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