City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America

By Robby HerbstJanuary 12, 2015

City Choreographer by Alison Bick Hirsch

THE PHRASE “maximum feasible citizen participation” was not developed by a civil rights organization or an avant-garde arts group. The United States Federal Government penned it as a policy directive. The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 facilitated the creation of localized, federally funded Community Action Programs (CAPs) in poor neighborhoods. These CAPs (at first made up of private and non-profit groups) were given federal dollars to develop on-the-ground solutions to administer anti-poverty and redevelopment projects in cities. This was a broad, yet relatively undefined, mandate for active citizen involvement. It was believed that poor and minority communities would benefit from having a hand in creating the programs meant to change their material conditions, and that this “participation” would have a civic benefit — that it would literally enfranchise the previously disenfranchised.

Though considered only moderately successful in its first years, in 1966 the EOA was altered and the Community Action Program became The Model Cities Program. From 1966 until the program petered out in 1975, big city mayors were given the power of purse over these locally held redevelopment and anti-poverty initiatives. And while the language of “maximum feasible citizen participation” was replaced by policy clauses asking for “participation of the residents in the areas involved,” Model Cities specifically mandated that one-third of participants in groups developing anti-poverty programs be constituted by the poor themselves.

This War On Poverty neologism, “maximum feasible citizen participation,” can be seen as a subtext informing the 1960s, a decade referred to as the “decade of participation” by John H. Strange, professor of public administration at the University of Massachusetts. It’s also the subtext of Alison Hirsch’s book on influential landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, titled City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America.

City Choreographer takes its title from two “choreographic” elements of Halprin’s practice. Critically examining these elements in equal parts, Hirsch discusses how Halprin developed and implemented a form of architectural rendering in tandem with his building practice. This rendering system he came to call “motation.” Through motation, Halprin and his employees plotted the ways individuals and publics could experience moving through the immersive environments they built. Halprin referred to his built landscape sequences as “scores,” using the performance phrase of his contemporaries, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Hirsch illustrates how these projects become, at their finest moments, stages for fixed urban happenings.

The second meaning of Hirsch’s title comes from Halprin’s group work practice, initiated in the 1960s, and performed into the 1970s. Halprin developed and applied a system for coordinating participatory groups he referred to as the RSVP Cycle. RSVP may be very roughly correlated to Guy Debord’s practice of urban exploration known as the dérive. Both the dérive and RSVP seek to explore elements of the man-made and natural environment, but the dérive has a critical, anti-capitalist orientation, while the RSVP Cycle is ameliorative, a practical creative group process. And as Hirsch points out, Halprin designed RSVP to mediate the effects of industrialization, rather than, as in Debord’s case, to incite a revolutionary break with history.

Lawrence Halprin was born in Brooklyn in 1916, a subject of the modern era. In his teens he lived for several years in Palestine and was involved in the founding of a kibbutz. After attending school at Cornell, he received an MS in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In Madison, Lawrence met and married Anna Schuman (later Anna Halprin), whose highly influential career as a post-modern dance innovator would inspire and challenge his own thinking. After the University of Wisconsin, Halprin attended the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, deeply affected by the expatriate teachers from the German Bauhaus. After a stint in the military, Lawrence and Anna settled in the Bay Area in the mid-1940s. There, Lawrence began his life as a landscape architect. During the postwar recovery, Halprin worked on private residences and the development of early shopping malls with the firm Church and Associates. Later, he formed his own firm, Lawrence Halprin and Associates. With them he embarked on his greatest public works — redesigning urban centers as environmentally aware, often participatory, public spaces.

Hirsch doesn’t examine the makeup of the local civic and business associations that sought out Halprin’s designs for their redevelopment schemes in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Fort Worth. Nor does she discuss the instances of slum clearance in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, she focuses on the ways that Halprin’s redevelopments seek to reconnect individual urbanites to the natural world and human community, things missing from mid-20th century urbanized spaces.

In 1963, the Portland (Oregon) Development Corporation (no relationship to a federal CAP) hired Halprin to design the landscape accompanying an 83-acre redevelopment on the southern fringe of its downtown. The demolition of a low-income immigrant neighborhood created the site. The footprint for Halprin’s Portland scheme would expand and reach completion in 1970. Using fountains, concrete, berms, basalt, and plantings, his landscape design sequence draws upon the ecology of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a landscape narrative that extends over many blocks. The central motif is the movement of water from a high mountain peak, down to tree line, through the forested canyons on the shoulders of the Cascade Range. Hirsch takes care to describe how the sequence sought to evoke, rather than imitate, the ecosystem. It begins with a Source Fountain that quietly spills from medium-height plinth in a courtyard. From there it continues over planted malls to Lovejoy Fountain Plaza. Its waters move over the concrete fountain, sounding like a creek rushing down the side of a mountain. The next feature is knolled Pettygrove Park, planted with native trees. It concludes at the Auditorium Forecourt (now called Keller Fountain Park) inspired by the nearby Columbia River Gorge.

Of Lovejoy Fountain Park, Hirsch writes: “The creative team intended for the forms themselves to act as an open score, inviting environmental participation without dictating what kind.” Glossing over a spate of “hippie weddings” that took place there, Hirsch illustrates her point with a letter sent to Halprin. The note describes moments witnessed by its un-credited author at Lovejoy:

Woman, 45 or so: “I came to the fountain just to see it. I put my toe in and was lost. I had to walk up the steps, dress, nylons, who cares? What a feeling! Such Freedom.”

Little girl, 4: she steps into the lower pond, comes right out, runs fast while looking over her shoulder. She steps. She runs back into the pond. Repeats same over and over. I ask, “What are you doing?” She points to her foot pattern on the cement and says, “The wet likes to follow me.”

Women, 30: “If I couldn’t see, I’d come here just to listen and touch. It’s a living creature, giving something of life to everyone.”

Hirsch suggests indirectly that, by offering a site for individuals to connect with the world far beyond the day-to-day life of the urban city grid, Halprin’s Portland landscape creates a stage for the sorts of idiosyncratic and liberated individuality celebrated in the television program Portlandia. She writes: “The enhanced sense of urban choice insures a more creative and participatory lifestyle in which people can improvise rather than feel constrained or controlled by limited options.”

Moving through the environment in an unrestrained, yet directed fashion is central to Halprin’s group work practice, formalized as the RSVP Cycles. The process developed from his design approach, responding to the environments where his works became situated. RSVP is a tool for groups to experience this sort of creative evolution together. It is a methodology to investigate, propose, evaluate, and perform all kinds of concepts in the built landscape. It stands for Resources (R), Scoring (S), Valuation (V), Performance (P). Halprin eventually found RSVP suited for the Model Cities Program and its citizen-participation clause.

In a largely critical section of her book, however, Hirsch argues that RSVP was used by Halprin to confirm his own design instincts, rather than to open up his practice to wider participatory modalities that didn’t conform to his pluralistic worldview. Already in 1969, Sherry Arnstein wrote a critique of the Model Cities Program, called A Ladder of Citizen Participation, claiming that Model Cities failed to deliver on the promise of community empowerment for disenfranchised blacks and poor of America. Arnstein, who had been the chief advisor to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on citizen participation, proposed an analytic typology in the form of a ladder. It defines the forms that instrumentalized schemes of governmental citizen participation can take. The bottom rung of Arnstein’s ladder, classifying the most coercive relationship, is “manipulation.” At the ladder’s top is “citizen control.” Hirsch’s chapter is called “Facilitation or Manipulation,” and she documents instances when Halprin assembled more and less homogenous groups of individuals to explore the resources of a city to develop a plan (S) for its future. These sessions were engineered to confirm Halprin’s aesthetic, archetypal, and environmental concerns, or to support plans of town fathers.

Halprin was first hired by HUD to implement RSVP in Everett, Washington in 1969. His firm was contracted to complete a study involving “experienced-based ‘situations’ and more conventional means of public input.” Halprin designed scores “performed” by selected citizens as a means to generate feedback. The feedback was shaped into a report — the 1972 Everett Community Plan. The scores involved environmental awareness exercises (close your eyes, listen to the city), instructed walks (purchase something, ask someone a question), group car cruises, helicopter flights, and interventions in public spaces (an improvised downtown park).

Through the early 1970s, Halprin had limited success in drawing actual creative responses — the kinds that would represent the diverse will of a creatively engaged community. An exception was a 1973 Cleveland workshop where, after role-playing exercises, participants were directed to navigate the city’s downtown. A “scoring” session elicited suggestions of a “ski run from the top of terminal tower,” “helicopter rides to the waterfront,” and “a playboy-type club for ‘dirty old men.’” But elsewhere, the norm was narrow framing and unequal participation.

Hirsch suggests it might be inappropriate to read Halprin’s work in light of Arnstein’s radical participation ladder. She suggests we may better understand Halprin as an architect captivated by the ideals of democracy, yet controlled by his ideas as an architect. She compares him favorably to a “generalist planner,” “concerned with the whole man and comprehensive relationships,” as opposed to an “advocate planner,” fostering challenging encounters with power through planning.” Hirsch presents Halprin as a modernist builder of bold (and imperfect) ideas, rather than a post-modern deconstructionist challenging the language of how things are imagined and built.

I picked up City Choreographer hoping to be inspired by Halprin’s use of progressive group-work techniques during the civil rights era. The photographs I’d seen from a summer workshop Halprin conducted at California’s Sea Ranch in 1968 are striking. This workshop was recently celebrated in an exhibition put together by the Graham Foundation called Experiments in Environment. Attendees were photographed building fantastic driftwood towers on wild beaches and discovering themselves naked as humans in each other’s company. Several years ago I’d also discovered notes from a Halprin workshop conducted as a precursor to a large-scale civic happening known as City Dance; it was developed by Anna Halprin in partnership with Lawrence.

Anna Halprin is framed by Hirsch as a foil for Lawrence’s inconsistent public ambitions. Where Lawrence wanted to develop a model that could, if applied appropriately, be useful in facilitating democratic publics towards common aesthetic ends, Anna chose something more practical: to integrate her dance company. As a socially engaged artist, it was Anna, not Lawrence, who met with the political complexities of participation and was transformed. During the late 1960s and ’70s, Anna’s work morphed from a more traditional staged dance, to one where methodologies of movement are used as a tool of social amelioration (for cancer patients, victims of violence, the elderly). Lawrence’s work never managed a similar transformation, and community engagement never deeply affected his approach to designing and building landscapes.

Anna Halprin’s City Dance (1976–1977) was something like a dérive, a happening, and an experimental civic dance pageant. Using posters, radio, newspaper, and television to broadcast its open choreography, the dance invited San Francisco to take part in a procession. It began at sunrise on San Francisco’s Twin Peaks. Winding through the city from there, it ended at sunset on the (Lawrence Halprin-designed) Embarcadero Plaza. On the way, citizens were invited to join in, with or without costumes, to improvise, pretend they were on a rocket ship while riding BART, or move to the beat of diverse music in South Park. It was meant as an “open score” meeting of the whole city, where the people of San Francisco was enjoined to discover how they could move together in a more embracing manner.

As a part of his HUD-sponsored engagement with Everett, Lawrence hoped to put together “Everett Day,” but was stymied by “organizational limitations.” Hirsch writes: “This event would have choreographed the people of Everett in a procession through their city in order to generate an even wider-reaching ‘common foundation’ that would stimulate creative response amid a collective public.” This project, with its intention to harness “a major public relations effort,” would have functioned very much like Anna’s City Dance. The ambition to create a citywide improvisatory dance as an element within a citizen-led, architect-organized, redevelopment inquiry points to the ambitions and complexity of Halprin’s approach. On the other hand, while a city dance could have been an awakening moment for Everett, a more disciplined political mind would ask whether time, energy, and tax dollars could be better spent strictly analyzing the environmental, economic, and demographic forces aiding inequality and stagnation in the city.

That era of “maximum feasible citizen participation” that partly defined and benefited Halprin’s career has morphed into something less giving. Participation is now frequently understood as a model for brand involvement, and takes place online, rather than being conceived as radical social enfranchisement. I had hoped to find in City Choreographer a portrait of the ways an architect had worked in partnership with the federal government and diverse urban populations to benefit society. What Alison Hirsch gives us instead is a book describing ways that an artist’s aspirations can misalign with an artist’s vision.

Today, as contemporary artists, designers, and internet users are pointing at “participation” itself as a value, beyond the meaning of any specific application, it is important to consider Lawrence Halprin — his successful scores, and his imperfect approaches.


Robby Herbst is a frequent contributor to KCET’s Artbound and a co-editor of Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices.

LARB Contributor

Robby Herbst is an interdisciplinarian interested in socio-political formations, behavioral architecture, languages of dissent, and counter cultures. He co-founded the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, and currently instigates the Llano Del Rio Collective’s guides to Los Angeles. He is a frequent contributor to KCET’s Artbound. He is the co-editor, with Nicole Antebi and Colin Dickey, of Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices. He is a recipient of a Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for essays exploring the phenomenology of social practice art and protest.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!