Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Clearing in the Distance

Olmsted as seen by John Singer Sargent

Over the years I've found myself drifting more toward landscape architecture, as my wife and I do more projects in this regard.  Slowly, I've been learning about plants and trees and how best to come up with a garden that reflects the seasons of the year.  I've given up straight lines for winding paths as I search for curves that best reflect the nature they are set in.  For this reason, I've become a big fan of Frederick Law Olmsted and Edouard Andre, the respective American and European masters in modern landscape architecture.

There really wasn't landscape architecture in America until Olmsted appeared on the scene in the second half of the 19th century.  Witold Rybczinski reflects on how Olmsted was able to seamlessly blend nature and the manmade in A Clearing in the Distance, his biography of the American master.  Olmsted's works ranged far and wide, including Montreal, which Rybczinski had made his home for many years.  He had always assumed the Mount Royal was natural until he learned that Olmsted had designed over a century before.

I'm not new to Olmsted.  I visited his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, many years ago. It is a sprawling shingle style house covered in vines and set in a man-made woodland.  Olmsted had done the park system for Boston as he had done New York. Boston being much smaller, Olmsted was able to tie the city together with an "emerald necklace" that gives it a distinct beauty.  Olmsted's home is administered by the National Park Service, which is fitting since he was one of the major advocates of a national park system in the 19th century.

I was however new to Edouard Andre, who as it turns out was a great friend of Olmsted, sharing a similar organic sense of how a city and park meld together as one.   Andre had designed the gardens for several estates in Lithuania, not to mention countless other works throughout Europe.  The estates still reflect his character despite the intervening Soviet years.  I guess the Soviet planners also mistook the gardens as "natural."

Olmsted's work are so profuse that pretty much every American has happened on them whether intentionally or not.  He also advised others on the layouts of parks and cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery, urging General Montgomery Meigs to keep it simple and sublime.  Olmsted's sons carried on his legacy, continuing to design parks throughout the United States under the family name.

Rybczinski is not only interested in the landscape architect but also the man behind all these works.  Olmsted was born in 1822.  He took a break from his work to organize relief services for the Union military during the Civil War.  He had been working on Central Park before the war broke out.  Afterward, his career took off, but not without a few run-ins as Olmsted was insistent that his projects be carried out exactly they way he imagined them.  As a result, he and Leland Stanford parted ways over the design of the campus at Palo Alto, California, although Olmsted remains credited for the work.

I often look to Olmsted for inspiration and am currently exploring the relationship between Edouard Andre and him through their letters.  It is truly a pleasure to walk through their parks and estates and see the symbiotic relationship between their works and nature, not to mention the smell of the budding plants and trees in Spring as the parks awake after a winter's slumber.

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