Frederick Law Olmsted Is Holding Us Back (There. I Said It.)


This article is reprinted from the February issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

I don’t mean to say that dear old Olmsted, our cherished hero, our symbolic leader, has been acting like an overbearing parent. Our problem with Frederick Sr. is something that we as landscape architects keep bringing on ourselves by clinging to him too stubbornly. We constantly use his image and throw around his famous name and perpetuate the notion to people who don’t know better that the name Olmsted is somehow synonymous with our profession. This is not helping our cause.

Nowadays, we need to promote ourselves as innovators who look ahead, who are capable of solving complex contemporary problems. 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.

I recently skimmed through the past seven years of Landscape Architecture Magazine—from January 2005 to December 2011—curious to see how many issues made reference to Olmsted. Out of those 84 issues, he was discussed by name in 71 of them. And of the 13 issues that didn’t mention him directly, seven talked about Central Park in New York City, and two others mentioned the Olmsted Brothers firm. That is 80 out of 84—or 95 percent—of the most recent issues of our leading professional publication talking about Olmsted, his most famous work, or the second generation of his firm. That’s a lot of Olmsted.

Several of those references are admittedly in articles I have written for LAM, which makes me not a hypocrite but rather qualifies me all the more to raise the issue. I know firsthand how easy it is to lean on the crutch provided by a good Olmsted reference. If he’s in it, it’s got to be worth reading, right?

Our preoccupation with Olmsted stems from a chronic, debilitating inferiority complex that plagues our profession. We lament that laypeople confuse us with landscape designers and horticulturists, and we envy the greater visibility that architects enjoy. All of this contributes to a feeling of inadequacy. 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.

These days, the High Line is the biggest deal to have hit landscape architecture in a long time. It had the unique potential to even out the disparity in public perception between architecture and landscape architecture. The starry design competition and the universally loved project by James Corner Field Operations should have helped begin to cure our image woes. But something unexpected happened: The media and masses celebrated the opening and subsequent expansion of the project, but that conversation has to a large extent left out landscape architecture, at least outside our own circles.

Not too long ago I was flipping through the TV channels and saw the architect Elizabeth Diller being interviewed by Martha Stewart for a series titled Women With Vision. Diller is a principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects (DS+R), who were subconsultants to Corner’s office on the High Line. When Diller was discussing the project, she spoke appropriately about the importance of the site but then neglected to mention any role played by landscape architects. No James Corner. No Field Operations. No mention of Piet Oudolf, who helped with planting design, either.

New Yorkers don’t care who gets recognized for the High Line. They got a fabulous, transformative urban space that would make Olmsted proud (see how easily that reference just slips in there?). But it should matter deeply to landscape architects that Corner’s team receives its due credit. This type of work—reconceiving the urban realm—is a critical part of the present and future of our profession. And while media bits, such as an interview with Martha Stewart, may seem like fluff, they are important in determining what our stake in the game is going to be.

We hear and read all the time about how much the world is changing. Climate change, economic instability, ecological catastrophe, and societal shifts are forcing people to look at things in new ways. This has triggered a huge shift in the design world, too. Landscape and water issues drive the shaping of cities as never before. None of this is breaking news. Such a change in the worldview will naturally lead to significantly more work for landscape architects. It has to, right? But the reality is we can’t expect such things to just fall into our laps. Architects clearly see how the playing field is being tilted in our favor, and they aren’t happy about it. They will fight for their share of the action. Probably for most of ours too.

Architecture is embedded in the media and contemporary popular culture in ways we can only envy at this point, so its voice is much louder than ours. Architects can create buzz so the world clamors to see what Norman Foster and Frank Gehry are going to produce next, although it becomes less surprising as time goes on. We, meanwhile, remain perched solidly upon Olmsted’s shoulders.

Several recent documentaries and biographies have focused on Olmsted’s life and career, so he never seems to want for attention. He had a costarring role in Erik Larson’s hugely popular historical novel, The Devil in the White City, and now may even be Hollywood-bound with a big-screen adaptation of that book in the works starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I can already picture an actor wearing a period costume, with the white beard and the cane, all reinforcing the grandfatherly image of Olmsted. This is great in that it will help landscape architecture reach the masses, but it won’t exactly enhance our image as a vital contemporary profession.

We need to actively present a wider view of both our past and present to change the misconception people have about what we do. It may not be easy, however, given that even the landscape architects we consider stars have a tough time getting us the recognition we are looking for. Case in point: A recent edition of the CBS news program Sunday Morning revolved around the famed Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, designed by the architect Eero Saarinen. The talk was all “architect this, architect that,” but when it came to discussing the landscape, which is one of the landscape architect Dan Kiley’s masterpieces, it went something like this: “The garden was designed by Dan Kiley.” Period. I was thrilled to hear Kiley mentioned by name, but there was no hint of any professional association or credentials. It was as if this guy Kiley were the groundskeeper.

And so on. I realize that many of us have collected examples of such slights to our profession. None of this is Olmsted’s fault. But we can’t just blame the media. We have a big responsibility in all of this, too.

When Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, was recently elected into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, joining the exalted ranks of fellow landscape architects Laurie Olin, FASLA, Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, and Olmsted, among many other luminaries, I barely heard a peep about it—even from within our own ranks. This is a huge deal, not only for Van Valkenburgh, but for all of us. The more accolades that an individual landscape architect gets, the more respect our whole profession receives.

Last August 17, a public awareness event organized by ASLA gave landscape architects across the country a platform for spreading the message that we are part of a thriving profession. It was, by all accounts, a big success. Another such event is being set up for this year, and I encourage all landscape architects to get involved in some way and brag on the work you are doing. That event will be held on April 26.

That’s Olmsted’s birthday.

Mark Hough, ASLA, is campus landscape architect at Duke Univeristy.

Image credit: LAM

26 thoughts on “Frederick Law Olmsted Is Holding Us Back (There. I Said It.)

  1. Lee 02/06/2012 / 1:12 pm

    I get it. Case in point new TV sitcom , “Rob”, offers a joke that refers to lead character ( (a Landscape Architect) as a gardener. Maybe the ASLA should offer advertising money to promote the profession through story line.

  2. Kam 02/07/2012 / 12:26 am

    I am trained as an architect, but, from my experience, many people really can’t STAND architects, while others grudgingly admire them. On the other hand, there is plenty of respect for Frederick Law Olmsted. My suggestion is that landscape architects should be really proud of what they do and that Olmsted’s work is a wonderful introduction to the appreciation to landscape architecture. To be honest, this is how I became interested in other landscape architects and landscape history.. I really find it a little sad, when landscape architects act as though they have an inferiority complex. They definitely should not, but educating the public about the work of landscape architects, other than FLO, would be a good idea.

  3. John 02/07/2012 / 11:05 am

    Sorry, but in my opinion this is a preposterous and perhaps even arrogant premise to even propose – FL Olmstead holding us (landscape architects) back? Back from what I ask? Why do landscape architects (and popular culture generally) feel the need to be continually recognized by their peers? I totally agree with Kam above in that MOST landscape architects I know have an inferiority complex and have status-envy from ‘the architects’. A different approach would be simply focusing on the work, doing your best when it matters, and give your clients their moneys worth. If you feel you need to be recognized with an award or atta-boy lapel pin for the club, great. Spend the time and fill out the application for the FSC-certified mahogany plaque. Otherwise, shut up and draw – maybe get most of the bills paid.

    AE Bye, Jens Jensen, Garett Eckbo, Ed Stone Jr., and tens of thousands of other people more talented than you or I, people that none of us know nothing about – didn’t work for the applause and celebrity that everyone feels entitled to now. They worked because they loved it, for the experience of it, AND for the paycheck. That was enough for them. Are electrical engineers out on the blogs demanding more press? Are structural engineers for the world’s tallest skyscraper up-in-arms because they aren’t mentioned in every SOM article about the Burj Khalifa? No. Should they be – maybe. Who cares?

    We care too much about what others think. That work ethic that those I mentioned above had – that passion and attitude that’s needed and required in our profession is sadly on the decline, despite what ‘everyone in the profession’ thinks. My advice to younger landscape architects is that there’s no ‘design process’ tool on Photoshop, and you can’t learn about the Al Hambra (or landscape architecture) from a book. Get out there and do it.

    “I’m interested in the practice of landscape architecture, rather than the business of landscape architecture.” – Martha

    • twoOregonians 02/12/2012 / 10:21 am

      “My advice to younger landscape architects is that there’s no ‘design process’ tool on Photoshop, and you can’t learn about the Al Hambra (or landscape architecture) from a book. Get out there and do it.”

      I’m so glad to hear this reminder. I’ve left the firm I practiced at for the past five years in order to travel the globe and learn first hand. I love our profession, and I’m constantly seeing our relevance in developing countries especially.

      We remember our collective history, but we must also continue to shape our own future…

  4. Beth 02/07/2012 / 11:58 am

    Fred gets credit because he made it happen and he went large. He’s the grandpapa. I don’t have a problem with his reputation casting a long shadow. Current practitioners need to work on their cult of personality.

  5. Stephanie Clements 02/07/2012 / 12:07 pm

    FLO, isn’t holding anyone back. He’s dead. Many of his ideas and creations endured because they were, and are, environmentally and aesthetically sound. No one holds anyone else back.

    Regarding the author’s advice to younger landscape architects, “Get out there and do it.” I would argue, there’s more to it than that. You get out there and experience landscape – the good, the bad and the ugly. Visit, photography, sketch, be, think, communicate, look (really look) question; why do I like this; why does this feel wrong, or right? How did this happen? What could have been done differently; why? Do I see things here I want to do, or not do; if so, what are they? A landscape architect is a landscape architect 24/7/365. Why not learn from the past and the present? It’s important. It affects what happens when we “just do” design in the studio or office.

    Blaming FLO for one’s perceived, or the profession’s perceived, shortcomings? I can’t accept that notion.

  6. M. Jean McKee 02/07/2012 / 1:17 pm

    What is this problem that everyone seems to want their 15 minutes of fame? We see it in the all the shows with singing as the main attribute, the so-called reality shows, and many more. The latest landscape architect for our property talked about traffic flow suggesting a path to cut through the beautiful lawn that sets off the house and gives a peaceful character to the setting only interruped by the large maple trees. This was at least influenced if not designed by my great grandmother’s first cousin, Fred, and his son Fred, Jr. That’s right, Frederick Law Olmsted visited his cousins often and even lived with the family as he started his farming. We love that our landscape follows his ideas. We don’t expect someone to give us an award for preserving it. We just want to share our enjoyment with others.

  7. Marion 02/07/2012 / 3:12 pm

    Mark maybe you should go to your University’s web site and start working at home to right this wrong you feel you and we are all facing. I do not think FLO is holding anyone back nor is the later work of Olmsted Bros; just seems like an excuse.

    “When James B. Duke endowed Duke University in 1924, he envisioned the creation of a great southern university that would rival the great established schools of the northeast. He wanted Duke to not only provide a top education, but also a great campus setting with beautiful architecture and landscaping, with enough land to accommodate the potential for future expansion. The highly respected landscape architect firm Olmsted Brothers was hired to assist the architect in laying out the quadrangles, roads and pedestrian circulation system, along with the landscaping for both East Campus and West Campus.”

  8. Rochelle 02/08/2012 / 11:05 am

    There are two lines here that really have me a little irritated….”We lament that laypeople confuse us with landscape designers and horticulturists, and we envy the greater visibility that architects enjoy. ” and then later “The talk was all “architect this, architect that,” but when it came to discussing the landscape, which is one of the landscape architect Dan Kiley’s masterpieces, it went something like this: “The garden was designed by Dan Kiley.” Period. I was thrilled to hear Kiley mentioned by name, but there was no hint of any professional association or credentials. It was as if this guy Kiley were the groundskeeper.”
    IMO — this wouldn’t be such a problem if the LA side of the exterior design professional spectrum didn’t see themselves as the rightful heirs to the top of the heap…..there is no heap…you should not be ashamed to be confused with other professionals that are are your teammates and who quite frankly can bring you and the industry a lot of great attention and glowing accolades. It is Horticulturists who cultivate the plants that people connect with and it is largely landscape designers who create the residential spaces that they live in on a daily basis and it is gardeners who make them last for generations…these people, if you embraced them — rather than act like they are unqualified 2nd class professionals would be your allies, but the ASLA and people with attitudes like yours continue to behave as if you are above all others and it isn’t helping you. Stop being so hung up on credentials….we all have them….nobody’s are better than any ones else’s.

    • John 02/08/2012 / 11:09 am

      Very good point Rochelle my thinking exactly.

      • Freyja 02/08/2012 / 7:53 pm

        Thank you Rochelle for writing exactly what I was thinking.

    • Anonymous 02/08/2012 / 1:23 pm

      I too find some of the statements in this article a little distasteful. It portrays landscape architects as insecure and self-involved, whose need for external validation is satisfied only by the accumulation of public accolades. The jabs at other professions are petty and disrespectful. I also dislike the idea that landscape architects can be fit into a tidy little box; some of fields that the author looks down his nose at have a lot to teach us.

      Many of us do outstanding work without ever receiving recognition, but that’s the way of the world. If you are in it for the glory, you are doing it for the wrong reasons.

    • Carrie 02/19/2012 / 7:28 pm

      I noticed and was annoyed by these lines as well.

      For what it’s worth, here in the Netherlands, I would venture that most people have no idea who FLO is and it is Piet Oudolf – the plant designer and autodidact with no fancy titles – who is the household name.

  9. Richard K. Sutton 02/08/2012 / 11:12 am

    Mark- Please read- A Clearing in the Distance – and then rethink what you have written.

    Richard Sutton, FASLA

  10. Donna 02/08/2012 / 2:21 pm

    I did not get the impression that the author is denying the impact that FLO has had on our profession or how his founding accomplishments transcend into the work we do today. Nor did I feel that he is vying for fame and celebrity for the sake of fame and celebrity. He’s trying to protect our piece of pie! There’s only one pie and architects, engineers, designers, horticulturists, realestate agents, surveyors, developers all have their own piece, but they continue to skirt their eyes hungrily at our piece. Why? Because we don’t speak up! Our profession – our passion – is the beauty, comfort, serenity and harmony in our daily lives. We cannot live without these qualities, but by their nature they don’t project. Their impact is great, imho this greatness meets or exceeds the best qualities of associated professions, but the realization of this greatness is subtle, unassuming and long lasting. Therefore, as the caretakers of this profession, we must speak for it! So that it not be taken away and subjected to the possibility of abuse by others, we must be vigilant of unaccounted for fork marks and stake our cocktail toothpick on our slice! We must be the hero for landscape architecture as well as recognize our current and predecessing professional heroes.

  11. Brian P. Kane 02/08/2012 / 2:34 pm

    The man was the trail-blazer. Landscape architects continue to build our own settlements along his highway, based on the conditions of our present day culture.

    By nature, landscape architects stay humble. We work with elements that change and that are modified by the sun, tides, and storms. I didn’t enter the field to make it into tabloid headlines, but to nurture God-given resources, and to provide outdoor places for people to enjoy.

  12. Joe Collins, Landscape Architect 02/10/2012 / 12:33 pm

    I believe our profession should be categorized as an Architect. A landscape architect controls where tangible objects are placed such as the building, circulation methods, grading and drainage, and aesthetics weather through modern building materials or plants. Olmsted was the first to classify and place a title of all of these items weather we like the title or not. Our clients and scope of work has evolved, but the basic principles he made recognizable are still there.

    I love what I do as a Landscape Architect and because of my pride I do have an inferior complex to others who don’t know what Landscape Architecture is.

  13. Alan Burke 02/11/2012 / 1:47 pm

    I couldn’t agree more….on some of your points and the “cult of personality” issue is a real one. But don’t blame FLO. We are creating our own problem here. ASLA is a red-headed stepchild to the AIA and LAM isn’t helping much, as it appears to be really hung up on a limited constellation of landscape architects. I for one can do without hearing from the same designers on every issue. The fact is, the profession denies its roots in so many ways, notably planting design – is ashamed of it really – and can’t brook any satisfaction from being a profession that is close to the earth. This is the driving wedge in the profession, me thinks, and if you don’t agree with that, then see it as at a least missed public relations opportunity. As an example, we, as professionals don’t really protest about anti-environmental issues or our own green-industries challenges to the EPA at all. Sure, there are a few that get it – a very few.

    But the profession? ASLA, LAM – not much noise coming from that front. There is a real opportunity right now for landscape architects to stand for something – environmental change, the continuing erosion of environmental protection and the need to reinforce the “precautionary principle” and more. The dramatic shift in consumer awareness on the residential front is begging for our attention and we can gain significant ground by simply becoming a larger part of the dramatic change now happening with consumers all across America in the move toward urban gardens and habitat. But that would be “small time” wouldn’t it? No, if ASLA can’t make a “big” impression – it would rather make no impression at all. So lets continue to bemoan our fate, our lack of recognition, the diminishment at the the hands of the AIA. Oh, and let’s blame ourselves too – starting with FLO, for god’s sake.

    The fact is, if you want a successful profession, make it joyous. Reach out. I know it’s heresy, but we could learn a lot from Jamie Durie and Darmiud Gavin. Get people excited. Make your own noise.

    Oh yes, there certainly is a snooty side to ASLA. I know this well, having put together and sponsored a keynote address with the organization in the 90′s. And the recent licensure rift in the landscape design profession doesn’t bode well for our green-industry as a whole. There is a new, fractious and brewing storm on the horizon between ASLA and APLD for example. This will test the limits of licensure and raise real public questions about the efficacy of landscape architects. It’s a dialogue that’s worth having – if it serves as a wake up call. And lets face it. The fact is, there are a lot of hack landscape architects out there, truth be told. I have met stunningly talented unlicensed landscape designers and ASLA members that don’t know their Asplenium from a hole-in-the-ground…and vice-versa.

    So get it together – stop worshipping the same self-promoters and quit yer whinin’ about the current state of affairs. Write, protest, speak, blog, design – reach out and make a public impression. Leave FLO alone.

    Best wishes to all my green-industry friends.

    (You can see my stuff here: http://www.classicnursery.com/
    and here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Classic-Nursery-Landscape-Company/110801602313191)

  14. poncho 02/13/2012 / 6:35 pm

    Probably because FLO is most likely the greatest designer of the built environment in US history. I cant think of any other individual within the built environment as highly regarded and for so long both among those within and outside the profession. Almost all landscape work today and in the time since FLO died is so visibly influenced by FLO. The famous architects like even FLW cant compare.

  15. Marianne 02/16/2012 / 10:10 am

    I take offense that a LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT might be seen as a Landscape Designer or Horticulturist. What a put down for my profession as a Landscape Designer and Horticulturist!!

  16. maureen decombe 02/17/2012 / 10:27 pm

    I’m sure the above is intended as a tongue-in-cheek attempt at humor, but really? Why throw potshots at other professions? Until we all treat each other as professionals, define, expect and enforce clear professional standards amongst LAs, LDs, Horticulturists, LCs, etc., we are going nowhere.

    The world could be populated with the strawmen built by these recitation of horribles directed by insecure members of one profession who envy perceived unfair transgressions or advantages of the other. Can we please just get over it and get busy saving the damn planet? It’s going to take every one of us.

  17. Candace Mastel 02/22/2012 / 2:37 pm

    I agree with all the posts here that reinforce what a need LA’s seem to have with self validation and garnering verbal or written respect. Do they stop to realize how many other professionals involved with projects don’t get the spotlight. Those folks just do their job and go home. I am a firm believer, after being involved in CLARB Google sites and the like that some of these LA people need to learn to get a life. I am not a Landscape Designer 24/7/365 because I value other things about myself that make me a whole person. Being a designer is just a small piece of who I am.

    We should embrace the history and remember the “greats” that came before us that helped define a rather undefinable profession. We need to remember that you don’t need a license or a title to be a professional and contribute to thoughtful and memorable design. Its more about doing your job and doing it well while enjoying yourself. And we also need to remember that other professions are our fellow collaborators, whether horticulturists, contractors, design/builders, architects, engineers, etc.

    • John 02/22/2012 / 2:52 pm

      Candace, what you penned above is the best post yet on this subject, period. And more concise and to the point. Well put. I read it twice.

  18. phil 02/24/2012 / 5:10 pm

    As I start my fourth decade in this profession I have less and less tolerance for those who preach that we should all just put our heads down, do a good job and not worry about promoting ourselves or the profession. If we value our work and the work of landscape architects why would we not want to spread the word, making sure that the public knows about what we do. I see many public spaces designed by architects or engineers that I KNOW could have been improved if a LA had been in the lead. I honestly feel that we as landscape architects are the ones that best serve the public when it comes to public space design. Landscape Architects are often not involved because we are still often pigeonholed as the ones who put on the “green paint” and honestly if we are only engaged for planting design, their are other professionals who can do that better. And that is in no way a put down to the other professionals. I make no apologies for promoting Landscape architecture

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