Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Posts Tagged ‘halprin’

The Sea Ranch Bluff Trail

I was up in Sea Ranch with my family for Thanksgiving. I’d stopped there before and explored a little, and I once posted about the chapel, but this was my first time staying there. I loved it, of course; there’s a reason why it’s beloved and iconic. The landscape is dramatic, the houses are sited wonderfully in the landscape, and the hiking trail along the bluff has some great moments as it moves through the tunnel-like cypress windbreaks and the open bluffs.

While I was there I experimented with using an ipad for drawings. I didn’t save the ones that were entirely digital, but I liked the results when I hand drew a little thumbnail, photographed it with the ipad, then colored it digitally. The result is not all that different from coloring a drawing with markers, but it was quick and it let me erase or adjust the color and there’s something nice about the flatness of the digital color under the quick line work. I’ll probably experiment some more with entirely digital drawings in the future, but this method seemed like a good addition to my bag of tricks, allowing me to make two dozen sketches during a single hike.

I also did some watercolors, my first since our trip to Baja in February. I played with a few different kinds of paper and styles, getting a little more ambitious as I went. My focus was on the hiking trail. As far as I know, Halprin didn’t lay out the trail, but it highlights many of the ideas from his master plan: cluster the houses, keep them back behind or against the trees, and keep the meadows and coast open as common space. Some of the newer houses, including the one where I was staying, have pushed out into the meadows, but overall the plan has held up with remarkable integrity. It’s a tribute to the quality of the planning and architecture that the hiking is as pleasant as the hiking down the road in Salt Point State Park.

This last one isn’t really part of the hiking trail, but it’s one of Sea Ranch’s most iconic elements and I love design moves based on grading. Halprin used the soil excavated for the swimming pool to create these exaggerated berms to keep out the wind and make a sheltered space around the pool. After hiking on the open bluff trail, the enclosed space feels like a grotto or cenote.

Thanksgiving weekend marked eight years of this blog. Posting has slowed for me and just about every other garden blog I follow, and commenting has faded away, but I still prefer the blog over all of the other online formats. It remains a great tool for organizing thoughts, images, and links, and I often find myself going back into my archives or sidebar. I intend to keep posting, my thanks to everyone who keeps reading.

The Keller Fountain


‘Finally these places were for the first time designed to be used, to be participatory – NOT just to look at – they say COME IN, not stay off.’ Walter Lockley talking about the Keller Fountain

It has probably become apparent over the years on this blog that I am a big fan of Lawrence Halprin’s work. So, along with the Portland Japanese Garden, Halprin’s famous Keller Fountain was at the top of my list of things to see in Portland. I love his fountains, and this might be his best one. It’s been called called ‘one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.’


My first impression was, ‘wow, how did they let this get built?’ It seems shockingly unsafe for the city to let people wade into the pools, wander along the top edge, and generally treat it like the world’s quirkiest public pool; at one point there were two dozen people scattered throughout the pools, including kids who had showed up with swimming suits and towels. I give Halprin credit: it’s hard to imagine this was ever approved by the city’s lawyers but I’ve heard that it actually has a good safety record. Like an adventure playground, it looks so obviously dangerous that people treat it with the proper respect and avoid hurting themselves. I saw one woman absolutely traumatized by the sight of her young daughter venturing close to the edge, but, after screaming at her kid to get back, she didn’t actually make the girl get out, just stay away from the danger zone. It’s too bad that things like this are so rare in our built landscapes.


One of Halprin’s early design sketches for the project shows a granite cliff, though the design obviously evolved quite a bit beyond this starting point. Instead of a granite cliff, the forms of the fountain remind me much more of a city skyline, like a bunch of high rises pushed up against each other. They were designed, after the initial concept sketches, by an architect on his staff, Angela Danadjieva, working with clay, a key difference that shows some of the differences between concrete and stone, and maybe even drawing versus using models. Stone is typically created by an additive or subtractive process; you carve material away or add stones together. Clay is typically molded; you can push it around in ways that are impossible when with stone. And concrete is more closely aligned with clay; you pour or cast concrete in a form, much like you pour bronze in a mold after building a model. Switching from stone to clay and concrete was a key decision and paradoxically one that made this such an important evocation of nature.

Because even though I said the forms remind me of a city skyline, even though the forms feel human-built and urban, the overall effect is impressively evocative of a natural waterfall, and actually one waterfall in particular, Nevada Falls in Yosemite Valley. The two spaces don’t look anything like each other, but the experience of sitting above the Keller fountain is unmistakably like sitting above Nevada Falls. None of the surface elements are there — it’s concrete instead of granite, it’s more obviously geometric, it’s surrounded by a city — but the core experience is the same — the drifts of people, the rising mist, the roar of the water and the way it dominates the space. Pumping 13,000 gallons of water per minute will obviously go a long way towards creating the feel of a waterfall, but the effect was also created by the way people scatter themselves throughout the space, perching on the concrete walls, sitting at the edge of the water, and wading around in the pools above the cascade. I’ve heard that Nevada Falls was one of Halprin’s favorite places, and anyone who has ever been there will immediately recognize it when they see the Keller Fountain. It’s uncanny and really impressive.


In the post for the Japanese Garden, I said I sometimes felt as if I were an actor hitting my marks, feeling that all of my movements had been designed or choreographed, and the Keller Fountain has a few spots that feel like that, such as the plinth in the photo above, clearly designed as a place for people to pose in photos (a lot like the row of statues designed for visitors at Halprin’s Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC to pose as the next statue in line, a nice participatory element in that memorial). But most of the fountain felt like a ‘choose your own adventure’ kind of space, and if you look on google images, it’s amazing the way everyone is doing something different in every photo. There’s an impressive variety of poses and images for such a small urban space. It’s a living space, incredibly dynamic.


I’ve heard this can look rather brutalist on an overcast winter day with the fountain turned off, but actually it looks pretty good in photos and the bare articulation of the masses really appeals to the stone guy in me.


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.


Landscape Architecture by Bicycle

Levis Plaza

Next Sunday the 22nd, Anita will be leading a bicycle tour of a few landscape architecture projects in San Francisco. The tour goes to two hugely influential and historic projects, Levi’s Plaza pictured above, and Crissy Field, along with several other compelling spaces. You may already know these places, but this is your opportunity to see them with a beautiful and knowledgeable guide.


What: Casual bike tour from the Embarcadero winding through downtown to Crissy Field

When: 9AM to noon, April 22, 2012

Where: Meet under the clock outside the Embarcadero Ferry Building

Cost: FREE! but must RSVP to contact below

Contact: Anita Bueno, abueno@asla-ncc.org, 510-282-4918

Rain cancels, call to confirm

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

‘…a trail which was almost like a symphony, stopping, moving, looking, listening, and so on. I wanted to make this… but not to make it clear that there was a designer here… I wanted to leave it to the point that people would assume that it had always been that way.’ Lawrence Halprin

Along with the north coast, I went to Yosemite several times in the last couple months. Absolutely amazing place, as the millions of people who visit annually can all attest. I used to be bothered by the crowds, but I’ve learned to navigate the park and appreciate it without feeling bothered by them. Bringing my bicycle with me has helped immeasurably. The Valley’s a beautiful, flat place to ride around in, and a bicycle is the key to avoiding the daily traffic jams. (The park service really needs to figure out a way to get people parking outside the valley and just using bikes and shuttle buses inside. I’m skeptical it will ever happen, but I can dream, right?) Climbing has also helped me love the valley. Obviously because the climbing is so incredible, but also because I’ve ended up spending long periods of time sitting and staring at the views. And not just on the climbs. Most days I would meet up with my climbing partner at the bicycle parking at Lower Yosemite Falls, and while I waited for him, I started to really appreciate the effect that the view of the falls has for people.

Yosemite Falls

It’s the tallest falls in North America, 2,425 feet, and probably the single most viewed and photographed in the world. Lawrence Halprin redesigned the approach trail and picnic area a few years ago, and there is a lot of stonework done by the same company that did all of the stonework at Stern Grove. I don’t really remember what the approach was like before the redesign and the only ‘before photo I’ve seen is a glimpse in the video I linked above, but I remember a parking lot and a lot of crumbling asphalt. I’m pretty sure the framed view of the falls was already cleared, but possibly with the trees starting to grow back in and obscure the view again, and with a bathroom in the foreground instead of the dramatic allée. The redesign took out the parking area, made the trail into a loop, and rehabbed a lot of degraded habitat areas. It upgraded the materials and it channeled people’s movement so they would hit the key viewpoints without trampling on the vegetation or eroding the banks of the creek. And the work was done with enough subtlety and transparency that, as Halprin was hoping, most people probably don’t realize that their experience was crafted by a designer.

Yosemite Falls Approach

There’s a summary of the project here.

Yosemite Falls Approach Trail

Stern Grove

Stern Grove

View from the Stage, click to enlarge

‘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 also works quite nicely as a park.

View from the West

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 first impression of him when I started to learn about his work 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. From what I can tell, amphitheaters close to the center of the Greek empire tended to have a more regular form, while the ones built towards the fringes tended to be more irregular. Which makes the irregular form of this Greek amphitheater in San Francisco, 6500 miles from Greece, perfectly aligned with that tradition. One theater in particular, Thorikos, has a plan that reminds me of Stern Grove. (more…)