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