Over the past 50-plus years, downtown Portland has built one of the nation’s best collections of urban parks and plazas: Tom McCall Waterfront Park in the 1970s, Pioneer Courthouse Square in the ’80s, Jamison Square and the Eastbank Esplanade in the early 2000s.
During the pandemic, these spaces provided safe outdoor respite from our quarantined life. Though maybe not as full as when downtown was clogged with office workers, they clearly still attracted people. Now, as restrictions are lifted and we emerge back into public life, they’re even more valuable: as places where we can come together again.
Yet the city’s most highly acclaimed public space, the Keller Fountain, by San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin—which at the time of its 1970 completion New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance”—has in recent times remained quiet.
To an unfortunate degree that was true even before the pandemic, as the water remained off at the Keller (originally called the Forecourt Fountain) since 2019 due to maintenance issues, and as it was covered in graffiti during 2020’s protests. The Keller’s sister parks to the south, in what’s collectively known as the Open Space Sequence—Lovejoy Fountain Park and Pettygrove Park—have at times seemed even quieter. Situated at the edge of downtown and lined with more parking garages than shops, cafés or even streets, they’re neither a destination nor a pass-through space.
Yet as a new exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education reminds us, these masterworks are crying out to be rediscovered. Lawrence Halprin, Fountains is the featured exhibition when the museum reopens for in-person visits on Wednesday, June 23, after Covid shutdown.
Taking inspiration from Oregon’s Cascades and California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and waterfalls, which Halprin and his team extrapolated into a simple modernist language, these parks and fountains helped usher in a new era of landscape architecture in America.
“Any landscape architect, any architect, any planner coming to Portland, they come to see this. It has an international reputation,” the exhibit’s curator, Kenny Helphand, says of the Open Space Sequence and especially the Keller Fountain. Helphand is an emeritus University of Oregon professor and author of the 2017 design-biography Laurence Halprin.
All American landscape architects are indebted to Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park. But in the second half of the 20th century, Helphand says, “I think Larry Halprin could lay claim to being an updated heir.”
Besides the Open Space Sequence, Halprin’s long career also included landmarks like Freeway Park and the 1962 World’s Fair grounds in Seattle, New York’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, and Northern California’s Sea Ranch, as well as Portland’s Transit Mall in the late ’70s with his partner, architect Charles Moore. “It was the office that one looked for innovation,” Helphand adds.
Water (and People) In Motion
I dearly love the Keller, but maybe I’m biased, because this is where my earliest Portland memory occurred nearly 45 years ago. Traveling from McMinnville to attend a traveling Broadway production of The Wiz at Civic Auditorium (now Keller Auditorium) with my mom as a five-year-old in 1977, we first spent a few moments across the street at the fountain. Many other children had waded into the water on that sunny summer afternoon, and I remember wanting to stay there instead of going into see the musical.
“Even in the city,” Halprin wrote, “the sound and sight of water stirs the most elemental and basic roots of our human nature.”
Now that the water is turned on again, the Keller Fountain is as mesmerizing as ever. You don’t just stand before this urban waterfall and gawk. You descend down into the earth, away from the clamor of street life, as the white noise and the mist cast a meditative spell.
That’s due in part to the contributions of Angela Danadjieva, lead designer for Halprin’s firm. A Bulgarian who began her career working in theater, she enhanced the drama of Halprin’s waterfall-in-the-city concept (illustrated years before in his journal) by digging into the ground, making it more of a respite from the street, and by giving the cliff-like forms a more Constructivist or Cubist-influenced geometry. Danadjieva was just one of the powerful women with whom Halprin collaborated and took inspiration, including his wife, choreographer Anna Halprin (who died last month, just weeks before her 101st birthday), and his mother, Rose Luria Halprin, a Zionist leader who participated in the founding of modern Israel.
Yet there’s no mistaking the master’s finger print, for the Keller Fountain is part of Halprin’s broader, career-long quest: to marry the wonder of nature with a more minimalist modernist architectural language, all while making these parks principally a stage.
Born in Brooklyn in 1916, Halprin was a Harvard-trained landscape architect and World War II veteran who ultimately anticipated modern architecture’s turn to concrete from steel and glass in the 1960s, as well as the search for inspiration in nature and historical styles that would ultimately lead to postmodernism. For Halprin, it’s ultimately all about nature and people, as two quotes embossed onto the exhibit walls exemplify.
“Studying the granite formations, rivers, lakes and waterfalls and their evolution has formed the basis of my design philosophy,” Halprin wrote. “I learned not to copy the forms of nature but to understand the processes by which natural forms arise.” But he also knew that parks and plazas couldn’t just be pretty places. “The essential purpose of design,” he also wrote, “is to create the possibility for events to happen.” Halprin may have been inspired by natural forms on his hikes through the Sierras, but his time on an Israeli kibbutz, with its communal culture, as well as his own home, with its outdoor dance-deck constantly hosting Anna and other dancers, were the functional yang to water and nature’s spiritual yin. In both cases, it’s about motion.
The Urban Renewal Mistake
So why would such masterworks remain under-utilized compared to other parks and plazas downtown and in the Pearl District?
As explored in a sister exhibit at the Architectural Heritage Center called South Portland and the Long Shadow of Urban Renewal, Halprin’s pioneering modernist parks and fountains are compromised by their surrounding development: the South Auditorium District and its at-best dubious urban-renewal legacy.
In 1954, a federal housing act provided funds for cities all over the country to raze and redevelop what were euphemistically called “blighted” areas: often poor, low-density neighborhoods near city centers that not coincidentally happened to be occupied mostly by immigrants and persons of color.
In Portland, urban renewal principally claimed two areas. On the east side, Albina, a largely Black neighborhood, gave way to Memorial Coliseum, Interstate 5 and Emanuel Hospital. On the west side just south of downtown, in a diverse, largely Jewish enclave (where art and entertainment icons like painter Mark Rothko and cartoon-voice artist Mel Blanc were raised), 110 acres were demolished and rebuilt over two phases into the South Auditorium District, with a reconstructed Civic Auditorium and its accompanying Forecourt Fountain (today the Keller Fountain) at its northern edge.
There were no irreplaceable landmarks in South Portland before the bulldozers cleared everything away, but as the AHC exhibit makes clear, there were a number of small gems, including one old house photographed by the great Minor White during his time in Portland in the late 1930s. Large maps show what buildings and parks exist on which home, church and other building sites. The exhibit also bears witness to a shameful truth: Many of South Portland’s residents were given as little as $100 in compensation.
Once built, the real-estate value of the South Auditorium District increased enough for city leaders to deem this urban renewal effort a success and even expand the acreage, to include property farther north including the present-day KOIN Center. Yet the lack of urban energy and people in this neighborhood speaks to the ghosts of South Portland and the karmic cost of razing a neighborhood.
The South Auditorium District is actually high-density enough to fill the Open Space Sequence with both office workers and residents, but the string of parks is completely land-locked, with Halprin’s parks accessible only via pedestrian pathways. Worse yet, most of the office and apartment buildings seem to turn their backs to the Halprin designs.
“They’re just in this ridiculous context,” says OJMCHE director Judy Margles as we tour the Halprin exhibit with Helphand. “You build these very creative, beautiful installations, but that whole urban renewal project was kind of a disaster. It is so God-awful down there.”
Helphand agrees—and so did Halprin. “Plazas need life around them, not empty walls or, you know, worst of all, parking garages,” the curator says. “In the early drawings [of Lovejoy], on one side, it says, ‘Shops.’ That was the idea. And one could imagine it as a retail district. Put the tables there!”
In the AHC’s South Portland exhibit, it’s easy to pinpoint the exact streets that should have crisscrossed the Lovejoy Fountain Park and Pettygrove Park portions of the Open Space Sequence. How much more often-visited might they be if fronted by streets? But to be fair, Halprin’s designs might have been totally different, too.
Journals of Wonder
Despite the mistakes of urban renewal and the way this context impacts the Open Space Sequence, particularly when viewing Lawrence Halprin, Fountains at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, it’s hard not to surrender to beauty and inspiration.
Though the exhibit is essentially just one big room filled with drawings from Halprin’s journals, photographs of his work, archival images, and some large quotes, it maps out the arc of his life and inspiration.
A 1966 photo of the Lovejoy Fountain published in Life magazine that’s part of the Halprin exhibit communicates both its kinetic beauty and the way Halprin’s designs were attracting worldwide attention. As part of a three-page pictorial titled “Mid-City Mountain Stream,” it celebrated the moment with an arresting open-shutter photo, the fountain’s water rushing past in a blur.
Before curating the exhibit, Helphand also spent time with Anna Halprin just a few months before her death. His visit yielded a gorgeous portrait of the couple from their early years: she dressed to dance, hands clasped as if in mid-point; he with a camera around his neck, pipe in hand, head tilted to listen. More than any other photo I’ve seen of the couple, it’s hard to take your eyes off it.
Yet the best part is the journal drawings and paintings from Halprin’s own hand, meant to document ideas but achieving an easy artfulness. I particularly loved one image of a Sierra Nevada granite cliff from Halprin’s journal, labeled, “possible wall for Portland fountain.” To document in two-dimensional form the three-dimensional, jagged shapes of the exposed granite, Halprin’s gentle watercolors and drawn lines create something not dissimilar to the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. The journal entry is most of all meant to communicate an idea, but particularly as blown up to poster-size in this exhibit, it’s beautiful in its own right.
Viewing the Jewish Museum’s Halprin exhibit and the Architectural Heritage Center’s South Portland exhibit together, it’s a reminder that every urban realm, perhaps like a natural ecosystem, is a continuous reclamation project: for better and worse. We can’t bring back the neighborhoods that we leveled any more than the forests we clear-cut. But with the right inspiration and commitment, we can always cultivate wondrous new spaces, while learning the lessons of recent years: to do it sustainably and equitably.
As Halprin himself wrote, “Landscape design is about social relevance. It can become poetic and symbolic, but perhaps most importantly, it can articulate a culture’s most spiritual values.”
Lawrence Halprin, Fountains
- Where: Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education
- Dates: Opens Wednesday, June 23, continues through Sept. 26
- Times: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays
- Address: 724 N.W. Davis St., Portland
- Tickets/information: ojmche.org, 503-226-3600
South Portland and the Long Shadow of Urban Renewal
- Where: Architectural Heritage Center
- Dates: Opened Nov. 14, 2020; continues through summer 2021
- Times: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
- Address: 701 S.E. Grand Ave., Portland
- Tickets/information: visitAHC.org, 503-231-7264