Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Genius of place: Frederick Law Olmsted


I've read a lot by and about Frederick Law Olmsted. I am among those who are continuously spellbound by his accomplishments and influence on the intellectual and physical spaces of America. Olmsted is one of the inspirations for this modest blog of mine about textscapes, "The spaces we inhabit and what we communicate within those spaces are the shape of our lives."

Most people know Olmsted primarily for Central Park -- and his role in conceiving and building the park is extraordinary. But those who have looked back at his full career can't help but be awed by the varied and far-ranging impact he had on ideas (abolitionism, social progress, egalitarianism, urban development, urban design, conservation, biophilia) and the physical environment (a small selection of his design and preservation projects include Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, the Stanford University campus, the Emerald Necklace of parks and the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Yosemite Falls, Niagra Falls, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, Mount Royal park in Quebec, and the Capital Grounds in Washington, DC).

The latest biography, Genius of Place: the Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Abolitionist, Conservationist, and Designer of Central Park, by Justin Martin (De Capo Press, 2011) is more forthright, but matter-of-fact, about Omsted the man than are some of the other more hagiographic biographies. Omsted was not always the most pleasant character, and didn't have a sunny disposition. He probably suffered from depression, and he didn't suffer fools gladly. Yet through it all he demonstrates uncommon resilience and a firm resolve to create (a very unsentimental) better world.

A convincing, and encouraging, theme of the book is the attitude, attributed to him by Martin, of carpe diem -- his belief that he and his generation lived in a unique if difficult era, but always with energetic confidence that improvement (self, society, the physical world we live in) is possible. And that improvement comes from nature first, but is achieved only through our respectful, informed, and determined stewardship. Olmsted did seem to believe in the genius in the place -- a genius that did not just emerge into pretty scenery, but into physical, emotional, and social health, sustainability and abundance in nature and ourselves.