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Levi’s Plaza Choreography

I recently led a landscape architecture bicycle tour in San Francisco for the local chapter of the ASLA. My partner Anita organized it and planned to lead it, but she was sick on tour day, so I played fearless leader instead. I was a little leery, but it turned out to be pretty fun, and — true to the maxim ‘the best way to learn something is to teach it — I think I gained more insight than the people on the tour. We looked at several projects, but the clear highlight was Levi’s Plaza, Lawrence Halprin’s masterpiece. My favorite ‘built’ landscape in the Bay Area, it blows me away every time I see it, and it was interesting to see a group of people experience it for the first time. It literally put smiles on everyone’s faces. After the tour I went back a few times to take photos and paint some watercolors. I can’t say enough how masterful it is.

There are many aspects to Halprin’s work that are noteworthy, but if you wanted to pick a single word to describe his underlying ethos, you would do well to pick choreography. His wife, Anna Halprin, was a choreographer, and they led experiential workshops together. A recent exhibition, Experiments in Environment, The Halprin Workshops 1966-1971, has a slideshow with lots of great photos with titles like Blindfold Walk, Skyscraper Event, Driftwood City, Ritual Group Drawing, and Men’s Dance. There is less nudity and sixties-era shenanigans than I’ve seen in other collections — one of his books has a photo of a dozen people cavorting naked in a giant cargo net — but it gives a good introduction to the nature of the workshops.

He put a lot of effort into codifying what he learned in those workshops, developing a drawing system he called ‘motation’ and a process for leading public participation workshops that he called ‘RSVP cycles’. As far as I know, no one is directly applying his methods these days, but they were influential in the development of landscape architectural practice and it all makes for a rewarding, though somewhat opaque, rabbit hole to dive into. But alongside these efforts, he spent so much time studying and discussing movement that he developed a deep intuitive sense of how people move in the landscape. In Levi’s Plaza you can see how those ideas translate directly into the landscape. Landscapes are built brick by brick, people walk step by step; in Levi’s Plaza you can see how that comes together.

Before I jump into the details, I should explain that there are two halves to Levi’s plaza. One half is an urban plaza defined on three sides by brick buildings, one of them historic and the other two — shaped somewhat like ziggurats — built for the headquarters in 1981. The plaza is dominated by an extensive fountain with stepping stones for people to walk through it. It’s not as famous as the Keller Fountain in Portland but still dynamic, with a horizontal aspect when seen against the historic building and a more stepped aspect when seen against the newer ziggurat-like building.

The other half of the plaza, across the street, is more parklike, with sloping lawns and a gently curving path running alongside a recirculating stream. It’s very pastoral; the stream starts at another large fountain and ends at a quasi island with a large willow tree. Superficially the two halves of the plaza look quite different, but they follow the same underlying principles about movement in the landscape.

These stepping stones in the stream create the most explicitly choreographed movement in either half of the plaza. Offset stepping stones are not unique to Halprin — Japanese tea gardens have stepping stone patterns with names such as plover, falling leaves, and scattered beans, and trail builders in the Sierras stagger the rocks for river crossings so that the line is less likely to create a weir — but here you can literally see which stones are for your right foot and which ones are for your left.

Here the choreography gets a little less explicit; you can use either foot, but Halprin is still directing your movement. You can see the straight line to your destination, but as you go towards it he shifts you to one side, sashaying out of the axis and then back into it. And while he might not be dictating which foot you use, he has designed where you put your feet, which part of the stepping stone you’ll step on.

In another area he deliberately left out a stepping stone, presenting you with a choice, whether to jump across or turn back. I’ve watched people in this section, and it’s almost as if they are following a set of instructions: stop, assess the challenge, continue forward by jumping or retreat. Everyone pauses and stares down at the gap; to my surprise, most people choose to turn back.

Here he routed the stepping stones beneath two tree trunks so that people need to duck. I can’t think of another plaza in the world in which the designer deliberately forces people to duck.

He carries these same movement patterns out into the wider spaces of the main plaza. The landscape has underlying axes, but you move in and out of them; just as with the stepping stones, you can see your destination straight ahead and you can almost go to it in a straight line, but you’re shifted to one side or the other as you go. The centerline of brick running through the allée becomes the edge of the paving on the other side of the plaza; the route from one building to another is blocked by the shoulder of the fountain; the path in the parklike area curves gently alongside the stream.

Another aspect of the choreography in the main plaza is that the paving pattern reflects how people move. The paving has two grids — brick set on the ninety and granite pavers on the diagonal — and one grid or the other almost always aligns with people’s movements. This is perhaps most clear if you compare an aerial view of Levi’s Plaza with one of Piazza del Duomo in Milan, an influence on the brick paving at Levi’s (Halprin has a photo of the plaza on page 4 of his book Cities). In the Piazza del Duomo the brick pattern functions as visual interest but it doesn’t track people’s movements; some of the pedestrians are moving along the orthogonal axes of the brick, but many of them are drifting diagonally across the open space. In Levi’s Plaza, Halprin uses the diagonals to account for that second axis of movement. The diagonals are providing interest and they nicely reflect the diagonal bracing in the glass facade, but they are also guiding people through the space. For instance as people leave the allée, they either follow the line of brick straight ahead or they veer off along a granite diagonal toward one of the buildings on either side. In the photo above, people come in from the left along the brick axis and then follow the granite paving towards the entrance to the building. They don’t follow the lines as assiduously as they follow the stripes on a road, but there is a sense of people moving within lanes.

This was especially clear on the bike tour. When we arrived, everyone rode randomly through the plaza in gentle curves, circling around and across the paving patterns in a chaotic way. It didn’t match the paving because the space wasn’t choreographed for bicyclists. But after everyone parked their bikes and became pedestrians, their movements synced up with the straight lines and diagonals, the movement patterns designed into the space. By the time they moved into the fountain, they were following Halprin’s choreography.

Of course with all this talk about the choreography of the space, it’s important to remember that his wife was a post-modern choreographer with a free form sense of movement. Many of the movements at Levi’s Plaza are dictated, but there is also space for improvisations such as this guy sitting on one of the stepping stones. Halprin created rich environments in which people could improvise movements and express themselves. Was the slab below set at a gentle angle so that this man would kick off his shoes and take a nap? Probably, but I’m sure the man thinks it was his own idea to do that.

It’s a particularly good example of how Halprin prioritized richness over cohesion. This is a design in which every brick matches up perfectly, so it isn’t that he couldn’t find a third slab to more closely match the other two. The mismatch is deliberate. Most designers would want the slabs to match, chasing harmony and unity, but Halprin likes the touch of disharmony; it adds to the richness of the space and expands the potential movements. The eye notices that ‘one of these things is not like the other’ and imagines ways to take advantage of that. Halprin once said something to the effect that a landscape design should be imperfect and incomplete without people in it, that the space should need people complete it. This tilted slab seems noticeably imperfect until the man lies down, and then it seems exactly right.

The power of suggestion is also strong where the stream splits to create a little island. Something about the space gathers groups, though individuals don’t seem to linger there. In all the times I’ve visited, there’s almost always a group on the island, but I’ve never seen a person sitting alone. On the tour, I thought it was a natural place for the group to gather, but I didn’t tell people where to go. I showed where to park their bikes, gave them a brief introduction and then let everyone explore however they wanted. No doubt my starting point had an affect on where they ended up, but it was largely up to them. And though I hadn’t prompted them, I watched as they gathered back together on the island. As if they were washing into an eddy, they drifted onto the island and sat down to discuss the plaza, which seemed to be exactly the way that Halprin had designed it.

I’ve posted about other Halprin projects. The Keller Fountain in Portland is even more dramatic than the fountain here at Levi’s Plaza. Stern Grove incorporates some of the same movement patterns into an outdoor amphitheater. My post about Yosemite Falls shows some of the drawings I’ve done while waiting there to meet my climbing partner, but it also shows a designed space where people see the falls according to Halprin’s design vision. The Sea Ranch Bluff Trail focuses on my drawings and watercolors from hiking along the community’s bluff trail, but many of the moments were created by Halprin’s master plan of the place. He played a big role in shaping the landscapes of the west coast and I feel lucky to be able to visit so many of his iconic designs.

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