Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lawrence Halprin and the Plaza That Changed the World

Sproul Plaza, courtesy Alison Moore.
Is architecture capable of changing the course of history?

On October 1, 1964, in the midst of a growing protest, University of California, Berkeley student Mario Savio hopped onto the roof of a police car in Sproul Plaza, the open space in front of the University’s administration building.  Sitting in the car was former UC student Jack Weinberg who had been arrested for staffing an “illegal” table on Sproul on behalf of the civil rights organization, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Their actions, and those of others, not only helped launch the Free Speech Movement, which would forever alter not only the UC campus, but also the fabric of American society.


(Left) Mario Savio speaking from the top of the police car, October 1 1964, and (Right) Marchers coming through Sather Gate with Free Speech sign to the UC Regents' meeting in University Hall to present their position on the Free Speech controversy, November 20 1964. Photographs by Steven Marcus, Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library,  Marcus (Steven) Free Speech Movement Photograph Collection.
Just a few years earlier, however, there had been no Sproul Plaza. In 1962 the University completed the construction of a new student union, and along with it upper and lower plazas, which together brought the entrance of the campus out to Bancroft Ave. from its former site at Sather Gate.  According to a 1962 San Francisco Chronicle article, University officials had hoped that students with oratorical aspirations could be lured to a “Hyde Park”- type soap box space on Lower Sproul Plaza, away from the mainstream. Ultimately, however, the larger open space in front of the Sproul Hall administration building - in full view of students and media, alike, proved more tantalizing - just as its designer had intended.

Created by noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, Sproul Plaza was designed to be a place for social interaction - a theme common to all Halprin spaces.  Referencing the social unrest to come, one writer noted that Halprin “succeeded, and then some.”  Biographer Janice Ross explains Halprin’s philosophy of urban environments this way: “To begin with, there is the essential notion of the individual as an active, interactive participant in the city, a locale that Halprin defines as ‘an art form that demands participation.’”  In 2007 Halprin told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I [reject] any implication that what I do is decoration…Landscape architecture deals with things that are so important. It’s partly nature, it’s partly culture, it’s partly social - it’s all of these.”


Path to Sproul Plaza, courtesy Alison Moore.
In his later designs, places such as San Francisco’s Levi’s Plaza, the Letterman Digital Arts Center,  and Washington D.C.’s FDR Memorial, Halprin created river-like water elements to enhance the urban landscapes. The paths leading to Sproul Plaza also play a role in the Halprin environment. Clare Cooper Marcus, in her book People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Space, describes them this way: “If this axial route is envisaged as a river, then the trees, kiosks, bike racks, steps and benches on either side create eddy spaces just out of the mainstream, where it is comfortable to stop and look at notices, chat with a friend or watch the passing crowd.”

By 1966 the “passing crowd” was stopping at Sproul Plaza a little too often for the University's comfort. In an effort to diffuse the protest potential, the University hired a different landscape architect to craft a new entrance to the campus eastward up Bancroft Ave., at its intersection with College Ave. The new architect was Thomas Church - Lawrence Halprin’s mentor in the world of landscape architecture. “The effect will be to diminish the natural focus of student activity on the broad plaza before Sather Gate,” noted the San Francisco Chronicle.

Needless to say, the College Ave. entrance to campus did little to detract from public protests. With the advent of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 1960s, and the anti-apartheid divestment protests of the 1980s, Sproul Plaza’s reputation as a place that “demands participation” was pretty much sealed.
Sather Gate and Sproul Plaza, courtesy Alison Moore.
Learn more about Lawrence Halprin and his projects in CHS's forthcoming exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971, opening on January 21, 2016.

Sources
San Francisco Chronicle “Soap Box Speakers Gain Ground at UC” March 17, 1962
San Francisco Chronicle “A ‘Detour’ Around UC ‘Protest Plaza’” March 25, 1966
Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Spaces John Wiley & Sons, 1998
Janice Ross, Lawrence Halprin: Landscape as Experience, August 10, 1997

Alison Moore
Strategic Projects Liaison

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