The new revolutionaries: Landscape architects reinvent urban parks

Here’s a rant that is the full monty for Landscape Architects to get off on – I wonder if anyone else gets to read this stuff! It is a bit American – but then according to them (Americans – i.e. those whose fathers emigrated from the original England. Jersey, Brunnswick and oh yes and York and were homesick at the time they were naming the New places…) they invented Landscape Architecture, Urban Design and a whole lot more .. From Grist by Rebecca Messner Via Land Reader

Name one landscape architect. Any one will do. No, I’m not talking about the guy who does your

Frederick Law Olmsted hisself -- still the only household name in landscape architecture.

landscaping — I’m looking for genuine, bona fide landscape architects, the ones who analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture natural and built environments.

What was that? “Frederick Law Olmsted?” You mean the grandfather of landscape architecture, the man who built Central Park? Good. Now name a landscape architect who hasn’t been dead for more than a hundred years.

Hello? Can you tell me who designed the High Line, the most famous urban park in the country right now? You can’t. That’s what I thought. Well, for future reference, it’s this guy, James Corner — but that, right there, is my point:

The present generation of landscape architects is doing truly groundbreaking work, building parks like the High Line in places nobody expects them. If Olmsted is a classical composer of yore, James Corner and his contemporaries are like Lady Gaga. They’re like Bob Dylan plugging in. They’re the electric guitar after years and years of classical music. BUT YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF THESE PEOPLE!

And so, on Olmsted’s 190th birthday (April 26 — prepare your celebratory picnic baskets!), I decided it’s time to show these landscape architects a little love.

But first, allow me to geek out about Olmsted for a quick sec. I can’t help it. I wrote and produced a documentary film about the guy. Plus, to understand the revolutionaries working today, you have to understand where they came from.

Central Park, New York City. (Photo by asterix611.)

People still, after all these years, love Olmsted’s parks. Just check out Central Park on a sunny day. Or Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Or theEmerald Necklacethat winds through the neighborhoods of Boston. Or the park systems in Louisvilleand Buffalo. The man carried out over 500 commissions to design urban parks, parkways, park systems, residential communities, college campuses, government buildings, and country estates. His sons, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted (who was technically Olmsted’s nephew — it’s a long story) designed thousands more, including major city plans for Baltimore and Seattle.

Olmsted landscapes are practically trademarked — rolling hills, open meadows, patches of thick woodlands, wide, winding paths. Olmsted didn’t want you to notice the design — and, unless you’re looking for it, you don’t. The man even hated flowers because they call too much attention to themselves. You’re supposed to lose yourself in Olmsted’s parks — the paths were designed so that you’d never come upon a right angle and have to ask yourself, “Which way?”

The High Line, New York City. (Photo by David Berkowitz.)

Turns out that tired, overworked city dwellers really appreciated this — which is why it’s still hard to find a blanket spot in Sheep Meadow on a Sunday in June. But for all the reverence Olmsted still earns from the public, he set the bar so high that many landscape architects resent him. In an interview filmed for the documentary, urban studies expert Witold Rybczynski told us:

It’s a little bit like being a composer right after Mozart or Beethoven. People just want more Mozart or Beethoven. They’re not interested in Joe Smith — you know, they’ve been exposed to something, and they just want more of it … I mean he’s bigger than Mozart, because he doesn’t just do great parks, he also sort of invents the whole profession. It’s as if Mozart invented musical composing, which of course he didn’t.

Tectonic Shift – RE-considering Landscape Architecture

The High Line, Manhattan.

By tackling some of the most daunting problems of the city, landscape architects are rising to new prominence.

PARTICIPANTS: Jill Desimini is an assistant professor in landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She was previously a senior associate at Stoss in Boston. David Gamble AIA, AICP is an architect and urban designer and the principal ofGamble Associates in Boston. Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA is a landscape architect and the principal of Ground in Somerville, Massachusetts. Wendi Goldsmith is the founder and CEO of Bioengineering Group in Salem, Massachusetts. She is a certified professional geologist with additional degrees in ecological landscape design and plant and soil science. Elizabeth Padjen FAIA is the editor of ArchitectureBostonLaura Solano ASLA is a landscape architect and a principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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