Laurie Olin: What Is Real?

In honor of a lifetime of achievement in landscape architecture and in celebration of Founder’s Day and Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, the University of Virginia awarded Laurie Olin, FASLA, founding principal of OLIN Studio, its Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture. Since the award was first given to Mies van der Rohe in 1966, only a handful of landscape architects have received the medal, including Lawrence Halprin, Ian McHarg, Dan Kiley, and Peter Walker, FASLA. Olin now joins a prestigious crew who have shaped landscape architecture by designing innovative and memorable landscapes around the world. (This is a great time for him: Olin will also receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama next week).

Along with his acceptance of the TJ Medal, Olin gave a lecture on “Civic Realism and Landscape,” described in his own words as the “relationship between the making of civic places and the medium of landscape architecture.” Reflecting on a lifetime of experience in the field, Olin asked “what is real?” in landscape architecture.

From a brief discussion of realism, which included progressive artists and writers such as Manet, Renoir, Monet, Pizarro, Degas, and Baudelaire, to descriptions of his contemporary built works, Olin began to answer this question.

“What is real” is found in the relationship between contemporary life and the physical world. Olin described this as a preoccupation with “trying to depict the truth.” He argued the role of the designer is to transform the banal or ordinary into the particular by bringing the visitor into contact with the essence of a place. This experience is created through a site’s design and construction.

Olin is interested in the “conscious perfection of the ordinary.” Furthermore, by tapping into everyday routines, “social experiences can be rendered in ordinary terms,” enhancing the “meaningfulness and congeniality of public life.”

Walking the audience through his designs for Columbus Circle in New York City; Denver Mall in Colorado; and Director Park in Portland, Oregon; Olin elaborated on the splendor in the everyday design of these projects. More simply put, form and detail elements have the power to create public spaces for people.

Director Park, an intimate plaza, and Denver Mall, a 12-block long carpet of paving, connect site visitors to the particularities of each place. In these two examples, the source, color, movement, and pattern of the ground set the design in the history and culture of those places.

Similarly, the design of Columbus Circle allows a visitor to step out of the city, while never leaving it.



In all three examples, Olin has transformed these ordinary spaces through design. These memorable places are now embedded in the mental map of city-goers.

And then he finally defined what is real for him in landscape architecture:

“Those passages of shade, pools of light, the play of vegetation, changes of surface in level, varying views and perspectives, the splash of water that echoes in music, the harmony and contrast of colors in the unpolluted sun… these are all very ordinary things, but making them available for citizens in their daily routine, at the heart of our cities, is to serve up a dose of reality.”

This guest post is by Kate Hayes, Master of Landscape Architecture graduate at University of Virginia (UVA) and OLIN intern, summer 2012.

Image credits: (1) Laurie Olin / The Ant Fix, (2) Director Park / ArchDaily, (3) 16th Street Mall, Denver, Colorado / OLIN, Columbus Circle / Peter Mauss, ESTO, (5-6) ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Columbus Circle, NYC. OLIN / OLIN

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