Save Lawrence Halprin’s UN Plaza Fountain from Demolition

UN Plaza in San Francisco / Christina Dikas, The Cultural Landscape Foundation
UN Plaza in San Francisco / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

San Francisco Civic Center’s new public realm plan, which intends to create a gathering place for all San Franciscans that is clean, safe, and inviting, threatens landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s fountain of granite slabs at United Nations Plaza with demolition. Of three alternative schemes under consideration for UN Plaza, only one retains the fountain.

The alternatives include interchangeable design elements. One emphasizes performance and gathering; one history and civic life, with a restored Halprin fountain; and the third, diversity and culture. With some public input, designers at CMG Landscape Architecture are presently consolidating the draft frameworks. The context is a Better Market Street plan that promises a vibrant streetscape with new furnishings, plantings, public art, and plazas that support diverse activities.

My case for retaining the fountain is based on its merit as public art. Halprin’s work is grounded in the European tradition of using art, architecture, and city planning as vehicles for social change towards a more just society.

Market Street is the city’s premier commercial corridor and transit spine. UN Plaza is at its mid-point and serves as the gateway to the Beaux Arts Civic Center. In the 1960’s, Lawrence Halprin & Associates, working with John Carl Warnecke & Associates and Mario Ciampi and Associates, was engaged to save this Path of Gold Street Lamps from disinvestment and decline by creating a series of linked pedestrian spaces from the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero to the Civic Center at Mid-Market.

Path of Gold Illume / Linda Day

In the pre-WW II era, Market Street was one of the world’s great streets, with a financial district at the waterfront transitioning to a shopping district, and then in its mid-section, the city’s fabulous theaters and entertainment venues. By the 1950’s and 1960’s, Mid-Market was blighted. Theaters that escaped demolition were showing porno films and featuring live nudes.

To the north, the Tenderloin had become a tawdry district of poorly managed single-room occupancy hotels, street prostitution, and open drug dealing.

UN Plaza was created by closing off two streets that intersected Market Street at odd angles, Leavenworth, north of Market and Fulton, northwest of Market. Designed to be an allée, City Hall terminated the vista.

UN Plaza in San Francisco / Prayitno Photography

Using Sierra Nevada granite blocks from the same quarry as the French Renaissance-inspired City Hall for the fountain, Halprin brought the beauty of California’s landscape of mountains and sea to persons without the means for travel to Yosemite.

UN Plaza in San Francisco / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The asymmetrically-stacked granite blocks represent the seven continents of the world. Computer programming was intended to moderate the water level in the 100-foot-wide sunken base so that it would rise and fall like the ocean tides as well as moderate flow from the nine jets in response to the winds. The programming did not work as intended; the water is maintained at a set level.

Halprin was a Modernist and part of the Cubist and Constructivist art movements. When the plaza design was under consideration in 1974, Arts Commissioners fought bitterly over the fountain, with some members insisting that a more classical option would better suit the Civic Center’s assemblage of classical buildings. They recommended a 1904 monument celebrating the admission of California to the union. The image below shows the 1904 Phelan Fountain that was preferred. After a series of public meetings, six of the eight Arts Commission members voted in favor of Halprin’s design.

Phelan Fountain, 1904 / Wikimedia Commons

From its completion in 1975, the fountain was a focus of complaints about it being used for toileting, bathing, and laundry by the many homeless persons in the vicinity. The plaza was a gathering place for illegal drug users and dealers. In 2003, a U.N. Plaza Working Group, representing citizens and businesses, recommended its removal.

According to a San Francisco Examiner article from 2004, the plan to replace it with a taxi stand was rejected by the Board of Supervisors; they and Mayor Gavin Newsom supported retaining the fountain. Today, continual police presence constrains the least desirable public behavior. A bus-size mobile command center on Market Street at U.N. Plaza and police officers on bikes patrol the area.

Public ambivalence toward Modernist design is another argument against the fountain. For example, a SF Weekly article refers to it as a “shameful pile of cement-covered-rebar.” There may come a time when Modernist public art will be as revered as the paintings and sculptures around which entire art museums exist. The UN Plaza fountain evokes Franz Marc’s Stony Path (Mountains/Landscape), a 1911/1912 oil painting in the collection of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) that abstracts nature using bold forms and sharp angles in a Cubist manner.

Franz Marc, Steiniger Weg [Stony Path], formerly Gebirge/Landschaft [Mountains/Landscape], 1911/1912, oil on canvas; 51 1/2 x 39 3/4 in. (130.81 x 100.97 cm), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the Women’s Board and Friends of the Museum / Wikimedia Commons

The fountain is meant to be immersive and in motion. Halprin’s wife, dancer Anna Halprin, and his Harvard University teacher, Constructivist artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, influenced Halprin and his focus on how people move within a landscape. Moholy-Nagy saw space as being in motion, not static. The fountain was to evoke the tides, the granite slabs were intersecting geometric bodies as in Moholy-Nagy’s AI X at the SF MOMA, and as shown here in his watercolor and graphite on paper, Planes Cutting Planes.

Planes Cutting Planes by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy / Yale University Art Gallery
UN Plaza visitor immersed in the fountain / Linda Day

Contemporary photos show that the plaza is a comfortable space, despite the lack of formal seating for persons who live in the nearby Tenderloin’s single-room occupancy hotels or on its sidewalks. The nearby Tenderloin is bereft of public outdoor spaces. And the people enjoying the plaza are not those most likely to see the SF MOMA’s collection of art. Here they can sit surrounded by beautiful buildings in a space made special by the fountain. Here they can enjoy a lunch provided by San Francisco Food Not Bombs.

UN Plaza users / Linda Day
UN Plaza users / Linda Day

Dr. Linda L. Day is an emeritus professor of city and regional planning, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is a planner, author of This House Is Just Right: A Design Guide to Choosing a Home and Neighborhood, and contributor at Planetizen.

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