Lawrence Halprin & Associates –The Unsung Heroes

by George McLaughlin

 

Lawrence Halprin, 1997, photograph by Kim Steele

 

I clearly remember the time my fellow architect, John came to me, almost in tears. We were both working at the renowned landscape architect’s office, Lawrence Halprin, in San Francisco. He had been working on a presentation drawing for almost a week. When it was almost complete, our boss Larry, came over to his desk, looked at the rather grand drawing for a moment and then took out his felt tip pen and signed his name in the corner thus taking possession and credit for the actual drawing. It would have been okay with John if he had put the office stamp on the drawing, thus taking credit for the office as a whole rather than himself.  I hate to say it, I donʼt think any of the staff existed in Larryʼs eyes other than as a way to help make him famous.

 

 

I had the pleasure of working in the mid 60’s to early 70’s at Lawrence Halprin & Associates. The reputation and adulation that Larry has today (although recently deceased) seems to be as a one man show. He garnered all the credit for everything that came out of his office.  There were many folks that contributed to his reputation. During my time at the office there were probably several hundred talented people who passed through the office.

 

The incident with Johnʼs drawing, which was typical of similar incidents in the office, as in many other megalomaniacs from finance to design, illustrates that there is much truth in that old adage, that behind every great man there is a great woman, or in this case a great staff of unsung heroes. It is my opinion that without these uncredited,  Larry would not have attained the renown that he, and they richly deserved.

 

The three folks that were the most important unsung heroes during my time were Larryʼs three partners, Richard Vignolo (Viggie), Don Carter, and Satoru Nashita. They were great landscape architects and great teachers and great people. This is not to denigrate Larry in any way. He was truly a unique person. After all, he was smart enough to hire them very early in his career, recognize their unique talents, and made them partners. Each of them, in their own way, were intrinsic in Larryʼs rise to fame.

 

Larry created a swath of design along the West Coast, from Seattle’s Freeway Park, built for the first time  over a freeway, to Portland’s terracing inner city fountains, to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Park — including the revolutionary Levi Park which utilized for the first time, indigenous drought resistant plants, down to Crocker Plaza in Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

Viggie was a design partner/office manager. He had a bubbling, ebullient personality that brought joy to all he encountered. Viggie hired almost all of us, assigned the jobs and mentored us along the way. He was also great with clients and the equal of Larry in his ability to schmooz. He took almost all the day to day management /aggravation off Larryʼs back. As Larry became more well-known he simply did not have enough time to get the jobs, do design, run the office etc. The three design partners, along with the staff did almost all of the work–with Larryʼs input from time to time. Almost as importantly Viggie separated the staff from Larryʼs more unpleasant qualities. Larry could be a real jerk! Viggie did not get much credit for his efforts, to his consternation. Late in my time at the office, Viggie was overthrown in one of the office coups, forcing Larry to become the de-facto office manager  — for which he was totally unsuited. Larry only lasted a couple of years in this role before leaving the office and going into a very successful and  satisfying almost one man show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sat and Don were more of the classic design principals. They more or less, along with Viggie, were involved with all of the jobs in the office. They were great designers, each with their own style. Sat had a sort of abstract romantic approach to design. Don was probably the most talented person in the office. His work was very creative and very personal. When you saw one of his jobs you knew instantly that it was a Don Carter job. I would also say that Sat and Don were among most decent individuals with whom I have ever worked. Architecture  is a very competitive and cut-throat profession. There are a lot of knives about. Not with Sat, Don and Viggie. They were the most open and helpful with all the staff, most of whom were very green. They were great mentors and great guys. It always amazed me that they were willing to work in the shadows with almost no recognition, and not great compensation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lawrence Halprin and Associates was definitely not a one man show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few other unsung heroes that deserve mention are Jerry and Jean. Jerry Rubin was the office financial manager. His thankless job was to lead us into greener ($$$) pastures. This was no easy task because from Larry on down, none of us were particularly respectful of budgets, timelines or any of the other elements that lead to financial success. Never the less, Jerry did his best to keep the wobbly ship afloat. Jean Walton was the one we called “the plant lady”. She was one of those rare landscape architects who really knew her plants. She was always willing to work with the staff and review planting plans so that the right plants would be used in the right places. Plants are like a painter’s palette and they have to be used correctly. Jean knew the right way. Jean was one of Larryʼs first, if not his first, hires. Jean was a very proper older woman and we, including Larry, were always on our best behavior around her. I think that Larry was a little afraid of her approbation for some of his less than charming tirades. He would always ask her to leave if he wanted to start yelling at the staff for some infraction, and there were many. Jerry and Jean were wonderful people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course,it should be said, the entire staff were actually also unsung heroes in the rise of the legend of Lawrence Halprin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It should be pointed out that the interaction between Larry and his partners made for a great place to work. Many of the staff, me included, were rather inexperienced. Larry was too busy to want to work closely with us, consequently we were given a great deal of freedom and responsibility on our projects. Everybody had a project and was not stuck in a corner, as in a lot of other offices, doing dreary details. It was a heady experience and I thank Larry, Viggie, Sat, and Don.

 

 

Photographs 2-13, courtesy of George McLauglin.

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“When he hit it, he hit it, and you can’t say that for any of his peers,” said Frank Gehry, America’s best-known living architect, who designed the 1986 exhibition on Halprin’s career at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “He saw there was a need for a new way to express the (urban) landscape at the end of the 20th century.”

 

 

Halprin's Keller Fountain, Ira Keller Foundation

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