Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park Is Now History

Lawrence Halprin’s now defunct Skyline Park in Denver gets the full treatment in a new book by Ann Komara, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Colorado, Denver. In more than 140 pages filled with beautiful drawings and photographs, Komara delves into the economic and social trends that spurred the creation of Halprin’s park and led to its eventual decline.

Komara writes that Halprin, who recently died, is one of the most substantial and influential landscape architect of the second half of the twentieth century. His Sea Ranch in Sonoma, California is rightly famous in the design world, while millions of visitors love the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. Halprin, who won innumerable design awards and the highest American presidential medals, also designed the landscape approach to Yosemite National Park.

In this book, it’s his designs and design process for the park, more than his design theories, that we see and understand most vividly. Komara writes: “While a critical appraisal of his legacy is still needed, it is possible to glean insights into his design process, his design expression, and the experimental aspects of his works by taking a closer look at one of his works — Skyline Park.”

Skyline Park came out of urban renewal efforts in the late 1960s in downtown Denver. Occupying a central 100-foot-wide swath of downtown, the 3.2-acre park, which was finally completed in 1976, was seen as a way to create a vital community space in a dense downtown while also boosting commercial activity. The park was one of the first designed to be a “cooling microclimate” in tune with the local natural environment. It’s certainly a prime example of Mid-Century Modern, but in landscape form. The park is almost more sculpture than park, with its “experimental materials, spatial forms, or images.”

Komara is thoughtful about the history and has clearly done her homework, but uses a light touch with all the historical information. She delves into the history of downtown Denver’s development but seems to take off when she gets to Halprin’s design process, which was detailed and intense. Enlivened with drawings from Halprin and his designers, you get a real sense for how Halprin worked with the local development authority and developers and conceptualized, designed, and implemented the park.

At the start, Halprin set the park in its local natural environment. He “studied local landforms and ecologies to create a design for the park that would resonate with Denver residents and visitors.” His notes and drawings show the influence of the Colorado foothill landscape and the sand stone rock formations of the Rocky Mountains. The region’s arroyos, deeply cut streams or channels, which “support cooler, moister micro-climates with indigenous trees and shrubs,” are clearly represented in Skyline Park’s designs.

The park’s rich material palette also refer to Red Rock’s sandstone. “As sandstone itself was deemed too expensive, concrete mixed with a local sandstone aggregate was specified to simulate the stone. A tawny rose color tint was fully blended throughout, and the stone matrix was visible on all surfaces once they have been sandblasted, thus forging the local connection through color and also somewhat through texture.” Halprin and his team also introduced Native American beadwork patterns into the original design, but they were later abandoned.

The park’s overall design also shows Halprin’s unique take on urban renewal. Streets were transformed into “linear spatial structures threaded into a system of pedestrian movements that hold a linear directional flow regardless of where they are entered.” The plazas show how Halprin’s skill in designing public spaces that could provide “nuanced experiences for visitors.”

The mix of trees and signature use of water helped make the place a “connected and unified whole.” “From the consistent planting and the line of street trees to concrete coloration and treatment, from custom lights to trash receptacles,” all worked together to form a new, unique place. The fountains also succeeded in drawing people in. Komara eloquently states: “It was not a traditional park; it was an experience of place, a choreographed sequence of spaces in a sculptural landscape.”  

When the park came online in the mid-1970s, it was celebrated. In a local publication, it was highlighted as among the best Denver had to offer, a “restful spot in the center of a major metropolis.” But Komara says its success may have also ultimately undermined it. As taller buildings came in, this “small yet significant public space” was subsumed. People “desired more from the adjacent park,” calling for its renovation. Komara lists the many “points of vulnerability” that led to its decline: new development messed with the access points so that the surrounding storefronts no longer “activated it;” an “elevated pedestrian system around the park had become “outdated;” a new mall siphoned people off the park; programming and maintenance dropped off; and, lastly, the park had become vulnerable politically, seen as a “haven for young ‘mall rats,’ a destination for the homeless, and a hidden zone for outre behavior such as drug use.” Perhaps equally as important as those other causal factors: the park’s “style,” its design, may also have been come to be seen as outdated. It’s strong sculptural forms “did not mesh with popular conceptions of parks as grassy, leafy, rolling terrain, reminiscent of natural meadows.”

Beginning in the 1990s, the park spurred a debate about how downtown Denver should look. The park had declined (Komara says relatively slowly) and the business community that had once supported the park now actively sought to replace it. As Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) just argued in a recent Huffington Post article, many factors, including the lack of maintenance or programming, can undo masterful Modern landscapes like Skyline. In his intro to this book, he also adds that in contrast to buildings, “landscapes…often die quiet deaths.”

Perhaps with the death of Skyline Park along with the recent demise of Peavey Plaza, more cities will work a bit harder to keep their Modern jewels shining brightly. Who knows? They may come back in style again.

Read the book.

Image credits: (1) Princeton Architectural Press, (2) From the RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment, George Braziller, 1970, (3) Lawrence Halprin & Associates, (4) photo courtesy of Gifford Ewing

3 thoughts on “Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park Is Now History

  1. bmilligan 11/08/2012 / 1:58 pm

    Quite surprised that this article does not mention what was perhaps the most innovative design component of the park, particularly in consideration of when it was built. Skyline Park was also a three block long stormwater detention basin, designed for both 10 and 100 year storm events. It was sunken so it could periodically flood and detain stormwater runoff from surrounding surfaces and rooftops. It was one of the first highly-urbanized examples of a multifunctional plaza with a stormwater function, a precedent that is still innovative to this day in the US. Perhaps how little this aspect of the design is discussed, or known is its biggest success we can take forward.

    • caroline 11/09/2012 / 8:56 am

      very interesting! Do you know where I can find more about the stormwater function of the park? thanx!

    • Ann Komara 11/09/2012 / 5:54 pm

      excellent comment — The book DOES mention this important storm water function, which was a direct response to the urban master plan, and well known in urban water engineering circles. To feed more of your interest on this, may I suggest you look for my forthcoming article on this facet of the project: Komara, Ann. “Water Events: Flow and Collection in Skyline Park,” Landscape Journal, Special Issue on Lawrence Halprin. V 32, no. 1-2 (Fall 2012): 109-124.

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