The life of Olmsted: Cities can be livable

May 23, 1999|By Edward Gunts | By Edward Gunts,Sun Staff

"A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century," by Witold Rybczynski. Scribner. 480 pages. $28.

Genius is no more than a greater aptitude for patience," observed the French count George Louis LeClerc.

A similar assessment could be made about the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the social-reformer-turned-landscape-artist who was largely responsible for giving America some of its greatest public spaces. One of the first American practitioners of the profession now known as landscape architecture, Olmsted regarded patience as the ultimate virtue. He strove to design parks, campuses, estates and entire cities so they would age gracefully and look better in 40 years than when they first opened. "I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future," he once stated.

Born in 1822 in Hartford, Conn., Olmsted founded the company that became the leading landscape design firm in America during the 1800s. He almost singlehandedly introduced the urban parks movement to North America, with projects such as Central Park and Prospect Park in New York; the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, and the setting for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In Baltimore, his firm's planning work included Roland Park and the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

In "A Clearing in the Distance," author and educator Witold Rybczynski examines Olmsted's life and the lasting contributions he and his associates made to the American landscape. But instead of presenting Olmsted narrowly as a designer of public spaces, Rybczynski reveals him to be a major cultural figure of his time, as influential as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain or other "self-invented" gentlemen.

By tracing Olmsted's circuitous career -- from sailor to farmer to anti-slavery journalist -- Rybczynski sheds light on a rich period of American history. He also shows how Olmsted's social and intellectual pursuits informed his work in the public realm and elevated it above anything that had come before.

A professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, Rybczynski has established a reputation as one of the nation's most astute design critics, through books such as "Home" and "City Life" and articles in the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. In this book, he supplements factual accounts with fictionalized vignettes that attempt to evoke periods in Olmsted's life for which there may not have been much documentation.

While this literary device helps fill gaps in the chronology and gives some insight into Olmsted's thought process, the book would have been just as readable without it.

Rybczynski is at his most illuminating when he is describing the Olmsted-designed spaces he has visited -- from Mount Royal in Montreal to the Mariposa Estate in California -- and how well they have held up over the years. While fans of his may wish for even more of his design commentary, "A Clearing in the Distance" is valuable both as a biography and a chronicle of 19th century America.

Toward the end of the book, Rybczynski notes that Olmsted never really liked the term "landscape architecture" because he didn't think it adequately conveyed all that he brought to a project. "The art is not gardening nor is it architecture," Olmsted protested, at one point suggesting the phrase "sylvan art." By exploring the impact Olmsted had not only on the landscape but on those who benefited from its enhancement, Rybczynski underscores just how right Olmsted was.

A Baltimore native, Edward Gunts writes about architecture and urban design for The Sun and other publications. He studied architecture at Cornell University.

Pub Date: 05/23/99

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