Beginning his career in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, in 1949, Halprin often collaborated with a local circle of modernist architects on relatively modest projects. These figures included William Wurster, Joseph Esherick, Vernon DeMars, Mario J. Ciampi, and others associated with UC Berkeley. Gradually accumulating a regional reputation in the northwest, Halprin first came to national attention with his work at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, the Ghirardelli Square adaptive-reuse project in San Francisco, and the landmark pedestrian street / transit mall Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. Halprin's career proved influential to an entire generation in his specific design solutions, his emphasis on user experience to develop those solutions, and his collaborative design process.
Halprin's point-of-view and practice are summarized in his definition of modernism:
"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."
In his best work, he construed landscape architecture as narrative.
In 1944, Halprin was commissioned in the United States Navy as a Lieutenant (junior grade). He was assigned to the destroyer USS Morris in the Pacific which was struck by a kamikaze attack. After surviving the destruction of the Morris, Halprin was sent to San Francisco on leave. It was there he would stay following his discharge.
After discharge from military service, he joined the firm of San Francisco landscape architect Thomas Dolliver Church. The projects he worked on in this period included the Dewey Donnell Garden (El Novillero) in Sonoma County.
Halprin opened his own office in 1949, becoming one of Church's professional heirs and competitors.
Halprin's wife, accomplished avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin, is a long-time collaborator, with whom he explored the common areas between choreography and the way users move through a public space. They are the parents of Daria Halprin, an American psychologist, author, dancer, and actress, and of Rana Halprin, a photographer and activist for Romani and human rights.
Halprin's work is marked by his attention to human scale, user experience, and the social impact of his designs, in the egalitarian tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted. Halprin was the creative force behind the interactive, 'playable' civic fountains most common in the 1970s, an amenity which continues to greatly contribute to the pedestrian social experience in Portland Oregon, where "Ira's Fountain" is loved and well-used, and the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco.
Recently many of Halprin's works have become the source of some controversy. Some have fallen victim to neglect, and are in states of disrepair. Critics argue his pieces have become dated and no longer reflect the direction their cities want to take. Budgetary constraints and the urge to "revitalize" threaten some of his projects. In response foundations have been set up to improve care for some of the sites and to try to preserve them in their original state.
He was the co-creator with his wife, the dancer Anna Halprin, of the "RSVP Cycles", a creative methodology that can be applied broadly across all disciplines.
Halprin's range of projects demonstrate his vision of the garden or open space as a stage. Halprin recognized that "the garden in your own immediate neighborhood, preferably at your own doorstep, is the most significant garden;" and as part of a seamless whole, he valued "wilderness areas where we can be truly alone with ourselves and where nature can be sensed as the primeval source of life." The interplay of perspectives informed projects which encompassed urban parks, plazas, commercial and cultural centers and other places of congregation:
Ferris House landscape, Spokane, Washington, 1955
Washington Water Power (now Avista Corporation) campus, Spokane, Washington, 1959
Saint Francis Square Cooperative housing project , San Francisco, design based on a pedestrian-oriented site plan, with three-story apartment buildings facing onto three landscaped interior courtyards, 1964
Rainey, Reuben M. (2001). "The Garden as Narrative: Lawrence Halprin's Frankllin Delano Roosevelt Memorial," in Places of Commemoration : Search for Identity and Landscape Design by Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 10-ISBN 0-884-02260-9/13-ISBN 978-0-88402-260-2; OCLC 185572850