Landscape artist Lawrence Halprin seen in 1993.
Landscape artist Lawrence Halprin seen in 1993. (IJ file photo/Frankie Frost)

Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who designed the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C., Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, Sonoma County's Sea Ranch and many other monuments and public spaces, died Sunday after a brief illness. He was 93.

"There is no question that he was one of a handful of the most important landscape architects of the modern era," said Randolph Hester, professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley. "His impact on the profession will long outlive him."

A Kentfield resident for more than 50 years, Mr. Halprin was born in Brooklyn on July 1, 1916. Always interested in the relationship of humans to their environment, Mr. Halprin earned a degree in plant sciences from Cornell University and moved to what was then Palestine to join a kibbutz.

He met his wife and longtime collaborator, avant-garde dancer Anna Schuman Halprin, while studying at the University of Wisconsin in 1939; the two married in 1940. After visiting the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr. Halprin was inspired to study landscape architecture, and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied with architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.

Mr. Halprin volunteered to serve in the Navy during World War II and was assigned to the destroyer USS Morris. The ship was destroyed in a kamikaze attack. Mr. Halprin recovered from the attack in San Francisco and remained in the Bay Area after the war.

"It was announced on the radio that the USS Morris had been hit by a kamikaze, but I didn't know until three weeks later, when the ship was towed in, that he was not one of the casualties," said Mrs. Halprin, who was performing on Broadway at the time of the attack. "He had to identify hundreds of burned bodies. It was an experience he never, ever got over."

After working with architect Thomas Dolliver Church in San Francisco, Mr. Halprin opened his own office there in 1949.

San Francisco landmark Ghirardelli Square was among the many projects Lawrence Halprin designed.
San Francisco landmark Ghirardelli Square was among the many projects Lawrence Halprin designed. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)
His firm, Lawrence Halprin and Associates, eventually created some of the nation's best-known urban landscape projects, including Embarcadero Plaza, Levi Strauss Plaza and Stern Grove in San Francisco, the 52-acre approach to Yosemite falls in Yosemite National Park, the Transit Mall in Portland, Ore. and Freeway Park in Seattle.

"He had a way of communicating with the landscape," said Hester, who worked with Mr. Halprin on a project within San Francisco's Presidio. "We were meeting at 9 a.m., and when we got there we discovered that he had already been to the site. He had sat there as the sun came up on that cold, miserable day and come to understand it in a way that was better than any of the rest of us, letting that landscape communicate to him what it wanted to be. The fountains that are now completely associated with Larry's work came from his studying so directly the water patterns of streams up in the Sierra."

The author of eight books, as well as a documentary on artist Salvador Dali, Mr. Halprin consistently sought to include members of the community in the creation of public projects.

"He introduced the idea that the design of public spaces should not be done in a studio separated from the public," Hester said. "The idea was that Larry might be this extraordinary creative genius, but he knew his work would be better when he brought in other people."

Mr. Halprin's most frequent collaborator was his wife. In 1979, with the Trailside Killer frightening visitors away from Mount Tamalpais, the Halprins led an effort to "reclaim the mountain" through a "planetary dance." The dance they originated has since become an annual rite of spring in 36 nations.

"How can I find the words to express how exciting, creative, stimulating and intense working with him was?" said Mrs. Halprin, who recently choreographed "Spirit of Place," a dance inspired by her husband's redesign of the Stern Grove amphitheater. "He collaborated with me in my dance, and I've influenced him in his design. It's been an exciting ride for 70 years. I'm going to miss him."

Mr. Halprin and his work received numerous awards, including the University of Virginia Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture and the National Medal of the Arts, the nation's highest award for an artist. 

"He believed that the most important thing about designing is to generate creativity in others, and to be inclusive - to include the needs and experiences of people interacting with the environment, and to let them be part of its creation," Anna Halprin said. "That doesn't mean you don't use your own artistic sensibilities to shape and contain and incorporate your own vision, but it means that vision must connect with people's feelings, experiences and needs. That's his legacy."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Halprin is survived by two daughters, Daria Halprin-Khalighi of Kentfield and Rana Halprin of Mill Valley; and four grandchildren. His family is planning a public memorial service.

BEST-KNOWN CREATIONS:

- Sea Ranch, Sonoma Coast (1967)

- Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco (1968)

- Embarcadero Plaza, San Francisco (1972)

- Lovejoy Park, Portland, Ore. (1978)

- Freeway Park, Seattle (1974)

- Charlottesville Mall, Virginia (1976)

- Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C. (1997)

- Yosemite Falls Approach, Yosemite National Park (2005)

- Stern Grove, San Francisco (2005)


Read more Ross, Kentfield & Greenbrae stories at the IJ's Ross, Kentfield & Greenbrae section.

Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at rrogers@marinij.com