Halprin Fountain Finds New Life
At a time when many iconic landscapes are being bulldozed, a
San Francisco plaza gets a reprieve.
By Mark Hinshaw
In March of this year, when I visited the United Nations Plaza and its fountain
in San Francisco, it looked like yet another example of the demise
of works by Lawrence Halprin, FASLA.
Designed and built in 1975 as part of the building of the Bay Area
Rapid Transit tunnel and the reconstruction of Market Street, this
plaza was one of the most abused and neglected public spaces anywhere
in the country. For years, it attracted hordes of street people—some
harmless, others not—including drug addicts, drug sellers, panhandlers,
and people so desperate or angry that they seemed to be on the verge
of beating a random passerby to a bloody pulp.
Off to one side of the plaza, the fountain, designed by Halprin
in his signature style, was surrounded by a cordon of plastic chain-links
strung between metal posts protruding out of cement-filled buckets.
Prior to the cordon line being installed, street people would use
the fountain for bathing, urinating, defecating, and doing drugs.
City maintenance would frequently complain about having to pick
up needles, condoms, and feces.
For some time, the city had debated about what to do with the fountain.
Newspaper accounts see-sawed back and forth about whether to tear
it out or restore it. In 1994 there was a proposal, complete with
more than $900,000 of federal funding, to tear out the fountain
and replace portions of the plaza with a turnaround for taxis. That
scheme was met with howls of protest from those offended by removing
pedestrian space and destroying the fountain.
In an article for the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Jim Chappell,
president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association,
placed the blame for what was long the plaza’s sorry state squarely
on the city.
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