A Language of Movement

The environment exists for the purpose of movement.
—Lawrence Halprin, in Progressive Architecture 46 (July 1965)

On a bluff overlooking the Trinity River, just on the north edge of downtown Fort Worth, Lawrence Halprin’s Heritage Park Plaza sits vacant. Closed to the public since 2007 due to structural and safety concerns, Halprin’s urban park and water garden — the only one of the public spaces he designed for Texas that remains intact — is gradually sliding into ruin after years of neglect. (Aside: Halprin also designed the original landscaping of NorthPark Center in Dallas; however, after several expansions of the shopping center over the years, his original design has been modified. Heritage Park Plaza, Halprin’s most-preserved public space in Texas, is often cited as one of his best-loved achievements, along with such major projects as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Sea Ranch Community in California, and Freeway Park in Seattle.)

At the time of its completion in 1980, Heritage Park Plaza was a prime example of Lawrence’s commitment to landscape design that synthesized corporeal movement, kinesthetic awareness, and community involvement. The plaza is defined by a series of interconnecting rooms made of poured-in-place concrete and active water features, such as fountains, runnels, and walls that guide the visitor through a sequence of spaces toward the expansive overlook onto the confluence of the Clear and West Forks of the Trinity River and beyond.

The movement of water is a key aspect of Lawrence’s design. Not only did the water features help dissolve the noise of traffic beyond the park’s walls, they also provided a connection between the park and its location above the Trinity River. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation noted, “in parks such as Heritage Park, where water is integral to the design, the loss of water moving through the landscape because of disrepair and neglect so thoroughly impacts the aesthetic and the experience that the design becomes unintelligible.” As noted in the Plaza’s entry on the National Register of Historic Places, Heritage Park Plaza allowed Lawrence “…to further develop his skills at choreographing water to create sequential human experiences or ‘motation,’ a theory of site-specific movement developed by Halprin and his choreographer wife, Anna.” 

Through his relationship with Anna, Lawrence developed a creative process that combined experiments in choreography and emphasized infrastructural networks, multidisciplinary collaboration, and ecological concerns. In looking to Heritage Park Plaza in Fort Worth, we can gain a greater understanding of Lawrence and Anna’s cross-disciplinary relationship at a more localized level; and by contributing to the awareness of the current state of Heritage Park Plaza, we might also encourage recognition and support of the park’s pending renovation and re-opening.

Lawrence distinguished his role from that of architects and planners, describing the landscape architect as a “‘design choreographer’ with a kinetic approach to movement through landscape.” Many of his best-known projects — the aforementioned FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, and Lovejoy Plaza in Portland, Oregon — demonstrate the influence of his and Anna’s interdisciplinary practices. The duo never formally collaborated on specific projects; however, they worked in tandem, constantly observing one another as they developed systems and practices that combined their individual interests in dance and design. “Larry developed a keen sensitivity to how people related to his environments in terms of movement and activities,” commented Anna, “ — simply because we worked together throughout our married life, he giving me a greater understanding of the use of space and I giving him a greater understanding of the use of movement in that space.” As scholar Alison B. Hirsch stated, “His [Lawrence’s] success depended on collaboration, particularly the artistic symbiosis that existed between him and his wife.”

Perhaps Anna’s greatest contribution to Heritage Park Plaza was her influence on Lawrence’s use of choreography through this motation. Lawrence described his thinking about the system this way: 

For some time now, I have been working toward a way of movement notation. In setting myself this task, I assumed that such a system ought to be useful for designers working with pure movement: in dance and theater; for the newer choreographers whose aim has been to fuse sculpture and painting with theater; as well as for those of us designing for environment — architects, planners, and landscape architects. This approach to notating movement is a tool that should prove very useful for environmental design, but it was not developed for that purpose alone. I hope it will have universal application for every kind of movement.

Within the realm of landscape design, Lawrence employed motation as an alternative to traditional representational devices such as architectural plans and elevations. His interest in movement design is clear when navigating Heritage Park Plaza: The visitor is unconsciously choreographed through a series of layers and sequences of concrete walks, stepping stones, stairs, and out onto an elevated walkway, taking them away from the heavily trafficked street facing the entrance to the park and into the quiet and meditative space designed to encourage peace and contemplation.

Anna participated in several local events and was a key figure in raising awareness about Heritage Park Plaza in Fort Worth’s art community. Prior to its adoption by the Bicentennial Committee in 1974 and subsequent funding that came with such an adoption, money for the project was raised in modest increments through an annual celebration on the riverfront, titled Mayfest. The first such event occurred in 1973 with a children’s dance around a Maypole led by Anna herself and dancer Xavier Nash. Anna continued to visit Fort Worth frequently, notably giving a lecture and demonstration at the Fort Worth Art Museum (now the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) on May 23, 1976. 

Outside her relationship with Lawrence, Anna is well known as an avant-garde dancer and choreographer within the visual art and dance communities. During the prime of her development in the late 1950s and early ’60s, performance art was undergoing radical changes. Traditional roles were being challenged — viewers became active participants, and performances left the stage in favor of the spontaneity of unorthodox spaces. Anna’s biographer Janice Ross commented that “Anna’s goal was to reengage the gestural vocabulary of everyday life as art and to cast the spectator as a more active participant.” Alongside Anna, dancers and performance artists such as Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and Steve Paxton 

emerged as key figures in the dance and performance revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. 

While motation was crucial to Lawrence’s development as a designer for movement, he is best known for the creative framework he called “RSVP Cycles,” which influenced his interest and desire to work in a participatory process. The acronym stands for Resources, Scores, Valuations, and Performance and is also a play on the French phrase Répondez s’il vous plaît as an invitation to participate. Lawrence developed the framework in the 1960s, publishing his initial findings in a book of the same name in 1970. Concurrent with the development of the RSVP Cycles, Lawrence and Anna established the community participation process “Take Part” as a way to put the RSVP Cycles into practice. The Take Part events were staged in several communities — Wilmington, Delaware; Morningside Heights, Harlem; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, among others — as a way to encourage broader community participation to help understand existing problems within a city’s plan, working with the people who directly engaged the areas on a daily basis.

An early application of the workshop occurred June 26–27, 1970, in Fort Worth in preparation for a Lawrence Halprin & Associates 1970–71 report on the Trinity River and Downtown plan for the city. The two-day process began with a City Walk — a choreographed exploration of downtown Fort Worth, scored by Lawrence. He asked participants to get out of their cars, offices, and suburban dwellings and experience the city in 100+-degree heat. The results were clear. Lawrence reported: “After this personal experience of heat, unpleasantness, delay, and frustration at the lack of getting about, the workshop consensus was that a superior mass transit system must be built.” The program in Fort Worth concluded with a helicopter ride to demonstrate the interconnection between the river, the park, and the rest of the city and, on the final day, a drive on the freeways and byways. 

Lawrence was ahead of his time in his appreciation of the Trinity Riverfront as a site for development and community engagement, as he recognized in 1976: “Next to the Trinity itself, the bluffs are Fort Worth’s greatest natural asset. Their physical form is an amphitheater 50-80 feet high and almost a mile long. They are well-wooded and command fine views in several directions.” The City Walk was crucial to getting the community directly involved with city planning, something that seems common or even obvious now, but was quite revolutionary for its time.

Though Lawrence generated the initial concept and basic design for Heritage Park Plaza in 1976, the development of the park was a collaboration with Satoru Nishita, a principal at Lawrence Halprin & Associates. The complicated timing of the commission is largely responsible for the extent of Nishita’s involvement: Lawrence closed the doors on his firm in 1976, after which time Nishita established CHNMB Associates to carry out the remainder of the park’s development in tandem with Lawrence and the Fort Worth-based engineering firm Carter & Burgess. The final design is an expanded version of Lawrence’s initial sketch, as noted in an early report summary dated April 1, 1976: “Mr. Halprin sketched out a plaza concept which he envisioned appropriate for the bluff overlook area. In summary, his sketch included a series of plaza levels with a sequence of water cascades running along and down the various plaza levels.”

Heritage Park Plaza’s location on the riverbank to the east of the Paddock Viaduct and just north of the historic Tarrant County Courthouse (1895) commemorates the original location of the fort that established the city in 1849. References to this history are found throughout the design of Heritage Park Plaza, most notably on a water wall facing the plaza’s west entrance that features an abstract rendering of the fort’s ruins in granite. Below the wall, a plaque commemorates the fort and provides historical context. The only other writing visible in the design of the plaza is a phrase in raised bronze letters on the southernmost wall, which reads: “Embrace the Spirit and Preserve the Freedom Which Inspired Those of Vision and Courage to Shape Our Heritage.” In addition to recognizing the historical significance of the site, Heritage Park Plaza served as a gift to the nation, in celebration of the 1976 Bicentennial.

Since its closure in 2007, many have advocated for the park’s restoration and reopening. Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. has taken the lead in fundraising for the restoration costs, with support from the Amon Carter Foundation, the Sid Richardson Foundation, and Streams & Valleys, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the Trinity River and the group that commissioned the park from Lawrence in 1970. Fort Worth-based design firms Bennett Benner Partners (BBP) and Studio Outside make up the design team moving forward in a joint venture to restore the park to its original design in consultation with Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin. Certain aspects of the park — such as Halprin’s original lighting system, which is cast in the concrete — will need to be updated with a completely new design. Others, like the water features, will be easier to restore to their original condition. 

The benefit of time has given BBP and Studio Outside a better understanding of what planting materials fared well over the years and what might be a more appropriate substitute for long-term planting. According to R. Gannon Gries, AIA, the project manager for BBP and the Heritage Park Plaza restoration, Halprin’s attention to the Trinity Riverfront was ahead of its time, as the city of Fort Worth has only recently recognized the importance of interconnection between the riverfront and a revived downtown. (See also the Trinity River Vision, a master plan for an 88-mile-long Trinity River Corridor that was adopted in 2003 by the Fort Worth City Council as a means of making the riverfront “beautiful, accessible, enjoyable, and productive.”)  According to Gries, the two firms are still in the research phase of their proposal but are hopeful that Heritage Park Plaza will open sometime late in 2016.

Lawrence passed away in 2009, leaving Anna to continue their legacy — an interdisciplinary approach to dance, choreography, and landscape design. Their collaborative relationship inspired “The City Dance of Lawrence and Anna Halprin,” a 2008 performance in Lawrence’s Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, Oregon, where dancers and musicians activated the space through movement and sounds inspired by the Halprins. The reopening of Heritage Park Plaza will, it is hoped, inspire similar use of this park and will help to activate an area of Fort Worth that holds the key to future interaction with the Trinity Riverfront.

Leigh A. Arnold is assistant curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.