Deep Portland history: Lawrence Halprin and Ira Keller

Monday night, Randy Gragg and Portland Spaces magazine staged another of its Bright Light City Discussions; this one featured historian Carl Abbott and was part of the Time-Based Art Festival. We took notes! More importantly we learned a lot about Lawrence Halprin and a provocative piece of Portland history. There was lots of information, some of which we may have gotten wrong. Don’t hesitate to correct our record!

Before the start of the Randy Gragg and Carl Abbott presentation on the history of the old South Auditorium district and the Lawrence Halprin fountains and plazas that replaced it, I happened to sit across from Robert Perron. This was lucky. Perron taught landscape design at UC Berkeley in the early ’60s when Halprin was there and knows a lot about him and his aesthetic impulses. And his knowledge of Portland is deep, possibly because he’s worked on so much of it, including the Salmon Street Fountain, Terry Schrunk Park and the First Presbyterian Church garden park. Because of that he understands the accidents, unintended consequences and budget shortfalls that affect the design of our cities and therefore our lives.

Shrunk was the mayor and Ira Keller was the chairman of the newly formed Portland Development Commission (PDC) when the decision was made in the late ’50s to bulldoze the aging neighborhood south of downtown and replace it with a utopian Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) residential and commercial district with impressive towers surrounded by green space. And in the green space, Keller decided, there should be a series of plazas and fountains designed by Halprin.

Abbott’s part of the talk focused first on the character of the neighborhood that was replaced, and then, knowing that the crowd would likely consider scraping this piece of Portland clean with bulldozers a form of insanity brought about by hubris, he attempted to explain that decision from the point of view of the city fathers — and they were all men, it seems — without impugning them, primarily because in his view, Ira Keller was a progressive figure in Portland’s history, a power broker with a social conscience, a love of his city and a keen aesthetic sensibility.

Because Keller championed Halprin and the Halprin fountains were at the center of the discussion, establishing Keller as a sympathetic character was useful to the narrative of the evening. Which isn’t to suggest that I don’t believe the portrait sketched by Abbott, whom I hold in high regard as an historian. Not at all. But I would have liked to have known more about the decision to embrace SOM’s parklike scheme to begin with, because it turned out to be, in the long-term, a very large urban design mistake that rendered a very large chunk of the city inaccessible for the past 45 years or so. Only the cracking of the district by the streetcar, headed for South Waterfront, promises to open it — and the Halprin plazas — to the general public.

Abbott’s sketch of the old neighborhood was enough to get the crowd at Jimmy Mak’s in a bit of a lather about the whole ’50’s urban renewal movement because it seemed so… interesting. A dense working-class neighborhood, the South Auditorium district had the city’s largest concentrations of immigrants, for example. Abbott showed maps of the concentrations of both Italian and Jewish families in the area and photos of the houses and single-room apartments in which 14 tenants shared a bathroom. And the place seemed to be thriving — people on the street, sausages in the window, etc. — exactly the sort of neighborhood a city would want.

Except that it was old. And rundown. And almost no investment was going into it. And the original immigrants had dispersed throughout the city. And it had become a “poor” neighborhood instead of an “interesting” neighborhood, with lots of transients and goodness what sorts of illegal activities (Abbott didn’t mention crime, but I’m projecting). Worse, those City Fathers, who oversaw downtown’s retail core, saw it as a pretty poor advertisement for customers to the big stores (Meier & Frank, say) coming into downtown from the south. Combine this with a national movement to clear away the old and replace it with the new, Urban Renewal, and the city developed a plan to flatten 54 blocks and replace them with the SOM design, with its Le Corbusier overtones. Here is Lewis Mumford on Le Corbusier:

…the extravagant heights of Le Corbusier’s skyscrapers had no reason for existence apart from the fact that they had become technological possibilities; the open spaces in his central areas had no reason for existence either, since on the scale he imagined there was no motive during the business day for pedestrian circulation in the office quarter. By mating utilitarian and financial image of the skyscraper city to the romantic image of the organic environment, Le Corbusier had, in fact, produced a sterile hybrid.

Bingo! Abbott’s engaging narrative also touched on the way the siting of Memorial Coliseum on the East Side factored into the equation and then into the destruction of the predominantly African-American neighborhood nearby — the Q&A session allowed some elaboration of this theme — and so many other interesting facts and ideas about the city as mid-century dawned that it’s impossible to recount them all. Which is exactly what an historian should do!

Then Gragg took over with a presentation on the Halprin part of the story. I remember reading some of what must have been Randy’s first stories for The Oregonian on the Lovejoy, Pettygrove and Forecourt (now Keller) fountains and their importance to the city as a model for great, nature-inspired open spaces, which fits our culture pretty perfectly. His enthusiasm for the plazas and for Halprin has only grown — leading him to organize an exhibition of Halprin’s drawings for the fountains, champion the Halprin Landscape Conservancy and participate in the Time-Based Art Festival’s Halprin event on Sunday, which reunites dancers with the fountains. Halprin, as Gragg pointed out in his presentation, is married to choreographer Anna Halprin, and his thinking about landscape design was deeply and explicitly influenced by her. Gragg’s work on this has been really important to the city on many levels, but for me it’s the way he has linked the past with the present, taken a strange and wonderful product of the past, suggested its importance to us now and argued for making it even more important in the future. This is the best sort of history/conservancy.

But back to our story. Gragg showed us photographs of the bulldozed district and then provided a short history of the Halprins and their involvement in that amazing San Francisco milieu of the early ’60s, in which a very great book lurks if it hasn’t already been written, full of great artists, musicians, choreographers (Anna Halprin) and designers (Lawrence Halprin), not to mention old Beats and early hippies. He explained how Halprin’s landscape designs were affected by Anna’s choreographic ideas, primarily, I think, in their focus on the quality of the “experience” that the spaces offered. Halprin wanted to create a space that was more than “pretty”; he wanted active places that invited participation. Think of them perhaps as “open source” spaces, a commons available for on-the-spot modifications.

Gragg then told the story of the reception of the fountains in Portland (tumultuous like the times, the late ’60s) and the rest of the country, quoting Ada Louise Huxtable on the Forecourt/Keller Fountain (“one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance”). And finally he linked the Halprin plazas and fountains to the succession of public spaces that have come along since, from Pioneer Courthouse Square to Tanner Springs, arguing that they shared “DNA” with the Halprin project. This sounds right: Portland public spaces since Halprin take into account the visitor living in the site. They aren’t pristine, for eyes only, prescriptive places; they invite interaction, physical and mental. And their designers have all acknowledged Halprin as an important influence.

Unintended consequences. Abbott tracked them with relish on Monday night. So: Memorial Coliseum on the East Side, meant federal urban renewal money available on the west side, leading to plans for South Auditorium leveling that were affected by the highway department’s siting of I-405, which led to a larger chunk of redevelopment, which when it tried to extend into Lair Hill was beaten back by neighborhood activists, who helped start the neighborhood association movement in Portland, which was the fertile ground on which Neil Goldschmidt planted the seeds of contemporary Portland. That sort of thing, which couldn’t be more fun, really.

I get stuck at the beginning, though, with the SOM design, and that leads me along different speculative lines. What if the design had stayed somehow within the Portland grid? What would that have looked like? Can we imagine Halprin fountains far more engaged than they are now (and in less need of “discovery” not to mention conservancy)? What if NOTHING had been done? In Portland: Planning, Politics and Growth in a Twentieth-Century City, Abbott writes that a leading downtown investor, Bill Roberts, suggested that the development saved Portland’s downtown. But South Portland might have become the city’s first great “re-made” neighborhoods, the first Hawthorne Blvd. or Alberta St. or Mississippi St., if not for the bulldozers. Instead, it was treated as a “blight”, a problem that needed elimination. And what kind of city do we have if we radically extend the SOM program? It’s hard to imagine — office and residential towers surrounded by greenery as far as the eye can see? More important, what would it be like to live in this SOM city? That’s the lesson Halprin teaches (at least one of them): How does it delight us, serve us, surprise us?

A reminder of the Anna-Lawrence/dance-design link is part of the last day of the TBA festival. City Dance combines music by Third Angle New Music Ensemble, dance from Linda K. Johnson, Cydney Wilkes, Linda Austin and Tere Mathern and words by Gragg. It’s free and starts at 1 and 4 p.m. in the Halprin plazas. Start at Keller Fountain.