The “Portland Open Space Sequence” is a series of interactive fountains, plazas, and connecting pathways designed by renown Lawrence Halprin and Associates between 1963 & 1970. These mid-century modern parks are internationally celebrated and Portland’s most influential works of landscape architecture.
Born of the creative experimentation and collaboration between Halprin and his wife, pioneering choreographer-dancer Anna Halprin, the Sequence came to life in the unlikely setting of the city’s first scrape-and-rebuild urban renewal project. But Halprin defied the conventions of both American urban renewal and midcentury modernism, designing the kind of inviting, exuberant public space not seen since Renaissance Rome’s Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navonna.
For Halprin, the plazas became the first step in a career-long exploration of sequential works of landscape design, from the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem to the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. For Portland, Halprin’s work marked the beginning of a tradition of remaking the city around interactive public spaces such as the famed Pioneer Courthouse Square, and newer parks in the Pearl District.
Creating a Tradition of Public Space
On a sunny June day in 1970, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable witnessed the opening of what she called “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance” – in Portland, Oregon. The place was Forecourt Fountain, a 13,000-gallon-per-minute cascade of water the likes of which no city had seen before. The time was a critical moment when our downtown was teetering on the brink of the final slide toward the desolation suffered by many American cities of the era.
Only days before, Huxtable, then America’s leading voice on architecture and urbanism, challenged Portland to rise to its potential for a “dreamworld urbanism” of a city nestled in nature. She warned against the “scattered, bomb-site” parking lots then covering over half of downtown and the growing collection of “chamber-of-commerce-look” towers. Against a skyline of “Suave Schlock” like the then-newly christened 536-foot-high First National Bank tower, a natural wonder even as powerful a Mount Hood, she wrote, “doesn’t stand a chance.”
But in Forecourt’s powerful concrete allusions to the stout columns of basalt and its spectacular flows of water, Huxtable saw a civic savior, a new kind “people park” that echoed Baroque masterpieces such as Rome’s Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona yet with a “geometric naturalism” befitting its region.
“Mr. Halprin is onto something that makes the conventional piece of modern sculpture plonked onto the conventional corporate or public plaza look obsolete.” — Ada Louise Huxtable, New York Times, 1970
Never one for hyperbole, Huxtable’s optimism proved well-placed. As the final in a sequence of four fountain plazas Halprin designed for Portland, Forecourt (later renamed Ira Keller) Fountain, indeed, marked the beginning of renaissance – for both downtown Portland and American public space.
Urban Renewal in Portland
Like many American inner cities, downtown Portland rapidly fell into decline after World War II. Residents took flight to new suburbs. Regional malls like Lloyd Center drained shoppers from downtown stores. Older downtown buildings, once bustling with residents, workers and shoppers either fell into disrepair or were simply cleared for more parking.
With the Federal Housing Act of 1949 providing generous grants for “slum removal,” Portland and other cities looked to bold new forms of urban renewal. Oregon became the second state in the country to adopt a new tool called “tax-increment financing” which made redevelopment possible by borrowing money against future tax revenues that new buildings would bring. The city identified 11 areas to be cleared and built anew and by a narrowly won ballot initiative in 1958, created the Portland Development Commission to do the job. First project: the South Auditorium Project.
“Sometimes progress depends on destruction.” — Oregon Journal, 1962
Named for the Civic Auditorium long standing at its northern edge, the district had once been a predominantly Jewish neighborhood with five active synagogues. But suburban flight was taking its toll. Though it still boasted a lively collection of delis, bars and tailors plus and a rising population of Italian, Greek, Irish and Roma immigrants, the PDC conducted studies showing 62 percent of its 385 buildings to be substandard. By 1962, the PDC had condemned 54 blocks for redevelopment and relocated more than 1,500 residents.
With $12 million in federal funds, the PDC next cleared the land and put the property out to bid, ultimately luring a consortium of local and California investors. Teamed with one of the leading architecture firms of the time, Skidmore Owings Merrill, they proceeded to build a “city within a city” called Portland Center. Cut from the cloth of major architectural fashions of the time, the SOM’s design was a quintessentially mid-century American, tower-and-plaza urban renewal scheme of apartments and offices surrounding fountains and parks. But the PDC, under the leadership of its director John Kenward and chairman Ira Keller, made a fateful decision, by hiring its own landscape architect to design the parks: Lawrence Halprin and Associates.
Portland and the Renaissance of Urban Public Space
Only days before Forecourt Fountain’s dedication in June, 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired on unarmed Kent State University students protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam, killing four. Days later, clashes between Portland Police and protesters at Portland State University sent 27 students to the hospital during the city’s most violent antiwar protests. The mood at Forecourt’s christening was tense, especially when a cadre of young students collected around the plaza. But as police sternly looked on, Lawrence Halprin grabbed the microphone.
“These very straight people somehow understand what cities can be all about,” he told the students, waving his hand to the city officials. “So as you play in this garden please try to remember that we’re all in this together.” And with that, Halprin jumped into Forecourt’s waters, suit, red tie and all. So did the students. Soon people were holding hands and dancing in the pools.
Published throughout the world, Halprin’s Portland sequence instantly became pilgrimage site for landscape architects. But built at a time when American inner cities only offered places to work, shop and park, the plazas invited a radical new activity: play.
“As you play in this garden, please try to remember, we’re all in this together.” — Lawrence Halprin
And, thus, Portlanders played in their public spaces, and in some cases they played to make more of them. In 1967, for instance, just two years after the opening of Lovejoy, a group known as Riverfront for People held a symbolic picnic on the Willamette River’s western bank, kicking off what would become their successful effort to turn a highway known as Harbor Drive into what in 1978 became Tom McCall Waterfront Park. In 1982, after holding an international design competition for Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Portland City Council changed its mind and voted the square down. The winning architects responded by painting their winning design on the site, successfully rallying public pressure to reverse the council’s vote.
By the 1990s, the city’s embrace of urban forms of nature and theatrical public space had become so accepted that it built another sequence of interconnected fountain plazas – Jamison Square, Tanner Springs Park and The Fields – as the spine of the River District. And in the South Waterfront, Portland restored native fish habitat along a mile of river bank less than 125 feet from the city’s tallest residential towers.
Though the history is little known to Portlanders today, Halprin’s four plazas are easily Portland’s most internationally influential works of architecture. But they’ve been locally important as well, launching a 50-year tradition of building theatrically interactive public spaces rooted in the forms of nature.
Lawrence Halprin’s Biography
One of the world’s leading landscape architects and environmental planners, Lawrence Halprin was at the forefront of design innovation with works ranging from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC to the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem.
His practice comprised a catalog of leading-edge environmental design in projects ranging from inner urban centers to National Parks. His reputation was built on over fifty years of expanding our expectations for the environmental realm. Projects that have been transformed by his particular sensitivity and talent have become benchmarks in the development of our current values. All of these projects spurred others to reassess the value and use of their resources. These projects include:
- The Sea Ranch, a residential development on the California coast which is recognized for its great sensitivity to community values and the natural environment;
- Ghirardelli Square, an early model for the reuse of historic buildings in an urban environment;
- The plazas and grand fountains of Portland, Oregon, a joyful participation in public open spaces (they say “come-in”, not “stay out”);
- Seattle Freeway Park, an environmental design to heal an urban freeway wound;
- Levi Plaza in San Francisco, an urban corporate campus as an alternative to flight to the suburbs;
- The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, a presidential memorial in Washington D.C. which set a new standard for the public’s involvement in their past.
Through his philosophy of design, his books and lectures, Halprin moved far outside of the confines traditionally imposed by his field. By his experiments in dance and choreography with his wife, Anna Halprin, he discovered a methodology for involving community in the design process. These early experiments were described in his book RSVP Cycles (Brazilier, 1969) and they remain a primer for all those interested in sources of design and creativity. Although such involvement with community was eyed suspiciously by the establishment for years, today, derivations of his “TAKING PART” workshop process are an integral part of citizen and community participation processes used throughout the country.
Inevitably, the honors that Lawrence Halprin received for such a prolific career were multitudinous and varied. Among the numerous awards are the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture and the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement awarded by the American Institute of Architects. He received a presidential appointment to the first National Council on the Arts and also to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. He was a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The American Institute of Interior Design, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania and the California College of Arts and Crafts.
More telling than awards, however, was the caliber of projects that sought Lawrence Halprin’s genius. In April, 2005, he completed a new design for the Lower Yosemite Falls area in Yosemite National Park, and his design for a new concert facility in Stern Grove opened on June 19, 2005. One of his final projects was in Israel – a Promenade overlooking the Jerusalem Forest.
Anna Halprin: The Origin of Form
Having designed revolutionary new public spaces like San Francisco’s Ghiradelli Square and Minneapolis’s Nicolet Mall, Lawrence Halprin was quickly becoming the nation’s preeminent landscape architect. But his artistic sensibility was solidly rooted in the radical experiments being conducted by his wife, the renowned choreographer Anna Halprin, whose collaborative performances would radically alter the landscapes of music, dance and public space.
In 1960, Anna created a dance to Lamont Young’s “Trio for Strings,” a composition now considered the first work of Minimalism in music. In 1964, she created “Parades and Changes,” widely considered to be the dramatic break ballet and modern dance that would lead to Postmodernism. Influenced by – and sometimes collaborating on – her performances’ emphasis on the most basic elements of sound and movement, Lawrence Halprin began to develop a new kind of landscape architecture that reached beyond “mimicking nature” to nature’s “origin of form.”
“We experience ourselves as dancers through awareness of our movements, and our city through awareness of our movements within it.” ~Anna Halprin
For his fountains, he studied the High Sierra’s spring cascades. He saw his plazas as theater sets for “choreographing” human movement. Despite the long tradition of fountains designed only to be looked at, in his earliest drawings of the Portland plazas, Halprin wrote that water and people should interact, “dancers all over AND arriving to center space from above down stairs around the fountain…”