Remembering Lawrence Halprin

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Feature Stories

Remembering Lawrence Halprin

Remembering Lawrence Halprin
Jan 27, 2017
Donlyn Lyndon

The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin exhibition includes a section on The Sea Ranch community in Sonoma County- which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Halprin and architect Donlyn Lyndon both had homes there. They were friends as well as colleagues, and Lyndon now works to carry forth Halprin's vision as co-chair of The Sea Ranch Commons Landscape Committee.  

First delivered at Halprin's Memorial Service on December 20th, 2009, and featured as part of TCLF's Lawrence Halprin Oral History project, Lyndon spoke about The Sea Ranch as well as Halprin's numerous projects throughout San Francisco. He discusses the landscape architect's lasting impact on the city and his passion for "place." 

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Donlyn Lyndon (center with hat) speaking during What's Out There Weekend Haprin at The Sea Ranch - Photo by Christina Dikas, 2016

To speak in this great Temple Emanuel of Larry Halprin and his life, one must first note how extraordinarily his works, and therefore his passions, thread through the civic fabric of this city: Ghirardelli Square at the edge of the Bay, Levi’s Plaza at the foot of Telegraph Hill, The Embarcadero Plaza and Market Street, spine of the city, The UN Plaza, at the Civic Center, St Francis Square in the Western Addition, the great Stern Grove Amphitheater and, returning nearly full circle to the Presidio, the recent Letterman Digital Arts Center near the Palace of Fine Arts. These familiar names track an imaginative voyage through the city. I don’t need to remind you that these are many of the places that characterize the city; places that have entered the lives of generations of citizens, and countless visitors; places that are embedded within the essential image of San Francisco.

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Stern Grove Amphitheater, San Francisco, CA - Photo © Caitlin Atkinson, 2016

Many of these places have their significance in the underlying geometry of the city, yet it’s a measure of the man and his imagination and determination that these spaces were entrusted to him and his colleagues and that he touched them, shaped them and made them vivid to our senses. In many cases it his mark that made them landmarks. His vivid imagining of how a place might be; of how people could experience it with fresh awareness and how it could provide valuable moments of social encounter, made these into places that guide us to new understandings.

Levi’s Plaza, for instance, is a place of many choices and associations. Water spills over a heroically sized block of granite into pools and bubbling channels in a succession of stepped concrete terraces. Paving blocks climb through these into intimate spots of respite, shaded by trees and enveloped by water sounds. The rectangular shapes of the terraces and steps, while geometrically akin to the buildings above them, are disposed with a sensibility that speaks immediately of natural places, fusing the grids of urbanity with the variability of nature. The flicker of shadow and reflected sunlight, the trickling and rushing of water, the movements of people finding their place within the diversity of this plaza, together create a place that stirs wonder and reflection. Across the street, the space transforms into a sylvan meadow with meandering stream, bringing intimations of far away places into the rough fabric of the city.

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Lawrence Halprin (left), Sea Ranch plan (top), and Sea Ranch community workshop (bottom)

One hundred miles north of here, on ten miles of magnificent coast, lies The Sea Ranch where many of us have been privileged to live and work within a vision that he germinated, a far-seeing plan which yields continuing benefits. I say “germinated” because he did more than create a plan, he initiated a way of thinking, and helped to fashion processes that have enlisted many others in pursuit of that vision of living in gentle partnership with the land. The power of his convictions, the clarity of form with which he expressed them, and his compelling persuasiveness, motivated many others to join in creating a place of great distinction, a community committed to excellence and to working within the fundamental ecology of the landscape.

At the Sea Ranch people live surrounded by stands of vegetation that were planted or scheduled for protection through his planning. We walk many trails that he traced along the bluffs and through the forests, enjoy views across open spaces that he showed how to preserve, and inhabit buildings that he helped inspire. Not all is as he intended, but he gave The Sea Ranch its fundamental groundings. Over four and a half decades, it has grown to its present stature; informed by his vision, nurtured by his guidance, strengthened by a series of community workshops that he conducted, and echoing his call to “live lightly on the land.”

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Sculptures on the beach of The Sea Ranch - Photo courtesy of Halprin and Associates

His passionate involvement with the place and his articulation of its spirit in words and eloquent drawings, have been continuous. From the beginning, Larry and Anna Halprin lived the place. At the outset they camped on the land with their family, then built an evolving place of their own on a magnificent cove near the south end of The Sea Ranch, a place that he studied and loved intensely. Over the years he and Anna devised and led explorative workshops that would bring friends, colleagues and students into better touch with the many experiences that this rich landscape could make possible…..and learn, too, how to be better in touch with our own being.

Larry’s presence was always imbued with his past, not as a place to return to, but as a place to grow from. The deep history of the Sea Ranch, its geological formation and tribal occupation, its transformation through logging, farming and grazing, the abundance of its conditions, all lived in his mind as he explored, formed, re-explored and lived the place…as did his own history in the kibbutz, his formative experience of working with others toward goals that could be held in common, his confidence that the landscape could become a guide and embodiment of social purpose. The Sea Ranch was not a place for luxury houses, it was a place for becoming engaged with, and for stewarding the forces of nature, the fundaments of our being.

In his drawings and paintings you can read natural energy coursing through his veins in the stroke of his pencil or brush; the exquisite translations that muscles can make when guided by disciplined observation and informed by acute sensibilities….like the strokes that pour from the hand of a skilled performer of music into vibrations that penetrate our souls. In those drawings that he made, day after day and year after year in his studio and at The Sea Ranch and on hikes in the Sierras - water splashes through his hands into our minds, ground takes structure underneath our feet, organisms assume their shapes before our eyes. His drawings do not simply record, they are.

What remains most vivid is the indomitable will, the drive for life, the incessant engagement with the world around him. The energy reaching through all that he touched was nurtured by an extraordinary life of parallel thoughts and creative exploration shared with Anna. What was seen and known, unshackled from what had been, was transformed into affirmations of what night be.

That indomitable will brought him through illness and misfortune, always returning to a strength that many never know; constantly reasserting his place in the world. It was more than will, it was indelible presence.

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Sketch of early workshops at the Sea Ranch - Sketch by Lawrence Halprin

It’s another measure, perhaps, of the integrity of his character that as I try to think back over forty- some years of knowing and working with Larry, the vitality of his presence –that bright attention, quick response and forthright confidence - overcomes reminiscence, the force of his person supplants recollection.

That is why his works matter so very much; they carry the traces of a mind at work and they transfer that intelligence into the world, where it mingles with the lives of others, takes form in the shapes, textures and bodily movements that suffuse the lives of people he never knew. The places he has made become part of the fabric of society. His imaginative energy channeled through his own hands and through the collaboration evoked in the minds and hands of others, created places that we can touch, step upon and listen to with all our senses.

Larry was real; real in a way that few become….and he made our lives more real by setting ideas and things before us in a way that rallies attention, calls us to be alive in our days, and to give them their full due.

He was a great friend and a mighty spirit.