The ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting officially commenced Saturday morning in Philadelphia with outgoing ASLA president Greg Miller, FASLA, making the case for the importance of landscape architecture in a world facing many challenges.
While the problems of climate change, inequality, strained resources, and aging infrastructure are daunting, they also create opportunities for the field to expand its influence and scope of activity. “These are exciting times for landscape architects,” who are “solving complex issues with simple solutions that meaningfully impact peoples’ lives.”
“Seeing what is being accomplished across the spectrum of landscape architecture, I’ve realized that we’re defined by our wisdom, and that is what has put us in a position to take the profession to new heights.”
Miller said this wisdom is composed of “knowledge (the easy part), experience, perspective, foresight, and judgement. When these come together, the results of our wisdom are beautiful and special. Through our actions, we can make people’s lives better, protect our lands, and craft a better world.”
Laurie Olin, FASLA, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg then took the stage for a wide-ranging conversation on Olin’s influences and current work.
Olin initially studied architecture but found himself shifting to landscape after traveling in Europe and being “absolutely blown away” by the landscapes.
At the same time, Olin was beginning to bristle at architecture’s limitations. “I realized architecture really didn’t satisfy some of my concerns. The 60’s were a turbulent time. Buildings were objects and didn’t seem to involve society, the public realm, and other factors I thought were really important.”
Olin said that his travel in Europe ignited his love for and interest in cities and urban design. “I had gone off to Europe to look at one thing, and then I discovered cities, and fell in love with them. I realized there was a structure to cities, and they could be organized around public spaces. I learned that people were actually designing the streets and linking public spaces before the buildings came. I thought that’s really important.”
Olin also observed these same influences were critical for Frederick Law Olmsted, who “channeled all this energy and these ideas about health and public spaces and fresh air and parks” into his work in the United States.
In Europe, Olin discovered “you had to go see it for yourself. Part of learning is being out there and actually seeing things. The books don’t do it; the slides don’t do it. The problem with landscape is it’s diverse, big, and in lots of places. You have to travel, and it takes a while to see it. Finding the good stuff is like raisins in the pudding – it’s not everywhere.”
His work as a designer has been shaped by these early insights and grew out of the same humane impulses that animated Olmsted’s work.
In his redesign of New York City’s Bryant Park, Olin sought to highlight the park’s characteristically-French elements but also make a space for people.
“I realized looking at it that it was a very French park,” he said. “It was basically a bunch of quotes from the Jardin du Luxembourg.” So, “if it’s going to be this French park, we should have movable furniture,” a simple move that “radically changed the place.”
At Battery Park City, also in New York City, Olin worked with Alex Cooper to create a master plan to draw people to the edge of the Hudson River. “It seemed so clear that what we had to do was get people out of the city onto the edge of the river and give the entire perimeter over to the public.”
In the wake of 9/11, Olin won a competition to redesign the base of the Washington Monument to deter a terrorist attack. However, the site needed much more than just security upgrades.
“People forget, it was a kind of nasty place in some ways. It was a complete ruin of the public realm in a place that was supposed to be the most generous and welcoming.”
Olin’s goal was “to make it as if it had always been a beautiful place,” he explained. “Why don’t we make it the way people think it always was?”
To achieve this effect, Olin’s design referred to the low retaining walls used on the opposite end of the mall by none other than Olmsted and Vaux. These walls encircle the monument, directing visitors and preventing a vehicle from getting too close. “The answer was right there, except at the other end of the mall!”
Stamberg brought the conversation to a close by asking Olin to reflect on the future of the profession.
“The future is always going to be a distorted view of the present,” he said. “We don’t know how the pieces will play out.”
He identified climate change as a uniquely-pressing issue both for landscape architects and the world at large. Olin urged landscape architects to assert themselves in important conversations on the world’s most difficult challenges.
“As a profession, we can help society find out where it wants to go. We should not wait for the phone to ring. We should be leading.”
“We have to become political in a thoughtful, non-strident, but effective way.”
“How to make the world safe for children in the next generation is your job,” he said to the audience. “It’s our job.”