Gates of Eden

Ignorance appears to be a badge of honor for press critics of the proposed park gates

No joke.

In explaining the intention of the gates, Halprin begins by describing the entrances to the park as they are now, in a word (and one that Freeman employs lavishly in his "I'm not an art critic" art criticism): "ugly."

But take a look at the entryways to Forest Park and see with the eyes of someone who hasn't gotten used to the way things are. This is a tough one for St. Louisans, because we travel through ugliness every day and have grown immune to it. If you live in the city, you travel through zones that look as if they were bombed decades ago and never restored. If you live in the county, you pass miles of sameness, subdivision after subdivision. It's crazy, crazy, the things you get used to.

Lawrence Halprin: "I should confess to you that I consider that these may very well be one of the most important things I've ever done."
Lawrence Halprin: "I should confess to you that I consider that these may very well be one of the most important things I've ever done."

Halprin saw acres of asphalt at the entrances of Forest Park and nothing that spoke of the park's distinctiveness. "There was no fine definition of the place. You see," he explains, "I make places most of the time. That's really what I'm about. The places that I make I want them to be wonderful -- sometimes mystical, sometimes mythical, sometimes engaging and exciting -- I gave a lot of thought at the beginning. Most of the wonderful places I've been were demarcated by an entrance. The entrances could be different, one from the other, but they were usually places where you had a very strong sense of going from the outside world, or the 'other world,' if you want to call it that, into this wonderful place that you're making, or that's there."

After studying photographs, Halprin and his crew made a site visit last spring. As he explored Forest Park, Halprin says, "It seemed to be asking for something to be done. I often think about places, anyway. When I go out to places, they always tell you a story by themselves. You don't need to ask them very much, just listen.

"I'm not being mystical about it. I go out there and I sit around; I look. I've been to an awful lot of places in this world over the years, and I listen a lot to what the place is about. It seemed to me it would be a wonderful thing to have something overhead as you went into it. In this particular place, it would be quite wonderful. And that's how it started."

After any number of models, Halprin's ultimate design began to come about. "I looked at it and then I remember all of a sudden that I was really designing a wisteria, or an oak branch, the kind of oaks I have in my back yard," the artist says. "If I did it that way, it would also have a reference to the fact that this was a park. You know how things are when you design things -- they get cumulative. Finally I went, 'Oh hell' -- I needed for the strength of the truss to connect the beams that were running across. The crossovers between the two, which would strengthen it, could be like the branches of a wisteria or branches of a tree.

"And then I thought, 'Oh hellfire, I've got it,' because there I've got a piece of architecture, a gateway, and now I've got a relationship and a context to the organic nature of the park."

The gates, for those who take the time to really look, are not sci-fi bugs or, as Freeman writes, "a huge bicycle that's been in a horrible accident." They are a roof of convoluted organic forms you will walk or drive under, experiencing the play of shadows and the sense of entering a place that St. Louisans hold sacred. "Even in the forest, you go under some kind of a forest to get into a forest," Halprin observes. "You don't walk right into the middle of the forest -- you go under something."

Most of the images the public has seen of the gates lack the perspective of being inside or under the gates and cupolas (the image shown here tries to give that representation). Halprin regrets that not enough information is getting out to the public, and rather than playing the austere, aloof artiste (a role unjustly fixed on him by Freeman and Hartmann), he wants people to reach conclusions from an informed perspective -- not from the rhetoric of the "unwashed masses."

He knows how important Forest Park is to the city. In the midst of our conversation, an appropriate metaphor comes to him: "I don't know what gave me this," Halprin says from his study. "I had this particular image: that moment of Adam and Eve and Paradise, looking through the gate. I don't know what the hell made me think of that. I hadn't thought of that in years. But there's the particular image: There they are, with the snake entwined, and they've been taken out of this paradisiacal place and then thrown into the outside world through the gate.

"Maybe people are afraid that this paradise is going to be destroyed for them by this something-or-other. I hadn't thought about that one. All of this stuff is symbolism. After all, we live in a world of symbolism, I hope."

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