Font of Creativity

Angela Danadjieva remains an unsung luminary of landscape architecture

Landscape Architecture Letter to the Editor West
Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, Oregon (Charles A. Birnbaum/Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)
Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, Oregon (Charles A. Birnbaum/Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

In 1967, Angela Danadjieva, a Bulgarian-born architect, found herself working in the San Francisco office of the celebrated landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. From 1967 to 1976, she worked on 20 urban design and city planning projects at Halprin’s office, driving design on some of the office’s best-known projects. Her work was integral to the office’s output, but today, Halprin is remembered in histories of landscape architecture while Danadjieva is almost forgotten.

In 2019, when we’re increasingly cognizant about the vital positions of women and natural resources, it seems timely to bring attention to Danadjieva. She was enabled by the socialist privilege of women’s rights in her native Bulgaria, and Halprin’s devotion to the profession. Halprin was a giant in the landscaping field, walking in the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted and having learned from Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius.

Danadjieva won a competition while living in Paris in 1966, which brought her to San Francisco where she met Halprin. Freeway Park, which covers interstate I-5 in Seattle is their best-known project. For Halprin, it was the poetic outcome of his 1966 book Freeways and was another manifestation of his appreciation of waterfalls, while for Danadjieva, it was an opportunity to shine in Halprin’s eyes and fulfill her design ambitions.

However much Danadjieva contributed as a designer, Halprin’s lead as landscape architect made him the architect in charge. But her participation in the Seattle park design can be seen as an object lesson in who gets credit for projects, particularly when one of the designers is a woman.

Photo of a fountain in a park

Freeway Park in Seattle, Washington (Aaron Leitz/Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Danadjieva was born in 1931 and was brought up in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Lofty ancient architecture adorned Sofia’s broad cobblestone boulevards, and greenery surrounded the city. But the political background for Danadjieva was highly unsettling. After a period of neutrality, the country was eventually thrust into the theater of World War II, caught between the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Allied Forces, which bombed Sofia in 1941. In 1944, the city was captured by the Soviets, and the subsequent socialist regime seems to have eased the way for Danadjieva. Women made inroads in Bulgarian culture, and the state-supported university helped to cement Danadjieva’s abilities. She studied environmental design and received a degree in architecture. In 1963 she paired off with Ivan Tzvetin to work on a Cuban urban project; they won second prize for it and she was awarded the prize by Fidel Castro. Not fully satisfied with her university education, Danadjieva chose to leave Bulgaria and attend Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts between 1964 and 1966, which seems to have imprinted on her an appreciation for forms from the past. While in Paris she was employed by Denieul-Marty-Paoll.

Danadjieva first became a set designer for a state film company—winning a Golden Rose (the Bulgarian equivalent to an Oscar) for The Captured Squadron—and then won the competition that landed her on the West Coast and eventually in Halprin’s office.

Halprin and Danadjieva reached common agreement that she would have a creative role in his firm, and as project architect she worked on both the Freeway Park and the Auditorium Fourcourt (now Ira Keller) Fountain in Portland, Oregon. Danadjieva made clay models for the fountains’ concrete forms.

Both the Ira Keller and Freeway Park fountains are exciting to the senses. When operative, primal water gushes over primordial masses that resemble brutalist waterfalls. The Ira Fountain, engineered by Richard Chaix, is built on a declivity in the road whereas Freeway Park builds over a tear in the city. Ada Louise Huxtable considered Freeway Park equal to European masterpieces. When the fountains are running crowds of people are drawn to them. There has been danger in Freeway Park—a 2005 murder—which has precipitated adding amusement structures like bandshell and food vendors. The structures around Freeway Park are not that humanistic—large metal and glass buildings like the overbearing Convention Center (which Danadjieva worked on) dwarf the park—but amid the stepped and zigzagging walkways and terraces, the rushing waterworks, and the sylvan plantings, the park is a superb haven.

Both Halprin and Danadjieva claim authorship of Freeway Park. Legally, it can be assumed that it was Halprin’s design—it came from his office. While Danadjieva did make the clay models of the brutalist stonework, Halprin’s hand came into play earlier. His Portland Lovejoy Fountain of 1967, which is similar and was inspired by his Sierra watercourse drawings from 1964. And the epitome of the office’s rock and water play comes somewhat later: the Washington, D.C., Roosevelt Monument designed in 1974 but not constructed until the 1990s. Also, it was Halprin’s call at the studio to make models before drawings for the Freeway fountain. But Danadjieva’s hand seems secure at the Ira Keller and Freeway fountains because the bursting water flows over those large bold idiosyncratic forms that seem characteristic of her hand.

Danadjieva said in an oral history done by Michael Apostolos in February 2010, the year after Halprin’s death:

At a few occasions he left on my board thank you notes about my work…Walking through the office at lunchtime Larry came to my desk looking at what I was modeling out of clay. Seeing my concept for Seattle’s Freeway Park he turned around and disappeared—saying nothing. I went outside for lunch. We faced each other around the block and he told me: “Angela, I am so excited seeing your Freeway Park design concept. Sorry even could not speak, needed to get some fresh air,” and at that time I saw tears in his eyes. This is how I like to remember Larry Halprin, one of the greatest appreciators of my design work.

Danadjieva is still active, working with her partner, Thomas Koenig. Her work has received numerous awards, including an Honor Award in Design from the American Society of Landscape Architects. One of their projects was an addition to the Freeway Park (a monumental endeavor, including work on the Washington State Convention Center). She and Koenig are responsible for large-scale projects such as White River State Park in Indianapolis, Indiana, and James River Park System in Richmond, Virginia, and have earned a reputation in urban development. The pair live and work in Tiburon, outside San Francisco. She is reportedly a modern woman with old world aristocratic, courtier traits. She is elusive—very difficult to locate and interview and could not be contacted for this article.

Related Stories