Lawrence Halprin’s Gardens at Levi’s Plaza

The designers of Levi’s Plaza, San Francisco’s most beautiful corporate estate, created a place that entrances those who visit it. The use of Coit tower, one of the city’s most famous landmarks, as borrowed scenery relates the Plaza to the rest of the city.

Levi’s Plaza

The five-acre site is bounded by Union, Sansome, and Greenwich Streets and The Embarcadero. Buildings occupy only 40 percent of the site, which is divided by Battery Street into two sections. The office buildings on the western block are composed to create a view path to Telegraph Hill just beyond Sansome Street and up the well known Filbert Street steps to the hill’s summit crowned by Coit Tower.

The corporation’s low-rise brick buildings are configured with set-backs on each floor that create open balconies on their corners. The rounded corners have a rippling effect that relates the buildings to their landscaped setting.

Grouping buildings around the edges of the block allowed space for a central plaza to facilitate circulation between the buildings.The plaza’s centerpiece is a raised landscaped section that features a variety of water elements set in sculptural masonry forms.

A hard-edged concrete coping separates this section from the paved area around it. The composition is capped by a two-ton block of carnelian granite over which water spills into a pool below.

The plaza’s paving, inlaid with red, gray, and white granite blocks and divided into 35-foot-square diamonds, defines a path through the property from The Embarcadero to Sansome Street.

The path stretches like a carpet across Battery Street where a flight of stairs descends to the eastern park. The paved path then leads to a complex of office buildings in the southeast section of the block. Near the stairway a curved path introduces the informal park that serves as a foil for the plaza.

The hard edges and planar geometry of the plaza have yielded to artificially created grassy hillocks that shelter a stream, the counterpart of the plaza’s monumental fountain. Here Halprin recalled the Sierra foothills’ mining area where Levi Strauss sold his original work pants.

The stream enters the park near its southeastern corner from water mains under The Embarcadero. The rhythm of the water’s flow changes from rapid at the waterfall near the stream’s entrance to slow as the stream pursues its serpentine course through the park.

The water disappears under the street near the park’s northeastern corner.

Granite boulders set in the stream banks punctuate the stream’s narrative. Many of them stand-in for individual sculptures.

Near the northern side of the park the stream loops around, forming a small island bridged by round cast concrete stepping stones that recall those of stone in Japanese gardens. A willow tree trails its low leafy branches over the island where a pathc of lawn invites people to sit either singly or in small groups and enjoy the intimacy of this metaphysical still point in the world moving around it.

Soon after the completion of the Levi Strauss & Company campus in 1982 it became a tourist attraction. Indeed, outsiders were not aware that the plaza was Levi’s property. Company signs were discreet, and the open spaces were scaled for public use.  That the general public was not excluded from this privately owned property is a reminder of the civic generosity of this family enterprise, which conquered the world with blue jeans


Buildings were designed by HOK with Howard Friedman and Gensler & Assocs.

Landscaping for the 3.2-acre site was designed by Lawrence Halprin


3 Responses

  1. Thank you, Dan and Jay, for your comments on Lawrence Halprin’s achievement in Levi’s PLaza. This privately owned public park deserves to be known as a masterwork of one of the country’s most important landscape architects.

    Sally Woodbridge

  2. In this period of looking at Halprin’s life work, it is very relevant to remind us of the projects that are a prime reason for his significance as an urban landscape designer. Now I understand why the Halprin designed landscape space that is part of the Lucas film center at the Presidio is disappointing. In a different context, his FDR Memorial site in Washington DC achieves a comparable “narrative.” A very insiteful and instructive tribute and another example of why the Woodbridge articles are some of the best writing on architecture and urban design available today.

  3. One of the great public spaces anywhere. I like your use of the word “narrative” to describe the flow of water and the course of the design. It is the story of a journey from source block to sluice (jeans made for Sierra miners)and finally to serenity. Thanks for writing — it brought everything vividly back to my mind.

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