On a visit to the nearby Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge, I stopped to read the signage about America’s “Conservation Leaders” and was surprised to see Frederick Law Olmsted right there, with Audubon, Thoreau, Jacques Cousteau and Morris Udall. The sign described his work pioneering Yosemite Valley before it became a park, and many other parks, and noted that his primary principles of design were natural beauty and accessibility to all.
Good to know, because while I’m aware that he made his mark designing parks, I remember what Michael Pollan had to say about him back in ’89.
America has made essentially one important contribution to world garden design: the custom of “uniting the front lawns of however many houses there may be on both sides of a street to present an untroubled aspect of expansive green to the passer-by.” France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses.
IF ANY INDIVIDUAL CAN BE said to have invented the American lawn, it is Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1868, he received a commission to design Riverside, outside of Chicago, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted’s design stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road and it proscribed walls. He was reacting against the “high dead-walls” of England which he felt made a row of homes there seem “as of a series of private madhouses.” In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park.
But in England, lawns were usually found only on estates; the Americans democratized them, cutting the vast manorial greenswards into quarter-acre slices everyone could afford. Also, the English never considered the lawn an end in itself: it served as a setting for lawn games and as a backdrop for flowerbeds and trees.
It’s when it comes to residential landscapes that I take issue with old Frederick, and I think of him whenever I see acres of turf where it doesn’t belong – in unused, resource-intensive front yards. Great Lawns like the one above in Central Park belong in parks, where they’re needed for play. In front yards they serve what purpose exactly?
Olmsted was the subject of a recent article in Landscape Architecture Magazine with the provocative title “Frederick Law Olmsted is Holding Us Back. (There. I Said It.)” so I was eager to see what bone the author had to pick with Olmsted. Overuse of lawns, right?
Hardly. His complaint is that Olmsted is the only landscape architect known to the public and is mentioned far too often, even in professional journals.
So given that we don’t have anyone else with Olmsted’s kind of public brand identity to throw out there the way architects name-drop Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, and others, we make every effort to keep Olmsted in the conversation. The fear seems to be that if people stop talking about him, they stop talking about landscape architecture. I hate to say it, but there is some truth in that paranoia.
The author goes on to lament that even the much-praised High Line, a masterpiece of the profession, hasn’t got people talking about landscape architecture, that incredibly, the architect for that project is getting all the attention.
The only mention of Pollan’s issue with Olmsted is this:
By linking our image so closely to the archaic legacy of a man best known for creating bucolic 19th-century landscapes, we look rather irrelevant in that regard.
Exactly! Because we’re SO over the bucolic thing, which only made sense with the help of grazing animals.