The Landscape of Dead White Males

Some say Olmsted's Seattle park designs improved God's handiwork. Now it's time to improve on Olmsted's.

Thomas Church invented the kidney-shaped swimming pool. A Northern Californian educated at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Church was one of the founders of modern landscape design and in 1955 wrote a book called Gardens Are for People. Parks are for people, too, and Frederick Law Olmsted designed some of the best American "people" parks, starting with New York's Central Park in the middle of the 19th century. Olmsted also laid out private estates, college campuses, and suburbs. In Seattle, his sons' firm designed numerous public and private green spaces, including the Seattle parks system and the campus of the University of Washington. So on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the professional organization of landscape architecture, the American Society of Landscape Architects, it's appropriate to honor Olmsted and his legacy. A new postage stamp with Olmsted's picture on it signals his importance in American history, as does Witold Rybczynski's recent biography, A Clearing in the Distance; in May, a lavishly illustrated article in the Seattle Times celebrated the contribution of his sons' firm to Seattle parks. An exhibition at the Water Tower in Volunteer Park pays tribute to the Olmsted legacy in Seattle.

But as Olmsted is f괥d as the father of American landscape architecture, it feels as if the long shadow he has cast over the last century has relegated to darkness all that has happened in the profession since he and his sons were working. I suspect, for example, most people outside of the profession of landscape architecture haven't heard of Tommy Church or his influential post-war California residential style. In 1994 some students in the University of Georgia's School of Environmental Design decided to protest the landscape design canon, forming a group to which they gave a long, overly academic name (but it had the playful acronym T.O.S.S.E.D. S.A.L.A.D.). One of their posters features a looming image of Olmsted, and it reads, "Big Brother is Watching You. Don't go with the F.L.O. There's more to landscape architecture than dead white males." It's not that there is anything wrong with dead white men. But there is more to landscape architecture—and to park design—than Olmsted.

Certainly Olmsted's parks, and the ones his sons' firm created for Seattle, still provide satisfying experiences. They are places for leisure and recreation, a respite from the city within the city. But designers since Olmsted have shown that parks can also be spaces which embrace the arts and energy of a city. Seattle needs these kinds of stimulating and distinctly urban parks.

Much like the wildly popular show of Impressionist paintings at the Seattle Art Museum this summer, Olmsted parks easily please: they are pretty. While Olmsted was pragmatic and willing to work in a variety of styles depending on what the site called for, many of his and his sons' parks are characterized by a romantic pastoralism. They offer a tamed wilderness, made up of gentle meadows, curving paths, scattered clumps of trees, often a lake. It's the kind of scenery that he had seen in the English countryside and parks. As Rybczynski explains, Olmsted appreciated that this wasn't pure nature, but rather land manipulated by humans. Olmsted's parks offer nature without its bite, as real woods can have. They create the illusion, and a more benign and picturesque version, of nature, rather than being nature itself.

Olmsted was fond of curving paths because they connote leisure and slow down people and carriages. But even the more straight and formal paths that Olmsted designed, such as the Mall in Central Park, were meant to be places for strolling. Creating spaces for leisure was one of the chief reasons Olmsted designed parks. Building on the social reform movement in England which spurred creation of the first public parks in England in the 1840s, Olmsted believed that the bedraggled workers of the industrial revolution could be morally uplifted by relaxing in parks. In reference to Central Park, as quoted in A Clearing in the Distance, Olmsted wrote,

It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God's handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains of the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.

Parks were places to soak up nature and fresh air, the opposite of what the city offered. A park was imagined as a place within but in contrast to the city, as an oasis of nature encircled by industry.

In 1903, the year of Olmsted's death, Seattle leaders hired the Olmsted Brothers firm, run by Olmsted's sons and the successor to their father's company, to evaluate the city parks situation and propose a plan for the future development of green space. Packed with ideas, the plan included designs for specific parks (such as Volunteer Park) and recommended sites and offered general design thoughts for other new parks. It advocated a park or playground within half a mile of every Seattle home. The plan also proposed a system of landscaped boulevards (such as Lake Washington Boulevard) that would link together existing and future parks. Large portions of the plan, including the boulevard structure, were implemented over the next 30 years.

According to Donald Harris, director of Environmental Planning for Seattle Parks and co-chair of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, it is the system of linkages, more than a specific park design, that makes the Olmsted Brothers' plan a brilliant one. It creates, says Harris, "a visual ribbon of green in our city." It also clearly picks up on the work of the senior Olmsted, who created a system of lush boulevards linking parks together in Buffalo. And just as he designed parks in a variety of styles, so, too, do his sons' Seattle parks exhibit different styles. These range from the wild, wooded feeling of Seward Park to the more formal axes in Volunteer Park. As for their civic and social function, Seattle's Olmsted Brothers' parks, in the best Olmsted tradition, are places for leisure and recreation. The parks are lush, leafy oases within the city, mini-escapes to nature from the hustle and hardness of city streets. (The Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks organization recognizes their value and dedicates itself to protecting, expanding, and promoting the enjoyment of Olmsted's legacy.)

As wonderfully relaxing as Seattle's Olmsted parks are, they can feel old-fashioned, places to indulge in nostalgia for unspoiled nature and a less complicated time. But parks don't have to simply be pleasant places for recreation; they can be energetic—like cities themselves. The 14-acre Parc Andr頃itro뮠in Paris, constructed in the 1980s, is an inspiring example of such a place. Composed of a number of conceptual gardens—including Blue, Black, and Movement gardens, a giant green lawn, rigorously pruned trees, and a series of architectural elements—the park feels like an exciting work of contemporary art. There's lots of concrete, steel, and glass. Rather than being a green retreat from the city, it seems in sync with the pulse of Paris. Moreover, unlike many Olmsted parks, Parc Citro뮠doesn't create the illusion of nature; instead it calls attention to the fact that it is a designed, manufactured space, inviting the viewer to think about the relationship between people and the creation of landscapes.

Just as Seattle needs contemporary, artistic parks like Parc Citro뮠(the planned downtown sculpture park could help), it lacks a concentration of vibrant parks downtown (again the sculpture park will help). In the 1960s and '70s, there was a movement to build small city parks, called Vest Pocket Parks. The Waterfall Garden in Pioneer Square is one, as is Paley Park in midtown Manhattan. These parks were imagined as small spaces with chairs, some trees and plants, maybe a fountain or waterfall, and an attendant, who would be the eyes and ears of the park. They were meant to be carefully designed spaces—not plazas tacked onto high-rises—in which people could eat lunch, smoke a cigarette (God forbid), have a conversation, or read. The idea of sprinkling them throughout Seattle's downtown remains appealing because such urban parks would be accessible to a good number of people during the workday. As close as a park might be to one's home, a lot of people do not walk down the street and use their park before or after work. But 15 minutes in a Vest Pocket Park on a coffee or fresh air break could easily be integrated into the workday of even the most harried Amazon.com employee. As sprawl becomes an increasing problem in cities, including Seattle, filling vacant gaps has become one solution in the name of smart growth. Filling some of these underused spaces with small parks could pull the constructs of city and nature closer together, rather than setting one up as a tonic for the other. To this end, the acquisitions by the Seattle Parks department of lots in Belltown is a step in the right direction.

In a June Seattle Times article on Rybczynski and his Olmsted biography, the author comments on a Seattle Olmsted park: "People sometimes look at a park like this and think this is what you get from God. But that's not true. This is better." It's hard to ask for more when you've got something that's already better than God. Yet we ought to. On top of the relaxation-inducing dose of green that Olmsted parks inject into the city, Seattle deserves more aggressively modern and artistic green places, ones that keep pace with contemporary art and architecture and are tightly woven into the city streets. Olmsted's first parks were a revelation in their day, offering people in cities a kind of space they hadn't had before. Some more recent parks, such as Gasworks, have also been deeply innovative. While enjoying this older work, we need to keep looking forward, creatively manipulating spaces to suit our current and future needs and desires, both social and aesthetic.

 
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