Interview with Laurie Olin, FASLA

In a wide-ranging interview with ASLA, Laurie Olin, one of the world’s best known landscape architects, discusses the ideas and processes behind award-winning projects, such as the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Olin also add his thoughts on landscape architecture’s relationship with sustainability, and the effects of globalization on his practice.

Olin has worked in Washington, D.C. for years, and understands both the history of the city, and the history of its landscape architecture. He reflects on his dual work on the base of the National Monument, and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture garden. “When working on the Sculpture Garden, I was thinking about Downing and his plan for the Mall that partly got built — parts around the Oval near the White House. I was thinking about the plant palette he wanted to use. He wanted it to be a great arboretum of American plants and trees. That led to those thoughts. That great open shaft of space, the Mall, wanted to be clear, wanted to be simple, wanted to be bold, wanted to be open. The Sculpture Garden didn’t want to be like the Mall as it is today. The thing about Washington is paying attention to where you are and what portions of the city you’re dealing with and their relationship to, not only the city, but to its visitors and to the nation and to our imagination about the city.”

On transforming Columbus Circle from a pedestrian nightmare into a true destination in mid-Manhattan, Olin says: “I had this simple idea. It is so elementary: that if you could just do this slight berm all the way around the outside that would be up above the wheels of the car. People standing could look over it. When you sat down you would be enclosed. It was just like those office partitions that are in all those open offices. You sit down and you’re in your cubicle. You stand up and you can see all around.  I thought, “Well, if we just had a berm that size that would cut out a lot of the auto noise, and help isolate it.”  And then if you just flip the water — it seemed so clear, Columbus was a mariner, right? It should be about water. You should have more water. The thing was he didn’t discover a continent — he discovered islands.  This should be an island. You should walk out to an island. This monument to Columbus should be on an island in the water, very simple.”

In order for the general public to better understand the deep relationship between sustainability and landscape architecture, Olin believes landscape architects need to become more political, more involved in planning decisions. “How can landscape architects get other people to understand that’s how we think?  I think to do more work, show it, talk about it, and invite people to see it.  A lot has happened in the last ten years. People now have a sense of it that they didn’t before. They know that we do that. We need to be at the table when people start planning. We need to be involved when people are doing site selection. We should be helping people say, “No, you shouldn’t build there. This would be a better site.” We have to get involved in a lot of the more troublesome planning decisions.  We need to be involved in politics. Some of us have been political off and on, especially when we were young, but we got tired doing it.  It’s wearing. Each generation needs its ten years in the barrel fighting the politics when they have so much energy and altruism. People don’t realize that landscape architecture is political. In a democracy it probably should be. We should debate about who suffers and gains, who gets what, what are the benefits, where are they, what’s the cost. Those are things you’d hope in a democracy people would debate publicly.”

In terms of the effects of globalization on his own work, Olin argues that landscape architects must look at the social and economic implications of sourcing materials. “The confusing thing is not what you think of a European tree grown in Oregon, and shipped to Europe. It’s not whether you approve of that material, or whether it works and is successful or is handsome, or does its job or is durable or is healthy, but what is going on with the social aspects of it, in terms of finance and people’s lives and the instability of their society and their social support systems.  That is the confusing part, and the part that we don’t really understand.  What are we doing for those people in New England who lost all the factories to North Carolina that have gotten shipped to Indonesia and Thailand?  Now, the people in North Carolina are in as much trouble as the people in Lowell, Mass or New Haven. You can see that the people in Thailand and Indonesia are going to be in trouble when it moves to Ceylon or East Africa. We’re shipping the problem around, aren’t we?”

Olin also discusses the landscape of the financial community, which landscape architect’s work he particularly appreciates in Asia and Latin America, and the importance of rehabilitating war-ravaged landscapes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Read the full interview

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