ONARCHITECTURE- Mauling the Mall? Don't change the bricks: Halprin

Lawrence Halprin, the renowned landscape architect who designed the Downtown Mall, urges the city not to change the size of the bricks as part of its proposed $7.5 million renovation.

While discussing the proposed $7.5 million renovation of the Downtown Mall, city planners and the MMM Design Group, the Norfolk-based design firm contracted to do the work, have repeatedly vowed to remain faithful to the original Lawrence Halprin design. Interestingly, no one bothered to consult Halprin himself.

Reached at the California studio where he's busy working on his memoirs, the 92-year-old landscape architect says he was unaware of the current plan to update his 1976 Charlottesville Mall design. Still, it wasn't unfamiliar news. Quite a few of his landscapes have been renovated and altered over the years– and in 2003, the same year he received the National Medal of Arts from President Bush, the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence, his Skyline Park in Denver was demolished.  

"My immediate reaction is anger," Halprin told the New York Times after that demo. "Then it's 'gee whiz.' We were like scouts in war, working on point to induce people to move back to the city."

Halprin, perhaps now best known for his sprawling memorial to FDR in Washington, says he has "fond memories" of his Charlottesville project, and he recalls the success of workshops among city planners and citizens. 

"I've always been proud of my design for the Downtown Mall," says Halprin. "It remains close to my heart." 

In recent years, Halprin has been widely recognized as a trend-setter for his work shaping public spaces. His Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco is widely cited as the first big adapted factory to merge public and private realms, and his Park Central Square in Springfield, Missouri, was recently made eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, despite being only 38 years old.

"Normally, places have to be at least 50 years old to be eligible for the register," says UVA architecture professor Elizabeth Meyer, "but because of Larry's reputation and status as a master, they're making an exception." 

However, Meyer– who's penning Halprin's bio for his book and affectionately calls him "Larry" (she organized a conference on his work 20 years ago when she was a Harvard student)– says the Charlottesville Mall is considered an even more significant Halprin design than Park Central Square. In fact, she plans to offer her third-year students a design studio class on the Mall this fall that will focus on what it means to renovate and add to a modern landscape design by someone as significant as Halprin.

Meyer says she's "very concerned" about the proposed renovation plan for the Mall. "I didn't realize that there were such extensive changes planned for the renovation until the last few weeks," she says. 

Indeed, as reported last week ["Mall renovation: 'Simple' $7.5 million solution?"], MMM's proposed design includes two new fountains, a Sister City Plaza (à la Rockefeller Center), a children's play area, secured café bollards, spaces for public art, and different sized bricks– among other proposed changes.

Meyer points out the many subtleties in Halprin's design that could easily be disturbed, such as the way the drainage runnels follow the curb and gutter line of the original street, or the way the current fountains, lighting, even the willow oak trees are intentionally arranged (clusters of trees are offset, rather than following a straight line down the Mall) to keep people from navigating the Mall along a direct route. 

"Larry's wife, Anna, is a fairly well-known dancer and choreographer and 'moving through spaces' has always been key to his work," Meyer says. 

That's one main reason she's also concerned about the proposed café bollards.  "Larry designed a lot of places where people could sit for free and have a coffee or eat their lunch," says Meyer. "Now, people have to pay to do that, and it can be expensive– the bollards kind of institutionalize the café space, and that's something Larry didn't intend to happen."

Indeed, as radio personality and historian Coy Barefoot recalled recently, some Mall mavens were outraged in the mid-'90s when cafés and restaurants began claiming the outdoor space, fearing it would clutter the Mall and make it less pedestrian friendly. 

"People were upset at the privatizing of public space," says Barefoot, who now finds it ironic that the city would now make those spaces permanent. "I guess it's a sign of how successful the Mall has become," he says.

However, for Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert the café bollards are simply a practical necessity. 

"A kid lost a finger last year at Rapture when one of the [free-standing] bollards fell over," he says. "And fire trucks have to move the seating around when they come through." Tolbert also points out that the café spaces in the middle of the Mall are not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compatible.

"It's a living, breathing space, not a museum," says Tolbert, responding to Meyer's concerns about preserving Halprin's design.    

In particular, though, Meyer is concerned about MMM's decision to replace the existing 4"x 12" bricks with less expensive, locally produced 5" x 10" bricks, which the firm claims will be "less likely to become unstable." She says the existing bricks are perhaps the most important aspect of Halprin's design. 

"He intentionally designed the Mall's surface so it doesn't look like a building wall," she says, "so it would differentiate itself from the historic buildings."

The proposed brick changes are also what most worries Halprin about the renovation. 

"I feel it's important to maintain the original brick size and pattern as the ground level establishes the character for the Mall," he says. "If the bricks need to be replaced, I urge the city to replace them with similar ones." 

Responding to such concerns, Tolbert acknowledges that the renovation is a departure from Halprin's design, but he says there are questions of functionality and cost to consider.  For example, he says the existing 4"x 12" bricks, which were laid in mortar, are not stable when laid in sand, which is now the preferred method. He also says the 4"x 12" bricks are uncommon, made only in a factory in Nebraska, and would be prohibitively expensive. Asked if he'd choose the 5" x 10" bricks over Halprin's reservations, Tolbert said he would. 

But Meyer wonders if the brick should be removed at all. "If you're considering sustainability issues, isn't it a waste to replace all that brick?" she asks. Why not restore and/or selectively replace the brick, matching it to existing brick, as is done in architecturally significant places like Boston's Beacon Hill?

As developer Oliver Kuttner has suggested, an experienced crew of masons could be hired for as little as $200,000 a year to work their way slowly down the Mall over the next few years, drastically reducing the cost of the project and proving less intrusive for businesses and pedestrians. In addition, more money could be spent on what Halprin considered to be unfinished parts of the Mall: the side streets (of which there are only four left to be done) and the east and west ends (since renovated), which he imagined as gathering places. 

Like Meyer and Halprin, architectural historian Aaron Wunsch worries that certain aspects of the design plan might ruin Halprin's design. But like Joe-Taxpayer, he also worries about the price.

"Good Lord– has the City lost its mind?" Wunsch asks. "The prospect of radical alterations to Halprin's design is bad enough. But at such obscene cost! What does it say that even a big-time developer like Oliver Kuttner, who presumably favors public investment in such things, sees the Mall's problems as a matter of maintenance, not extreme makeover? Money seems to be burning holes in our decision-makers' pockets."

However, as Tolbert points out, MMM's design plans are not cut in stone (The Hook contacted MMM's Joe Schinstock for comment, but he deferred all questions to the city). In fact, he says the addition of the two fountains are "add alternates" and would require funding from outside the proposed budget as would the proposed children's park and the Sister City Plaza. Ultimately, he says, it's City Council who will have the final say on what gets built. 

"We'll build what Council wants," he says.

In the meantime, we haven't heard the last from Meyer, who says she successfully spearheaded a campaign to preserve the Dumbarton Oaks gardens in Washington, DC, designed by Beatrix Farrand, the first professional woman landscape architect in the US, which was going to be dug up for an underground library in 1999. 

"I'm not going to see this Mall get changed," she vows.



Is there evidence of the brick's instability? This seems to be another example of excessive spending. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

It wasn’t so long ago that the City contended that it was so broke that it was considering reverting to a Town. Times sure have changed, seems that the City has so much money that they can’t wait to spend it. Perhaps the Revenue sharing deal with the County should be reviewed.

I'm appalled! The Mall went through some grim years when use and maintenance were both at a low ebb. Now that it is vibrant and lively is hardly the time to close it down (as this plan seems to imply) while much money is spent to correct fairly minor deficits and at the same time to deface a classic and much honored design. I feel sure there is a better way.

Normal bricks are scaled to the hand. The current bricks are scaled to the foot - literally. It's a subtlety that greatly affects the linear character of the Mall. How does compressing that scale not affect the entire perception of the place? Jim Tolbert needs to be very careful with the Downtown Mall, considering how unique it is and how well it already works.

While interning at the City in 2004, I was stunned to hear people there talking about the meandering nature of the Mall with no small measure of disdain. Their ideas for "fixing" the Mall, eagerly supported by Chamber of Commerce lobbying, centered around encouraging and facilitating movement along the Mall to improve the flow of consumers. The CoC also actively lobbies against vendors and their influence is seen in the regularization of Mall vendor areas. What CoC and the City don't seem to understand is that the Downtown Mall is actually quite a small place and that the meander actually helps it seem larger and more significant.

Regarding the bollards, cafe spaces are supposed to be limited to very specific areas in order to preserve public walkways and allow the fire department to negotiate the Mall. The City has strict guidelines regarding cafe space on the Mall. Jim Tolbert's complaint for the fire department is invalid; fixed bollards are actually just a way for the city to avoid enforcement of its own policies.

I'm embarrassed and amazed that the vast majority of those at City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce do not understand the subtleties of the design of Charlottesville's greatest, perhaps its ONLY, asset. The Mall is a destination, unique in its design and sense of place. Instead of tinkering with the Mall, trying to align it with a normative definition of a suburban mall, they need to shift their focus to to nearby blocks, leveraging the success of the Mall as a wildly popular public space to bring good development (and more consumers) downtown.

(I feel the need to apologize to Beth Meyer for not bringing this to her attention years ago. Sorry, Beth.)

It seems yet another citizen vs. city hall fight brewing. It's interesting that council is being asked to endorse yet another plan without the necessary price tags and ramiifications being presented by staff. Of course, everything will really be determined by Overrun O'Connell. MMM Design just presented plans to the BAR that council did not endorse, obviously encouraged to do so by city staff. I wonder if council will see fit to ask O'Connell why is he actively going against council's decisions.

Who cares if they're deliberately adding toxic waste to the water supply? Who cares if the EPA Union of Scientists demanded a moratorium on the addition of fluosilicic acid to water supplies, citing the "bone cancer cover-up"? Who cares about the little boys that will die of bone cancer thanks to these thugs? Answer: I do, and those responsible for adding fluorines to the water that children drink deserve to be shot.

I fully support dredging the mall..oops wrong story. Seriously the basic concept of the mall's design needs to be preserved and then maintained. That seems to be the most pressing issue. Heck, the city can't seems to ignore a lot of problems on the mall, such as the dead tree next to Wachovia. Maybe they are waiting for the branches to start falling on unsuspecting walkers before they will react.

The mall has aged with grace so don't mess it it with drawn out renovations. It has taken a long time to get to that point from the time when you could drive down Main Street. Those were the days when you could park in front of the Paramount to see a movie.......

As a student in Beth Meyer's upcoming design studio dealing with the downtown mall, it was with dismay and anxiety that i read of the proposed changes to this space. Dismay, because in my years as a student i've often pointed to the mall as an example of what this mysterious field of landscape architecture is about besides planting bushes next to architecture. Anxiety because i've lived in c-ville since 1975, when the mall was brand new and had 5 department stores, and am terrified at the prospect of proposing changes to a place that is second only to my parent's home in familiarity.

Would that city officials had the same respect. The materials, structure, and concept of the Downtown Mall deserve as much consideration as a historic work of modern landscape architecture as do the facades of the buildings as architecture. If money needs to be spent on the mall, how about finding a better way to deal with its stormwater runoff, which currently drains untreated into Shenk's Branch? How about affordable housing, to help prevent the mall from becoming Rodeo Drive?

And while i'm at it, PLEASE someone take down those awful security camera signs at the carousel-- it looks just like a pistol to the average three-year old!

Beyond its obvious contribution as an amazing public space, the Downtown Mall offers the unique opportunity to study an exemplary work by an internationally acclaimed 20th century American landscape architect. As a recent graduate of the UVa Landscape Architecture program, the Downtown Mall was as much a classroom to me as those on campus.

But you don't need a Landscape Architecture degree to understand these simple facts: Halprin is a national treasure, and Cville has the dumb luck to have of his best works. What better place to start developing a renovation plan than with the artist himself?

It's very sad to hear no one has called Halprin about the renovations. What are you waiting for, City Leaders? Call the man! Sounds like he still has a lot of heart for the Downtown Mall. I imagine he has a few thoughts on maintaining its integrity while tending its needs.