Genius of Place: The National Parks, Olmsted & Landscape Urbanism (Lecture Report)

As part of The Friends of Fairsted Lecture Series for 2015-16 Ethan Carr (University of Massachusetts Amherst) presented a talk on ‘Our National Parks and the “Fairsted School”: An Enduring Legacy’. The 2015-16 Lecture Series is organised in Recognition of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. Tom Woodward (President, The Friends of Fairsted) gave a general introduction and Anne Whiston Spirn (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) provided as commentator an introductory context.

In his lecture, Ethan Carr explored some of the design principles and philosophies of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and the Olmsted firm, and how these ideas have contributed towards the shaping of the National Parks, scenic preservation, and the ‘Fairsted School’ legacy. Carr reflected on various projects and approaches by the Olmsted firm.

He showed how Olmsted  (1822-1903) in his early projects with Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) developed site-specific approaches for each project. They for instance allowed for the natural layers and local landscape identity, such as the iconic rock outcrops in Central park, to remain key elements in the new landscape vision for Central Park. The daring ecological approach for Back Bay Fens in Boston, prepared together with Henry Hobson Richardson, was something probably never seen before. Jamaica Pond and Franklin Park, also part of the Emerald Necklace, were also given as examples of Olmsted’s achievements in shaping landscape, rather then just creating a park.

Plan of Central Park, New York City, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, 1869.
Plan of Central Park, New York City, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, 1869.

Olmsted’s involvement at Yosemite was highlighted for a philosophy of ‘doing as little as possible’, while still means of access had to be created. Such approaches reminded myself of present international preservation philosophies  and principles. ‘Doing as little as possibe’ echoes in particular the Burra Charter, the Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance. The Burra Charter advocates for a cautious approach to change, and says: ‘Do as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it useable, but otherwise change it as little as possible so that its cultural significance is retained’. The examples given by Carr on how the automobile-era started to undermined the National Parks in the mid-20th century, and the Mission 66 program in the Parks, point out that ‘do as little as possible’ is not always as straightforward as it seems in a rapidly evolving society.

Plan of the Back Bay Fens, Boston. 1887. By the Boston Park Department and Olmsted Landscape Architects (Boston Public Library Government Documents Archive).

The challenges of establishing project visions were balanced in Carr’s talk with the challenges faced by the Olmsted firm in establishing succession and continuity in their own corporate identity, know-how and visionary strengths. The contribution by Charles Eliot and his untimely death was highlighted, together with the impact that loosing his genius had on the firm. Both Ethan Carr and Anne Whiston Spirn contemplated on the though of ‘what if Eliot would have been there’. Nevertheless, the ‘Fairsted School’ became a legacy and Carr asked whether it could be the ‘Fairsted School’ that might be ‘America’s best idea’ in the National Parks.

Frederick Law Olmsted with the Colfax party in Yosemite, 1865.
Frederick Law Olmsted with the Colfax party in Yosemite, 1865 (Public Broadcasting Service).

What intruiged me about the talk was how Carr’s analysis illustrated once again the importance of site-based approaches, and the relevance of landscape urbanism to our present society. The Olmsted firm mastered that approach and a useful online source with a summary overview of the main design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted and the Olmsted firm can be found at The National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP) website.

The Olmsted Park, established in 1891. In the Emerald Necklace, Boston, Massachusetts (Jan Haenraets, 2015).
The Olmsted Park, established in 1891. In the Emerald Necklace, Boston, Massachusetts (Jan Haenraets, 2015).

To me, a careful consideration of place and local identity are essential to achieve good and site-specific designs. Consulting the genius of place is a core design principle that can, and should, be applied to preservation projects and contemporary design.  In too many urban developments this has not been considered sufficiently, and as a result the connection with place, the original identity of the pre-urbanized underlying land, has been lost. Approaches to design and planning that reconnect us somehow with this genius of the place can assist in creating healthy liveable urban environments and in addressing social, educational and environmental challenges.

In that sense, I do believe that design principles, such as Olmsted’s, are most useful to keep in mind when safeguarding and shaping our urban areas. Or, as Carr and Spirn both suggested, to reflect at times, and wonder ‘what would Olmsted do today’?

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

Useful Links:

The Friends of Fairsted

The National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP)

The Design Principles of Frederick Law Olmsted (NOAP)

Frederick Law Olmsted: Shaper of the American Landscape (National Park Service)

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