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1994
- Valerie J. Nelson, “Lawrence Halprin dies at 93; designer made urban settings feel like nature,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2009
- Leon Whiteson, “A Central, Revitalized Role for Landscape Architects,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1989
Join the California Historical Society in Los Angeles for “How Participatory Design Is Changing Los Angeles,” a special event recognizing Lawrence Halprin’s contributions to the city’s public spaces.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016|
Gensler Los Angeles
500 South Figueroa Street
A panel discussion led by Alison Bick Hirsch, Assistant Professor at the USC School of Architecture and author of City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America will include a diverse array of architects, designers, planners, and architectural historians: Steve Rasmussen Cancian, Shared Spaces Landscape Architecture and Union de Vecinos; Jennifer Wai-Kwun Toy, Co-founder and Design Director, Kounkuey Design Initiative; Brian Glodney, Associate/Urban Designer, Gensler, Architecture, Design, and Planning Firm; Helen Leung, Co-Executive Director, LA-Más, a non-profit community design organization.
$5 for CHS members, $10 general admission
Learn more about Lawrence 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/.
The architectural drawings of Lawrence Halprin are preserved at the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the leading repositories of architectural drawings and records in the world.