‘I wanted it to have the feeling of being in one of the great Greek amphitheaters,’ Lawrence Halprin
Last month I went to Stern Grove and took some photos. I’d been there during concerts, but I wanted to check it out without all the crowds. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a great space, with awesome stonework, and worth visiting even when there isn’t a concert happening. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone there, but an impressive number of people passed through the space, even though it was a rainy Sunday morning. I’d always thought of it as a theatre, but it actually works quite nicely as a park, too.
The Grove has been a park and concert space since the 1930’s, but the stonework is all from about 5 years ago when Lawrence Halprin led a big renovation. Before the renovation it was just a natural amphitheater, and everyone would slowly slide downhill while they listened to music. Halprin terraced the slope and turned it into a proper Greek theater. My impression of him was that he tended to just make things up, but the design at the Grove is actually quite true to the style of the Greeks, with appropriate stonework and other detailing. Even the plan, which is rather free-form, is in keeping with the old Greeks’ appreciation for natural topography. One theater in particular, Thorikos, has a plan that reminds me of Stern Grove.
Surfing around the Stern Grove festival website I found a couple of nice watercolors of the design.
Halprin said somewhere that he based the shape of the proscenium arch on the branching structure of trees, which sounds kind of like the ‘modernist making stuff up’ that I was expecting. It’s nice though. I read somewhere that the earlier Greek theaters were open in the back, and that having a structure behind the actors is the later form.
The stonework is done with mortar in the back, but the stones are laid in the polygonal style I wrote about last year. Polygonal walls are also called Cyclopean, Mycenaen, Mallorcan, Pelasgian, and probably a few other names, but basically the style comes from the approximate time and place of ancient Greece, when stoneworkers were good at dressing the sides and faces of their stone, but didn’t square off every corner.
The entry lintels are also a nice touch. If they were arches, they would be Roman rather than Greek.
I’d never seen the stone bleachers without them full of people. They’re my favorite place to sit during concerts.
The parking spaces for wheelchairs might be the coolest ADA feature I’ve ever seen. They remind me of the gaps in the stonework of some of the more crumbling ancient theaters.
The undressed boulders incorporated into some of the stonework also help create the feeling of the ancient theaters as they exist now.
— Update 8/12 — I recently went to a talk by Edward Westbrook who owns Quarryhouse, the company that did the stonework at Stern Grove, Yosemite Falls and other projects designed by Lawrence Halprin. Among other things, he said Stern Grove has 1400 tons of stone and the stonework budget was $3 million. All of the stonework was done by a crew of thirty workers in only eight months, really fast for a project this size. They were able to do it because they shaped and fitted a lot of the stone ahead of time at the quarry site in China. For instance the ziggurat-shaped formation was completely put together ahead of time, then shipped here and reassembled. Also, they drew out 326 specific stones that they wanted and then had the quarry workers scour the boulder fields to find them, looking for a ‘Sphinx-like’ boulder and 5 ‘wedge-shaped’ boulders and so forth. It’s really impressive what they accomplished.
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