I just finished reading a fascinating biography on Frederick Law Olmsted by Witold Rybcynski. Its long title, “A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century”, describes a key element of Olmsted’s work, the control of vistas and the framing of views. The title also suggests that the book is about America as well as the man. Olmsted lived and worked at a time of great change and advancement in the United States. It was a time in which our country was maturing and the new industrial age technology was making a tremendous impact on society and the lives of individuals. It was a time when human society went from being at the mercy of the natural world to being in command of it. Olmsted was not only a great landscape architect, a term he coined, he was also tremendously influential in building the America we know today.
The book follows Olmsted from his teens to his death as an old man suffering from dementia. His career in landscape design could almost be looked on as an afterthought to everything Olmsted did in his life. In his early years he worried he would never find his life’s calling as he tried his hand at various vocations. In truth he was Renaissance man, excelling at everything he set his mind to. I found the most interesting portion of the book to be the description of Olmsted’s seemingly scattered search for a fulfilling career. As a teen he was hired on to a ship sailing to China. This was in the early 1800s when sailing to the other side of the planet was almost the equivalent to today’s journey to the moon (probably more dangerous and took many many times longer). He was an influential author, a publisher, and farmer. He ran a goldmine in California and traveled extensively in Europe, and in the American south and west. He was an abolitionist who’s newspaper series on conditions in the slave states was highly influential in the north. During the Civil War Olmsted ran an organization which was called the Military Sanitary Commission, which was a kind of Red Cross for Union soldiers. As part of the Commission, Olmsted ran a fleet of hospital ships bigger than the US navy at the time.
Although his early career search led in many directions, everything he did prepared him for his greatest accomplishments as America’s first great landscape architect. Amazingly Olmsted’s landscape career began with the magnificent Central Park in New York. He first teamed up with his long time partner Calvert Vaux to win a design competition for what was to become America’s greatest urban park. He had never designed anything more than the landscape for his personal farm at the time. Olmsted went on to provide designs for parks and subdivisions across America in many of the country’s biggest cities, including Buffalo. His work was incredibly influential in forming the cities we know today. His career spanned from the simple rural America before the Civil War, when he started his Central Park work, to the highly industrialized and urbanized America at the turn of the 20th century. From his work on the massively influential World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago to his work as an environmentalist, to his designs for suburban towns such as Riverside Illinois (which still influence the subdivisions of today in a greatly watered down and misunderstood manner), his concepts (bastardized though they might be)set the patterns of land use that we now take for granted in urban planning.