Born on July 1, 1916, Halprin was raised in Brooklyn, New York. In 1935, he began his studies in plant sciences at Cornell University. After graduation, Halprin pursued advanced studies at the University of Wisconsin, receiving an M.S. in horticulture in 1941. During this time, Halprin married Anna Schuman, a dance student whose work played a significant role in Halprin’s ideas about landscape movement. Halprin recounted that, while living in Wisconsin, he visited Taliesin East, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home-studio, and decided to study design. He entered the B.L.A. program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1942, studying with landscape architect Christopher Tunnard, whose book Gardens in the Modern Landscape (1938) Halprin credited with confirming his interest in landscape architecture.
Halprin’s career as a landscape architect was delayed by two years as he, like many of his peers, enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In spring 1945, he returned to the United States and joined Thomas Church’s firm in San Francisco, where he worked for four years. In 1949, Halprin opened his own firm, soon hiring Jean Walton, Donald Carter, Satoru Nishita, and Richard "Viggie" Vignolo, who would remain with him for several decades while the practice grew to more than sixty staff.
During the 1950s, Halprin’s practice comprised typical project types of the post-War period — residential gardens, small housing projects, and eventually several campus master plans, as well as suburban shopping centers. During the 1960s, Halprin took on new types of projects at formerly marginal urban sites and began innovating with the very process of design, not only with forms and spaces. These projects, where he reasserted the landscape architect’s role in regenerating the American city, made vital social and pedestrian spaces out of sites such as historic industrial complexes or the spaces over or under freeways. In doing so, he re-imagined a public realm for American cities that had been cleared by federal urban renewal programs and abandoned for new suburban developments.
These projects are memorable for their striking forms and sequences, which evoke multiple associations and recall varied references. As Halprin wrote in 1995, “My own way has been to design the outward forms of nature but emphasize the results of the processes of nature…This act of transmuting the experience of the natural landscape into human-made experience is, for me, the essence of the art of landscape design.” The sheer volume of work in the office, coupled with Halprin’s responsibilities on several national commissions, such as the White House Council on Natural Beauty and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, afforded young designers in his office such as Charles Moore and Angela Danadjieva, the opportunity to make major contributions to the design language that has come to characterize Halprin’s urban spaces. This vocabulary, a fractured urban ground terraced to choreograph the movement of bodies and water, was rendered in poured-in-place concrete that simultaneously evoked monumental geological forms and dynamic ecological processes.
By the mid-1970s, Halprin’s office was considerably smaller. Yet at an age when many consider retirement, Halprin’s talent and enthusiasm were undiminished. He continued to receive major commissions for another three decades. For a generation that often divided landscape practice into landscape art versus ecological design, Halprin’s works and writings demonstrate how to link creative artistic impulses with the ecological sciences. He excelled at connecting phenomenological experience with environmental awareness and ethics.
Halprin’s legacy may reside as much in how he restructured the process of design as in what he built. Recognizing that landscape design requires, in Moholy-Nagy’s terms, “vision in motion,” Halprin translated notational systems for dance and musical scores into a new landscape drawing convention. Called “motation,” this diagram documented and imagined movement through space over time in the landscape. Concerned about the hierarchical relationship between designers and the public and informed by artistic events and happenings conducted by Anna Halprin and others, he worked with facilitators to insert community participation workshops into the design process. This contribution is manifest in his design works and in his numerous articles, reports, and books and is documented in his extensive office files and drawings housed in the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.
Halprin was awarded numerous honors, including the American Institute of Architects Medal for Allied Professions (1964), fellowship in the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) (1969), the ASLA Gold Medal (1978), the ASLA Design Medal (2003), membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1978), the University of Virginia Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture (1979), and the National Medal of the Arts (2002), the nation’s highest honor for an artist.
- Elizabeth K. Meyer
Director, Center for Cultural Landscapes, Merrill D. Peterson Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia