AN ARTIST 'SO NOBLE'
What artist, so noble, as he, who with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colours, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall write his intentions.m Frederick Law Olmstedm
Frederick Law Olmsted, an artist "so noble," painted lakes where there were stagnant waters, contoured green slopes where rubble sat on ravaged soil, and carved paths that put city dwellers in nature's midst.
Dreaming of a unity of the built and natural environment, America's first landscape architect (1822-1903) shaped public and private spaces in 37 states and Canada. The salvation of Yosemite and the contouring of the graceful edges of Niagara Falls were from his hand; as well as parks in New York, Montreal, California, Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, that make not only an Olmsted legacy but the major portion of our urban open space today.
Nonetheless, "What artist, so anonymous" . . . might have described the profession of landscape architecture which he named.
Cars drive across his rolling parkways and municipal officials plop grim structures in places where he thought to stir city folk with the "power of scenery."
Erosion and neglect are rampant. And, unkindest cut of all, those who live on the very edges of his living design think that such "emerald necklaces" are natural, not planned -- are works of God, not man --and not especially this Victorian genius.
To stress that point, the National Association of Olmsted Parks banded together last year. Proving that parks have friends (and that, more to the point, parks have quadruple the number of friends of 1980), more than 300 members met in Boston.
The followers of this patron saint of landscape architecture studied the politics and the scholarship of his design and dedicated Fairsted, his Brookline office and studio taken over by the National Park Service, as a repository of his work. They continued to develop the working list of parks, parkway systems, and public spaces from a century of design by Olmsted, and by the next generation of son, F.L.O. Jr., stepson John L., and partners who carried on through 1957.
While senior merits top billing, planners consider stepson John their father, and many cities wear the greening of his firm in the following years as well. In fact, the mission of the National Association of Olmsted Parks is to lengthen that list, year to year. Beginning now with Ann Arbor, Mich., (2 parks), moving to Boston (105), Louisville (17), Seattle (24), and so on, the roster ends with a single design in Wyomissing, Pa.
No wonder Olmsted's 850 jobs amount to "the most extensive and important statement on the role of open space in urban society, past, present, and future, we are likely ever to have," Charles E. Beveridge, co-editor of the 12-volume series of Olmsted writings with Charles McLaughlin, puts it.
Olmsted came to his chosen career late in life after tries as a gentleman farmer, an assist in founding The Nation,m and writings on his walks and talks in England. Nonetheless, his few decades sufficed to expand the field from "landscape gardening" to the definition of his invention, "landscape architecture."
The first phrase he detested because, wrote Olmsted, it does not conveniently include "exposing great ledges, damming streams, making lakes, tunnels, bridges, terraces, and canals."
Such large-scale needs did not stop Olmsted from using the greatest artistry on the smaller scale.
His gift lay in variety. Boston's Fens, for example, took on the charm of "manufactured wildness," while Brooklyn's Prospect Park terminated in a grove of trees to suggest vast spaces beyond the confined city turf.
A pragmatist as well as parkmaker par excellence, Olmsted remained a model for the designers, community activists, and park officials gathering in his name.
Olmsted's 17 major urban parks, America's first eco-environments, deserve the "moment of reverance" with which National Association of Olmsted Parks director Alexander Allport welcomed these heirs to Boston.
He was not only a great landscape architect but also one of the great people of the 19th century, Olmsted lecturer and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin of San Francisco insisted. Diligence is the price for design in landscape architecture, however, and horror and success stories of Olmsted open spaces underscore the nature of this evanescent art.
Newark's Branch Brook Park remains intact. Belle Isle in Detroit is flooded testimony to urban disregard and the municipal axiom, "If you've got open space, fill it." The Rose Garden at Delaware Park, Buffalo, on the other hand, blooms because one landscape architect, Patricia M. O'Donnell, aroused her community.
At times "benign neglect" can save an area (Jackson Park, Chicago). Conversely, overusing, and even too much loving care from Green Guerrillas, an environmental group, to birdwatching associations, can cause the overuse of a landscape (Central Park, New York).
Notwithstanding the mixed state of the Olmsted legacy, and the mixed approach to its care, Olmsted aficionados agreed that conferees who work on parks, live on parks, "must develop a nucleus for whom parks are as essential as their intimate working environment," in the words of organizer Betsy Shure Gross.
Often, the defense of the landscape has less to do with art, however, than with mounting an armed guard -- even against one's friends.
When artist Christo, the creator of such monumental works of art, or acts of landscape architecture, as "Valley Curtain" and "Running Fence" in California, wanted to install a series of 11,000 steel gates, park defenders saw it as 22, 000 holes assaulting their hard-pressed landscape.
Similar "do good" intrusions number in the dozens there, including the latest extension of the Metropolitan Museum.
But the greatest menace remains the budget cuts in park funds across the country.
Fairsted contains the records of 700 jobs done in 115,000 drawings. When a small town wants to recontour or restore its park system, it can address this center. Where is the underground drainage of an Olmsted park? The grading system? The utilities?
Drawings tell, and the National Park Service will hopefully supply the staff to answer such questions.
"A living enterprise was important to me," says William Alex, director of the Frederick Law Olmsted Association and promoter of a bill that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and former Rep. Robert F. Drinan made law, naming Fairsted as a natural resource.
"I would like to see Fairsted become an active kind of place, not an academy but a place of workshops for the regions, workshops for scholars; a place with programs --
The parks, Olmsted thought, should be equally alive -- living aspects of the nation's design heritage.