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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2005 Issue

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

Halprin Fountain Finds New Life
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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