claass HAUS is finally back this week with Denver's Skyline Park.
If you champion yourself a preservation advocate or just a lover of modern architecture and landscapes, I'll warn you now- this story doesn't end well. Like many monuments of Modernism, Lawrence Halprin's emblematic masterwork, Skyline Park, almost seemed fated to meet the wrecking ball. But although its story is a cautionary tale about the difficult task of preserving modern spaces, the design remains valuable to the understanding of Halprin's unique and enduring Modernist legacy,
In any event, I wish I could have seen this place. Here are the basics.
WHO: Designed by pioneering landscape architect and environmental planner, Lawrence Halprin. Halprin studied at Cornell, University of Wisconsin, and Harvard before apprenticing for (another icon of Modern landscapes) Thomas Church. Known for his collaborative design processes, the integration of ecology and aesthetics, and the creation of diverse environmental experiences, Halprin designed some of the most notable landscapes of the twentieth century, including the Sea Ranch Community in Sonoma County, California, the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C., and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.
Read more about Halprin here and here.
WHAT: A one-acre linear park and plaza in the center of Denver. Covering three city blocks, the park served as a unifying experiential hub within the urban confines of the city's downtown core.
WHERE: Denver, Colorado.
WHEN: 1972-1975; demolished in 2003.
WHY: Conceived during a period of radical urban change, Halprin's Skyline Park was part of a larger urban renewal project (Skyline Redevelopment Area) intended to revitalize and develop the long-neglected city center. Lawrence Halprin and Associates saw the park as an interactive destination for the city's residents, workers, and visitors and developed a choreographed processional space that functioned as infrastructure for Denver's daily life.
HOW: Inspired by local landforms, Halprin and Associates designed a park reflective of Colorado's rugged, natural beauty. Bringing nature into the city, Skyline Park successfully evoked the uniqueness of place, provoking personal response from each observer. Within the site boundaries, sunken walkways meandered through concrete steps and ledges and maintained a rhythmic irregularity and casual informality that encouraged visitors to engage their surroundings. Abstracted, geometric fountains on each block echoed the area's red rock formations and were connected by brick and concrete pathways and clusters of trees.
The three-block park successfully provided a cohesive experience through the use of consistent materials and themes. The pinkish-red cast stone forms of the fountains and the sunken walkways, along with the brick paving, water elements, and lush plantings, formally linked the park's spaces, providing visual and spatial connectivity to the linear site. Like a mountain stream weaving through the canyons, Skyline Park acted as a gathering place for people to experience nature and the city in a variety of ways.
By any measure of the word, Skyline Park was an instant success. It remained a well-used and well-loved park until the 1980s, when the recession, increased social problems, and a period of deferred maintenance left the park to deterioration. Following years of conflicting ideas on how to redevelop the site, the City and County of Denver agreed to demolish most of Halprin's design for Skyline Park (in the face of strong opposition from local and national preservationists), and in 2003, the removal of the innovative Modernist landscape and a unique symbol of Denver commenced. That same year Lawrence Halprin received the Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.
Ironically, much of the hostility around Skyline Park was a product of its association with the urban renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted in the loss of a large number of historic resources (not to mention the displacement of people). Seeking distance from this regretful part of the city's history, Denver ended up repeating the same mistake by removing another significant architectural gem in the name of progress.
You can read more about Halprin's work (including Skyline Park) here.
*Two of the fountains and a handful of other elements designed by Halprin remain within the redesigned park.
All photographs are courtesy of the Library of Congress (co0917):
Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), Creator Lawrence Halprin, Ann Komara, Inc., Colorado Preservation, and Sponsor University of Colorado at Denver/Health Sciences Center, Department of Landscape Architecture. Denver, Denver County, Colorado, 2000.
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