Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Frederick Law Olmsted: America’s Landscape Architect
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).
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.
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
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.
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).
Labels: Frederick Law Olmsted, PBS