Public Fountain Echoes The Work Of Modern Design Master

photo of Portland's Keller Fountain
Photos courtesy of Mark Holden | Holdenwater

The late Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009) was one of the 20th Century's most heralded landscape architects and influential Modernist environmental designers, especially among those working with aquatic architectural forms. Here landscape architect and educator Mark Holden examines Halprin's creative legacy with a look at one of his most well-known and celebrated works, Portland's Keller Fountain.

photo of Portland's Keller FountainLawrence Halprin was one of the most important American designers of the modern era. His body of work and resulting impact on scores of followers and protégés places him among other seminal talents who laid down the foundations of contemporary design, a class of designers that includes the likes of Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, and Walter Gropius.

Indeed, Halprin and his peers defined an era of individualism and exploration through modern architecture that was in many ways a response to "old world" forms of design. In this bold creative epoch first crystallized in Picasso's cubist paintings and later in the revolutionary Mid-Century Modern architectural forms, Halprin was inspired to see nature as a source for abstract environmental art. He was part of a movement that would pioneer what would become known as "organic architecture," a design mode in which elements of the natural environment are the sources for modern art – an approach that remains a staple of today's finest contemporary designs.

photo of Portland's Keller FountainA prime example of this design movement can be seen today in Portland Oregon's Ira Kellar Fountain, one of Halprin's defining achievements. The feature (originally named the Fourecourt Fountain) opened in 1970 to rave reviews for its unique style and sensitivity to both the native environment and the current trends in modern architecture.

Located in what is now known as Keller Fountain Park, a wooded space adjacent to the Portland's Civic Auditorium, which also bears Keller's name, the feature was renamed the Ira Keller Fountain 1978 to honor the visionary former head of the Portland Development Commission. In addition to the name change, the system has undergone various mechanical updates over the years and now remains one of Portland's most important and oft-visited public features.

photo of Portland's Keller FountainWhen first unveiled, Halprin's approach to waterfeature design was something very new and would become part of a body of revolutionary work that continues to inspire countless other architects in their approach to water as an art form. (Halprin himself would deploy similar forms in later projects including the epic FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C.)

In this case, the nearby Columbia River Gorge served as Halprin's inspirational source for the feature, which he designed with help from artist Angela Danadjieva, who worked in Halprin's studio at the time. The fountain contains roughly 75,000 gallons of water and transmits more than 13,000 gpm over its weirs at any one time. The water's movement starts as a small trickle; symbolic of the scenes found in any of Portland's nearby mountains. The simple stream later feeds into larger and larger flows and eventually generates a massive volume driving dramatic falls over bold vertical concrete formations.

Quoting Halprin about his approach in designing such spaces: "To be properly understood, Modernism is not just a matter of cubist space but of a whole appreciation of environmental design as a holistic approach to the matter of making spaces for people to live. Modernism, as I define it and practice it, includes and is based on the vital archetypal needs of human being as individuals as well as social groups."

>Consistent with that vision, visiting the Keller Fountain reveals Halprin's desire to create places for human experience where interaction with the forms unfolds on varying levels of contact and proximity. The design provides intimate access to the water while its forms and sounds imbue the space with a natural ambiance that both soothes and inspires visitors.

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