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Landscape Artist

A conversation with Witold Rybczynski, whose biography of Frederick Law Olmsted tells a story of nineteenth-century America through landscape architecture

July 14, 1999

A Clearing in the DistanceIn his new biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance, Witold Rybczynski vividly evokes the extraordinary life of the man responsible for the pastoral oases that remain in the midst of many of our congested cities. Though Olmsted is most famous for having created (with Calvert Vaux) New York City's Central Park, he also designed landscapes for numerous schools; private estates; parks of all shapes, sizes, and terrains; and even, on occasion, entire communities. Olmsted stumbled into landscape architecture relatively late in life. By the time he finally committed himself to design work in 1865, at the age of forty-three, he had already served as a deck hand on a merchant ship to China, managed a small farm, traveled the South as a New York Times correspondent, edited Putnam's Monthly magazine, co-founded The Nation magazine, headed up the United States Sanitary Commission, and supervised a gold mine in California.

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Related links:

Central Park
News, events listings, general information, photos, history, and maps of Central Park. Posted by the Central Park Conservancy.

Frederick Law Olmsted
A privately maintained site with extensive information about Olmsted's life and work. Includes photos, related links, recommended books and articles, maps of Olmsted's designs, and more.

Rybczynski, an architect who did not settle into his present calling as a writer until he had reached his forties, seems unusually well suited to tell Olmsted's tale. Like Olmsted, he is a thinker whose wide-ranging interests find expression through a focus on landscape and design. He writes frequently about the interplay of society, culture, and the shape of the human-constructed environment. His nine books include Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986), City Life (1995), and The Most Beautiful House in the World (1989). He is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and is the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.

In A Clearing in the Distance, Rybczynski takes advantage of the epic scope of Olmsted's experiences to make his biography not just the story of one man, but the story of America at a formative stage in its history. Our contemporary urban landscape, this book reminds us, is an inheritance from an earlier era. Few did more to shape it for the better than Frederick Law Olmsted.

Rybczynski spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Sage Stossel.

Witold Rybczynski
Witold Rybczynski   

What drew you to Olmsted as a biographical subject?

His achievements as a planner, which I had come across when I was writing City Life. He was one of the few planners who seemed truly to have been successful -- whose ideas had lasted more than a hundred years. He really stands head-and-shoulders above everybody. We all still use and admire his parks and parkways.

How would the American landscape be different today without Olmsted's legacy?

You can't imagine New York without Central Park, or Boston without its Emerald Necklace, or Montreal without Mont Royal park. There are at least half a dozen cities in North America that would be very, very different if he had not been alive and done his work.

Would those parks have been designed by somebody else if Olmsted hadn't been around?

Central Park would certainly have been designed by somebody else. But I think that without Olmsted and Vaux, Central Park might have been much more like a very large garden. Or it might have been more like a sort of World Fair site, with lots of pavilions and exhibition buildings. Or it might have been a very formal, manicured landscape. In some cases the parks might have been carefully designed, but not the way Olmsted did, as very natural, almost wilderness landscapes, or pastoral ones.

Without Olmsted we would think of landscape in a different way. His picturesque landscape became the absolutely dominant ideal for most Americans -- to the point where it's probably very frustrating to be a lanscape architect today, because most of the public is quite happy with what Olmsted did a hundred years ago. He's one of those giant figures who defines a field for generations.

So people are either trying to imitate him or react against him?

They generally don't imitate. It's not so easy to imitate somebody like that. So instead they react against his work and do landscapes out of concrete and so on.

Was there anything that especially surprised you in tracing the course of Olmsted's career?

I think the one thing that's surprising about him is that he's a little bit like the character in the Woody Allen movie Zelig -- the person who shows up at every historical moment. Olmsted is like that in the sense that he's in the American South just before the Civil War, he's in the Civil War as the Secretary General of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, he's on the Western frontier, he's in Chicago just after the fire. The difference is that he's not a bystander; he's usually in the middle of things and very much involved in them. He's somebody whose life really is also the story of the time he lives in, which is why I subtitle the book "America in the Nineteenth Century."

In a different time period would it have been difficult for Olmsted to do all that he did?

His parks were things that only a wealthy society -- or at least one that saw future benefits of wealth -- could undertake. So he couldn't have done it earlier. And I think later it became difficult, because the money got so concentrated in a small number of hands. Today, of course, the bureaucracy and the politics would get in the way. There would be so many interest groups that you could never decide on something like a Central Park. Seattle tried to build the Commons, an eighty-acre park (which is tiny by comparison), and that was voted down twice.

There was a sense, too, in Olmsted's time that there was a kind of civic good that encompassed the whole city, rather than just individual communities within the city. Parks were very much seen as not just benefiting the areas that they were built in, but as being a benefit for the city as a whole.

Do you have a favorite among the spaces Olmsted created?

They're very different. I think my favorite of the parks is Prospect Park in Brooklyn. It was the second park that he and Vaux worked on together; they already had Central Park under their belt. They were experienced, and had solid support from the Brooklyn park commissioner. It was really a much easier site than Central Park (which is an oddly shaped piece of ground for a park). So it came together in a very fortuitous way. They produced, I think, their greatest park.

Are there any Olmsted parks that you think are in need of being rescued from neglect or poor management?

We're living in a very fortunate time in terms of the Olmsted parks, because there is a great deal of awareness and sensitivity. Of the major parks, I can't think of any that don't have some degree of restoration work being done on them. Over time, though, many things have changed. In Central Park one of the greatest intrusions is the automobile. The depressed roads that cut through the park were intended for traffic, which is why they were pushed down below the ground surface. But the drives within the park were intended for carriages and for pleasure, not for cross-city traffic. Now they've simply become shortcuts for cars. Fortunately, that's one intrusion that probably something can be done about. In the case of others -- where buildings or zoos have been built -- it's more difficult. Nevertheless, the nature of parks, of course, is that they do change, and I think Olmsted would have been the first to say that the most important thing about a park is that people should be in it. I don't think there's a question of trying to preserve them intact as sort of historical objects.

Are there ways you'd like to see a rediscovery of his ideas applied to contemporary planning and design?

There are several lessons I think we can learn from Olmsted in terms of planning and design. One of them is that he really worked on a big scale. It seems to me that we've lost the ability to do that in planning -- partly because the public has lost confidence in planners.


Probably because of the highway construction and the urban-renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s, when whole neighborhoods were demolished and then not really replaced in a pleasing way. The public has grown skeptical of big plans. I think Olmsted demonstrates that without doing things on a big scale, there are certain things you just can't do. If you look at physical construction today -- whether it's parks or streets or boulevards -- there's a tendency to celebrate the small scale as if that would solve everything. But I don't think it does. A city needs neighborhoods, but it also needs large-scale planning. Simply putting a bunch of neighborhoods together doesn't make a city.

In City Life and some of your other writings you've argued that suburban sprawl is inevitable -- and is not necessarily a somehow inferior settlement pattern. Does it bother you to see politicians these days grandstanding against suburban sprawl? And are there other issues that you'd prefer to see taken up in the political realm?

From The Atlantic:

"Home from Nowhere," by James Howard Kunstler (September 1996)
Can the momentum of sprawl be halted? America's zoning laws, intended to control the baneful effects of industry, have mutated, in the view of one architecture critic, into a system that corrodes civic life.

Related link:

Congress for the New Urbanism
The official site of an organization devoted to promoting the principles of the New Urbanism.

Well, it doesn't bother me, because so much is grandstanding. They're not actually offering any solutions. That's mainly because the solutions are pretty tough: they either involve raising the cost of gas by a factor of two, or imposing restrictions on private property. And neither of these things is likely. What we can learn from Olmsted is the importance of planning; one of the ways to make suburban growth better is, in fact, to plan it. I don't think that one can imagine a version of Europe in America, with very compact towns and open countryside -- it's simply not the way we live. But we can certainly find a much better balance between suburbs and cities, and also maybe return suburbs to the kind of ideal that Olmsted had: much more a green, country environment.

What do you make of the efforts of the New Urbanism movement to reinvigorate public life by orienting cities more toward pedestrians?

The small town is something that I think almost everybody likes. That's why Garrison Keillor is so popular. But it's not real. And very few people would actually want to live in Lake Wobegon, with one diner and one hardware store. It's going to be interesting to see the degree to which Americans really want to become pedestrians. My guess is they actually don't -- or at least not much.

Do you think that shopping malls, office parks, and so on will ever come to be seen as worthy showcases for top architectural and design talents?

In the past those sorts of environments weren't very attractive places. They hadn't been given much thought. People with skills had not been involved in their design, and they were pretty second rate. I think that's changing. Frank Gehry has designed shopping malls. So has Michael Graves. Talented architects are becoming involved in that kind of building, and will change how it's done.

The reason that the department stores of the 1920s and 1930s were so nice is that they were designed by extremely talented architects. They were huge retailing machines, not really that different from a mall, but environmentally and architecturally they're light-years away, because people with great skill and talents were involved in their construction -- and they cost more to build. I think there's no reason why we couldn't do more of that now.

One of the lessons to be learned from Olmsted is the value of investing in the future. I think that's one thing we've lost in this country: we tend to think only about the short-term -- five years is considered a long time. Politicians and the public are not willing to wait thirty years for things to come to fruition, as happened with some of the early parks.

In a 1991 Atlantic article, "Living Smaller," you wrote about efforts to persuade people to live in smaller houses, in order to be more in keeping with contemporary family patterns and lifestyles. To what extent do you think that idea has caught on since then?

In the immediate context of Montreal, Canada, where I was at the time, the idea did, in fact, catch on. There were several thousand houses of that sort built over the subsequent five years in eastern Canada. In general, though, it's certainly true that new production houses have tended to be larger rather than smaller. But that's been driven partly by sheer prosperity, and partly by municipalities that would prefer to have larger houses, which attract more affluent taxpayers.

It's possible that in the future more and more successful cities will adopt smaller space standards out of necessity, and living smaller may become more socially acceptable.

What particular buildings or spaces that you've encountered over the years have had the greatest impact on your thinking?

As far as buildings, I love architecture, but I'm not sure its role is that central anymore. I remember thinking, though, when I was writing the Olmsted book, that one of the reasons these parks had so much impact is that back then there were no movies, no television, and, for most people, very little travel. So these places were great experiences for an ordinary person. To walk into Central Park, where somebody had organized an aesthetic experience for you, or Prospect Park, where you have a mile-long view -- the impact of that must have been tremendous. And Olmsted's Parks still move us.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Sage Stossel is a senior editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Rybczynski photo © Stephen Homer.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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