J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Frederick Law Olmsted: America’s Landscape Architect

He was a Republican, but some of his most significant work is found in New York, Boston, and Washington, DC. He saw Manhattan’s Central Park through to completion, but he fought Tammany Hall every step of the way. The first true landscape architect is respectfully profiled in Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America, directed by Lawrence Hott and Diane Gary, which premieres on PBS tomorrow night (promo here).

Initially, Olmsted had trouble finding his calling, yet even if he had never taken on the challenge of Central Park, he would still merit a footnote in the history books for his New York Times field reports on slavery. Although he was originally hired to provide a neutral tone, the reality of bondage turned him into a passionate abolitionist. However, it was his disastrous farming experience that provided the skill set needed for a uniquely ambitious civic works project.

Olmsted did not mesh well with his boss, Gen. Egbert Viele, but he knew how to drain a swamp. When the city decided to reopen the design competition, Olmsted teamed up with the British-naturalized architect, Calvert Vaux. When their “Greensward Plan” won, Olmsted replaced his less visionary superior. Eventually, this pattern would repeat itself in Brooklyn, but Olmsted would also receive his share of pink slips during Central Park’s construction, only to return at later points.

Olmsted is truly an American original, responsible for most of Central Park, Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the U.S. Capitol landscaping, the Niagara Falls State Park, and the preservation campaign that ultimately led to the creation of Yosemite National Park. He was also a bit of a difficult cat to work with. Nonetheless, he essentially created landscape architecture as an identifiable discipline and remains its greatest practitioner. If you can think of another landscape architect remotely near his league, PBS would probably be happy to profile them as well.

Writer Ken Chowder hits all the bases of Olmsted’s eventful life, but Designing does its best to minimize Tammany Hall’s problematic meddling and outright corruption throughout the construction process. As the Parks edition of Treasures of New York documented, the Democratic Party machine eventually let Central Park deteriorate to such an extent, the newly inaugurated Fiorello La Guardia had to dispatch Robert Moses on an emergency restoration mission. It would not have surprised old man Olmsted.

There is plenty of lovely scenery in Designing and Judy Hyman’s music is also quite pleasant. It is a classy package, further distinguished by the soothing PBS-friendly voices of Stockard Channing and Campbell Scott. In fact, it represents a rather admirable ongoing commitment to architecturally themed programming. Still, it might actually be too nice, sparing the bureaucrats and grafters who were not so very different from New York’s current crop of elected officials. Recommended nonetheless for students and patrons of landscape design, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America airs on most PBS outlets this Friday night (6/20).

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