Lawrence Halprin landscape architect passes away

December 2, 2009

Lawrence Halprin has passed away at age 93 in his home in Kentfield, Marin County, north of San Francisco.  The Jewish Halprin was born in Brooklyn in 1916, and in 1933 at age 17 went with his mother to live on a kibbutz near Haifa in Palestine for two years.  He later studied horticulture and agriculture at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin, then moving to the Harvard School of Design in 1942.

Halprin was one of the greatest landscape architects of his generation, with Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, stating that “He was the single most influential landscape architect of the postwar years…. He redefined the profession’s role in cities.”  Some of Halprin’s most famous landscape works are Ghirardelli Square, Levi Plaza, and the Embarcadero Fountain in San Francisco, as well as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC.

But it is Halprin’s work on the site planning at Sea Ranch, in Sonoma County in northern California, that I will remember most, because in November of 1977 I did a week-long workshop with him there, as part of my masters degree study at the College of Environmental Design at University of California at Berkeley.  My friend Steve and I were the only two urban planners amongst thirty-some architects and landscape architects on the workshop.

Sea Ranch is an ecological development of some 1500 houses along 5000 acres of prime coastal land south of Mendocino, some three hours drive north of San Francisco.  According to the New York Times, Halprin’s landscape planning there saw the planting of more than one half a million trees.

Halprin, along with his wife, the dancer Anna Halprin (who he originally met at a Hillel at University of Wisconsin in 1939 and who survives him), brought the ideas of dance into landscape, with the concept of “RSVP Cycles”.  Halprin used these ideas in the workshop which he ran for us UC students.  The interesting thing was that his co-leader was his daughter Daria Halprin, who is also a dancer and an actor (most notably in the film Zabriskie Point) and who had been married to Dennis Hopper, and is now a teacher at the Tamalpa Institute in Marin County.

Halprin’s workshop was an exquisite experience for me and my fellow workshop participants, all set amongst the wilds of that exciting California coast.  Halprin himself had a prime house location on a cliff where we spent a few evenings.  Although more than 30 years ago, I remember those days and nights clearly.  Steve and I slept (with a number of others) in what was then called “Condominium One”, and sometimes is simply called “Sea Ranch Condominium”.

Halprin was an inspiring and creative leader, and studying planning and design with him was one of the most exciting moments of my urban planning career.  I mourn his passing.

Halprin’s books include Sea Ranch…Diary of an Idea (2006, still in print), The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment (1970, long out of print) and Cities (1972, long out of print), along with many others.

To read obituaries about Lawrence Halprin, go to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.