San Francisco Architect Larry Halprin's Work Is Unforgettable -- and So Was He

Categories: Local News
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Larry Halprin
It's always a jarring thing to pick up the paper and see an obit for someone you know, and that was the case yesterday when I read about the death of architect Lawrence Halprin at age 93. It's not as if I was a friend or close associate of the family. But Halprin was just about the most intensely interesting, sociable, funny, erudite, uplifting interview subject I've ever had in my journalistic career.

I wandered over to Halprin's Levi Plaza office back in 2005; as I later put it in print "Walking past the fountain he designed, skipping across the stepping stones he designed, strolling across the courtyard in the plaza he designed, we come to his office, located in the city -- that he designed." San Franciscans may not have even known Halprin was alive up until Sunday, but they do know his work: Much of Market Street downtown was his, as was Civic Center Plaza, Justin Herman Plaza, Stern Grove, Levi Plaza, Ghrardelli Square, etc.

Halprin's subterranean San Francisco office was stuffed with scores, if not hundreds, of tiny models of the monuments, plazas, and community centers he and his staff were in the midst of designing; I imagined that this was what Industrial Light and Magic's special effects shop must have looked like in the pre-CGI days. Halprin -- who was still coming into the office at age 89 -- immediately insisted on being called "Larry." While most interviews don't go longer than an hour, tops -- especially with the extremely aged -- Halprin was happy to give me a high-energy one-on-one tutorial of his life and profession; if memory serves I spent the whole afternoon there (and my editor was pissed). But it hardly felt like any time had passed at all. Halprin was so good at what he did -- and so very good at explaining it to a layman -- that the hours just melted away. You don't get one interview every three or four years as fulfilling as that. 

Halprin's explanation of how he designs business and residential campuses quickly exceeded the scope of the article I would be writing. But, as you've already figured out, I didn't care. This was fascinating stuff coming straight from the master -- the man even managed to make a discussion about proper drainage into a Mr. Wizard-type lecture (Halprin was a top-notch artist, and he drew a freehand diagram with amazing speed. He then dated it and wrote something along the lines of "Drawn for Joe Eskenazi" in the margin, which, obviously, I appreciated.).

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Halprin at Stern Grove
Larry Halprin didn't just look like the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man" -- he could give him a run for his money. He was a Brooklyn sandlot baseball legend who won the title of New York City Schoolboy Player of the Year twice -- this is a big deal; New York City is kind of a big place. His hometown Brooklyn Dodgers queried about signing him up to pitch. Instead, he then moved to pre-state Israel -- where Major League baseball has yet to take root. One of the guests at Halprin's bar mitzvah was Teddy Kollek -- who went on to become a six-term mayor of Jerusalem. The two were friends for life, and Halprin's work has prominently shaped the Holy City.

Halprin planned on working on his Israeli kibbutz for the rest of his days -- but, then life is what happens when we make other plans. He married the dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin and later bumped into a friend of a friend who urged him to give architecture a go. That man was named Frank Lloyd Wright, and Halprin traded in working the land as a farmer for working it as a landscape architect. But that would have to wait for the end of the war -- which Halprin was incredibly lucky to survive.

As an ensign on the destroyer USS Morris, Halprin saw heavy action from Leyte Gulf all the way up to Okinawa. In the heat of providing cover for the amphibious invasion of the Japanese island, Halprin carried a sick fellow sailor to his own bunk and placed the man there. It was a split-second decision that he would agonize over for the rest of his long life. Had Halprin carried the man to his own bunk, he may have lived a normal life. But a kamikaze pilot struck the Morris almost directly atop Halprin's bunk where the sailor was tucked in. The Japanese pilot literally split the destroyer in half, and Halprin's colleague was killed instantly.

Halprin was sent to San Francisco on a survivor's leave following the kamikaze attack. He never left the area. And it was many years before he slowed down.

If memory serves, most of the photos I snapped of Halprin that day were unusable. The 89-year-old was moving too fast. He wouldn't stand still. He was always explaining one facet of his plans or the other and then turning on his heel and wandering off to another model, another schematic, or another blueprint. He was a blur; a ball of motion.

At nearly 90 years old, Larry Halprin was loving life and loving what he did -- every day.

"It's the core of my life, making things, making these places," he told me. "What else would I rather do? ... It excites the hell out of me."



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