Lawrence Halprin’s Heritage Plaza: A Crying Shame by Susan Cohan

January 4, 2011

in Articles, From the USA, Garden Reviews, Reviews

A happy new year to all our readers. Here is a special plea, especially to readers from the USA, from Susan Cohan. Anne Wareham

Despite my swagger, I’m a softy.  I well up in tears when I am moved by something–not usually landscapes or gardens.  In most professional situations, I am able to contain myself.  At Lawrence Halprin’s Heritage Plaza in Fort Worth I was not…it made me cry.  I felt privileged to be able to visit on a private tour while in Fort Worth with APLD.  There I go again–moist eyes.

That a city with as much wealth as Fort Worth has let this park deteriorate is a travesty.  That the 8 million dollars needed to restore it hasn’t been raised is shameful.  Across town Phillip Johnson and John Burgee’s Water Gardens from the same era (1974) is a vibrant public space despite its stark and hard edged brutalist design.

Unlike the Water Gardens which could be dropped down in any open field, Halprin’s design honors the land it occupies and is/was a living hymn to the city’s past as well as its future.  There is growing grassroots support for its restoration, but make no mistake about it, it’s endangered.  Its future is in question–the necessary funds have not been raised.

A Crying Shame - Image 1 - Heritage Plaza

Honoring the past and the future

Heritage Plaza was built in 1977.  In an effort to help protect it, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places this year.

A Crying Shame - Image 2 - Plaza

A Crying Shame – Image 2 – Plaza

Surrounded by chain link fence since 2007, this modernist marvel of design and engineering is in an advanced state of disrepair and closed to the public.  It is a ghost town. So empty in fact, that the day we visited a grey fox was hunting in the central plaza–climbing the tree in the lower left hand corner of the image above and then disappearing down and empty rill into the wild beyond.

A Crying Shame - Image 3 - Water Source

The main pavilion and “source” for the water works

As it is across town at the Water Gardens, H2O was a central theme here, but instead of being a series of wet monolithic vignettes, its intimate spaces helped to tell the park’s story and humanize its experience.

A Crying Shame - Image 4 - First Drop

The first “drop”

Rills, falls, intricate water courses, ponds and wet walls follow a path throughout the park.  Even without the water, its suggested intent is clear.  To walk the plaza, you would have had  to interact with the water by listening to it, walking over it, alongside it and under it.  It guided and followed.

A Crying Shame - Image 5 - Stepping Stones

Stepping “stones” across a rill

Beyond the modernist concrete bones of Halprin’s vision for the space, built on the site of what was once the actual Fort Worth, what’s left now are poor repairs, rills filled with leaves and the overwhelming sense that something magical is missing.  There I go again…moist eyes.

A Crying Shame - Image 6 - Leaf Filled Rill

Where’s the water?

A Crying Shame - Image 7 - Empty Water Course

Poorly patched and empty water course

My photographs only begin to tell the story.  The park needs to be experienced to understand its full impact–even without the water so central to its design.  Halprin’s interlocking and intersecting grids are clear. The presence of the constantly moving water–now missing–would have softened hard edges and added shimmering and reflective qualities not seen without it.  It would have created a sound barrier from the noise of the city beyond its walls.  People and water would have breathed life into the now abandoned space.

A Crying Shame - Image 8 - Ghost Pond

Path across a ghost pond

A Crying Shame - Image 9 - Water Wall

The water wall just above the ghost pond

A Crying Shame - Image 10 - Water Wall From Above

View from the level above

There is a short history of the park and its decent and the struggle to save it on the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website.  For now though, the rills are everywhere, below, beside, above and even through the walls…yet they are empty, rotting and sad.  There I go, moist eyes again.

Susan Cohan, APLD

Susan Cohan’s website – follow Susan on Twitter : @susancohan

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