Ten Design Lessons from Frederick Law Olmsted, the Father of American Landscape architecture

Matt Linderman of 37Signals.com

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the father of American landscape architecture, may have more to do with the way America looks than anyone else. Beginning in 1857 with the design of Central Park in New York City, he created designs for thousands of landscapes, including many of the world’s most important parks.

His works include Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Mount Royal in Montreal, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and Washington Park, Jackson Park and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. (The last of those documented excellently in Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City.) Plus, many of the green spaces that define towns and cities across the country are influenced by Olmsted.

Below, ten lessons from Olmsted’s approach:

1) Respect “the genius of a place.”
Olmsted wanted his designs to stay true to the character of their natural surroundings. He referred to “the genius of a place,” a belief that every site has ecologically and spiritually unique qualities. The goal was to “access this genius” and let it infuse all design decisions.

This meant taking advantage of unique characteristics of a site while also acknowledging disadvantages. For example, he was willing to abandon the rainfall-requiring scenery he loved most for landscapes more appropriate to climates he worked in. That meant a separate landscape style for the South while in the dryer, western parts of the country he used a water-conserving style (seen most visibly on the campus of Stanford University, design shown at right).

2) Subordinate details to the whole.
Olmsted felt that what separated his work from a gardener was “the elegance of design,” (i.e. one should subordinate all elements to the overall design and the effect it is intended to achieve). There was no room for details that were to be viewed as individual elements. He warned against thinking “of trees, of turf, water, rocks, bridges, as things of beauty in themselves.” In his work, they were threads in a larger fabric. That’s why he avoided decorative plantings and structures in favor of a landscapes that appeared organic and true.

3) The art is to conceal art.
Olmsted believed the goal wasn’t to make viewers see his work. It was to make them unaware of it. To him, the art was to conceal art. And the way to do this was to remove distractions and demands on the conscious mind. Viewers weren’t supposed to examine or analyze parts of the scene. They were supposed to be unaware of everything that was working.

He tried to recreate the beauty he saw in the Isle of Wight during his first trip to England in 1850: “Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; we know not exactly where or how.” Olmsted’s works appear so natural that one critic wrote, “One thinks of them as something not put there by artifice but merely preserved by happenstance.”

4) Aim for the unconscious.
Related to the previous point, Olmsted was a fan of Horace Bushnell’s writings about “unconscious influence” in people. (Bushnell believed real character wasn’t communicated verbally but instead at a level below that of consciousness.) Olmsted applied this idea to his scenery. He wanted his parks to create an unconscious process that produced relaxation. So he constantly removed distractions and demands on the conscious mind.

For example, his designs subtly direct movement through the landscape. Pedestrians are led without realizing they’re being led. If you’ve ever gotten lost on one of Prospect Park’s paths, you’ll understand the point. It’s a strange sensation of feeling lost yet completely confident that you can easily return to your starting point.

5) Avoid fashion for fashion’s sake.
Olmsted rejected displays “of novelty, of fashion, of scientific or virtuoso inclinations and of decoration.” He felt popular trends of the day, like specimen planting and flower-bedding of exotics, often intruded more than they helped.

For example, he contrasted the effect of a common wild flower on a grassy bank with that of a gaudy hybrid of the same genus, imported from Japan and blooming under glass in an enameled vase. The hybrid would draw immediate attention. He observed, but “the former, while we have passed it by without stopping, and while it has not interrupted our conversation or called for remark, may possibly, with other objects of the same class, have touched us more, may have come home to us more, may have had a more soothing and refreshing sanitary influence.”

6) Formal training isn’t required.
Olmsted had no formal design training and didn’t commit to landscape architecture until he was 44. Before that, he was a New York Times correspondent to the Confederate states, the manager of a California gold mine, and General Secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. He also ran a farm on Staten Island from 1848 to 1855 and spent time working in a New York dry-goods store.

His views on landscapes developed from travelling and reading. When he was young, he took a year-long voyage in China. And in 1850, he took a six-month walking tour of Europe and the British Isles, during which he saw numerous parks, private estates, and scenic countryside. He was also deeply influenced by Swiss physician Johann Georg von Zimmermann’s writings about nature’s ability to heal “derangements of the mind” through imagination. Olmsted read Zimmermann’s book as a boy and treasured it.

7) Words matter.
Olmsted wrote often and thought hard about the words he used. For example, he rejected the term “landscape gardening” for his own work since he felt he worked on a larger scale than gardeners. He wrote, “Gardening does not conveniently include exposing great ledges, damming streams, making lakes, tunnels, bridges, terraces and canals.” Therefore, he said, “Nothing can be written on the subject in which extreme care is not taken to discriminate between what is meant in common use of the words garden, gardening, gardener, and the art which I try to pursue.” He also wrote extensively on design principles and his words still inspire many in the field to this day.

8) Stand for something.
By the time he began work as a landscape architect, Olmsted had developed a set of social values that gave purpose to his design work.

From his New England heritage he drew a belief in community and the importance of public institutions of culture and education. His southern travels and friendship with exiled participants in the failed German revolutions of 1848 convinced him of the need for the United States to demonstrate the superiority of republican government and free labor. A series of influences, beginning with his father and supplemented by reading such British writers on landscape art as Uvedale Price, Humphry Repton, William Gilpin, William Shenstone, and John Ruskin convinced him of the importance of aesthetic sensibility as a means of moving American society away from frontier barbarism and toward what he considered a civilized condition.

His writings show that, in his view, he wasn’t just making pretty, green spaces. He was democratizing nature...

It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month of two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.

...and healing people’s mental conditions.

It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men…The want of such occasional recreation where men and women are habitually pressed by their business or household cares often results in a class of disorders the characteristic quality of which is mental disability, sometimes taking the severe forms of softening of the brain, paralysis, palsey, monomania, or insanity, but more frequently of mental and nervous excitability, moroseness, melancholy, or irascibility, incapacitating the subject for the proper exercise of the intellectual and moral forces.

9) Utility trumps ornament.
There was always a “purpose of direct utility or service” to Olmsted’s work. Service preceded art in his work. He felt trees, flowers, and fences without purpose were “inartistic if not barbarous.” He wrote, “So long as considerations of utility are neglected or overridden by considerations of ornament, there will be not true art.”

This could be seen in the way he treated practical aspects of his work. Providing for adequate drainage and other engineering considerations mattered as much as arranging surface features.

He was also into sustainable design and environmental conservation long before it was in vogue. He wrote, “Plant materials should thrive, be non invasive, and require little maintenance. The design should conserve the natural features of the site to the greatest extent possible and provide for the continued ecological health of the area.”

10) Never too much, hardly enough.
Olmsted fought against distracting elements. He constantly simplified the scene, clearing and planting to clarify the “leading motive” of the natural site. Though he often faced criticism from those who found his style too rough and unkempt, Olmsted was as proud of what he didn’t do as what he did do. Thirty years after he helped to design Central Park, he observed to his ex-partner, Calvert Vaux, “The great merit of all the works you and I have done is that in them the larger opportunities of the topography have not been wasted in aiming at ordinary suburban gardening, cottage gardening effects. We have let it alone more than most gardeners can. But never too much, hardly enough.”

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