Lawrence Halprin’s Portland legacy

Lawrence Halprin was a West Coast landscape architect who developed a radical strategy in the 1960s: why not design urban spaces, and especially water features, for public interaction? At a time when decorative fountains were for viewing and not for playing in, this was a revolutionary idea.

His most well-known embodiment of this concept was in Portland, Oregon, where he developed an interconnected series of plazas as part of a large-scale urban renewal project to revitalize the downtown area. He intended the two major water features, the Lovejoy and Keller fountains, to evoke the rushing water of the nearby High Sierras, while at the same time inviting people not just to look but also to participate by getting into the water.

Lovejoy Fountain, named after a Portland pioneer, was built in 1966 and was designed to represent the spirit of Oregon’s streams and waterfalls. The installation was constructed using concrete geometrical forms at various levels, with rushing water splashing down stepped terraces that gradually radiated out into the plaza. Halprin said he envisioned the space as an outdoor room where events, concerts, and dance events would take place.

Even more evocative of the mountains is the Ira Keller Fountain, completed in 1970. As in the previous water feature, Halprin used concrete forms to create stylized wilderness waterfalls, but this time in a dramatic series of walls from which the falling water could be viewed and experienced from above, below, or even behind.

According to photos of opening day at these fountains, there were hundreds of people around, about, and in these fountains, just like Halprin had intended. At the opening ceremonies of the Keller Fountain, Halprin himself jumped into the water, suit and all.

Unfortunately, those days are long gone, with signs posted at entrances to discourage entry into the water. I have a feeling the dangerous-looking combination of height, water, and concrete didn’t sit too well with the city’s legal department, despite the safety features that had been built into it.

But when I was there recently, a few people were still enjoying the water – one woman sat in solitary repose with her feet in the water at the top of the Lovejoy Fountain and several sun worshippers relaxed on the plaza above the Keller Fountain. It may not be what Halprin had in mind, but his ideas paved the way for modern splash pads and (less litigious) interactive fountains. In the meantime, his legacy of playful possibilities remains.