Gates of Eden

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

The artist Lawrence Halprin is easy to reach. He has an office in San Francisco that he shares with his small staff, which includes Dee Mullen, his longtime design partner, and Andrew Sullivan, Halprin's assistant. Sullivan answers the phone amiably. Yes, he's heard there's a bit of a firestorm over the gates Halprin has designed for Forest Park. He checks Halprin's schedule and says Larry is due to arrive at the office in the afternoon -- call back later.

That same afternoon, Halprin returns the call himself. He's home with a cold. "Normally I'm in my office during the day," says the 85-year-old artist. "I haven't stayed at home during the week for a long time. It's very pleasant," he laughs. "I had a long talk with my dog this morning."

His voice is a trifle weak because of the cold or age or a combination of the two, but he's more than happy to talk. Part of what his work is about is engagement, and he's not one to shy away from controversy. He's a little surprised about the negative reaction the gates have received in St. Louis, "but brouhahas about art are very important," he says. "I think they're wonderful. Everybody participates, and I think art is there so people can participate in it. I'm not nervous about it at all. I'm delighted."

This is from the man who designed the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., and weathered controversy over his decision to show the sainted president in his wheelchair -- as Roosevelt was never publicly depicted during his lifetime. More than 30 years ago, Halprin designed the Lovejoy Fountains in Portland, Ore. Back in 1966, those weren't too highly thought of, either, in what was then a rather sleepy Northwestern city. Hippies got to playing in the fountains, and police got to escorting them out, until Halprin said, 'Wait a minute -- those fountains are made for people to play in.' Today they're one of the treasures of a now-hip, burgeoning metropolis. "That was one of the joyful experiences of my life," Halprin recalls. "That was one of the early times that I was able to do something that was citywide and that people really enjoyed. That had a lot of people yelling about why did we do this, why did we do that -- and they became adult playgrounds."

Halprin doesn't mind a lot of people yelling about something he's designed: "We artists are not any better than anybody else; it just happens that we have a way of looking at the world and certain kinds of abilities just like somebody else can make cars or is a carpenter. We have this particular thing that we do. I think they're important, just like cars or carpentry or music or something else. They're for people to enjoy, not just to be abstracted. In that sense, I think it's fine that people express themselves. I feel here that most of the comments that I've seen have no reference to what I'm really doing. That's my only concern."

By their own admission, Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman and Riverfront Times columnist Ray Hartmann didn't bother to look into what Halprin was really doing with the proposed gates. They chose to wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. "I'll be the first to admit that I don't know much about art," Freeman wrote in his July 4 column, "Please Don't Give Us Gates From Hell for Our Heavenly Park." Hartmann, for his part, touted his "D-plus in seventh-grade art class" in his take on Halprin's art ["And Now, Gategate," RFT, July 18]. Nowhere else in journalism do commentators get away with exulting over their lack of knowledge as they do when it comes to matters of art. Imagine: "I don't know much about public housing, but ..." "I don't know much about city government, but ..." "I don't know much about this stadium deal, but ..." Yet with art, willful ignorance somehow becomes a virtue, and the rules of basic journalism are dispensable. Freeman, returning an inquiry from the RFT, says, "No, I did not either contact or attempt to contact the artist of the gates when I wrote my column. I'm not really an art critic and didn't really see a need to contact him. I based my column on what I thought." Nor did millionaire columnist Hartmann bother racking up a long-distance charge to ask Halprin his intentions. It was too easy to play it cute and dumb.

Yet the proudly uninformed Hartmann and Freeman manage to pose charges of elitism from their own heads. "Unfairly, this pits the unwashed masses against Halprin, a man -- heretofore unknown to us yokels," is how man of the people Hartmann smugly characterized the debate. Freeman apparently hasn't bathed in a while, either: "Still, I think artists sometimes play jokes on the rest of us by producing all sorts of ugly pieces and telling us that they're art. If we dare say that we don't get it, they tell us that we, the unwashed masses, simply don't understand the art."

Freeman sounds afflicted by some elitist snob looking down his nose at the poor, ignorant local columnist, but it sure wasn't Halprin. Call it a debate with an imaginary enemy. And as far as an artist's playing jokes on the soapless citizenry, here's what Halprin does have to say about the gates in relation to a career that has spanned a half-century: "I'm very proud of these," he tells the RFT. "I should confess to you that I consider that these may very well be one of the important things I've ever done."

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.

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."

With that, Halprin states the purpose for all the work he's done over the last century, including the Forest Park gates -- all joking aside. "The charge of an architect is to make the world better. That's the only charge. The idea here was to take something that was ambiguous and ugly and inconclusive and unfinished and make it finished and beautiful and interesting and nice. Therefore I think that's what it's going to do."

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