Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski

Source of book: I own this.

This book is one of my wife’s random used book discoveries - she’s pretty good at that. She knew I liked the author, and the topic seemed interesting, so she picked it up.

A Clearing in the Distance is a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Perhaps you may have heard of him? Or maybe not. But you undoubtedly have heard of Central Park in New York City. Well, he and his partner Calvert Vaux designed it. Or how about the Chicago World’s Fair? Olmsted designed the grounds. Olmstead is considered the founder of the profession of “Landscape Architecture,” a term he disliked, but used because he never did come up with a better one. 

 Frederick Law Olmsted

Olmstead’s adult life overlapped with the second half of the 19th Century, so reading about his life brings in a lot of the culture, politics, and society of those times.

“I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future.” ~ Frederick Law Olmsted

I love this quote because it epitomizes the work of a landscape architect. As Olmsted noted, trees take a while to grow, and the final effect of a design is usually not seen for 40 or 50 years. Olmsted was thus working for future generations. But there is more here as well. I was struck at multiple places in this book at just how much our view of the public sector and the common good has changed since the late 1800s. I’ll get into that issue throughout the blog. I think that we used to have an idea of building for the future, for building for generations to come, to build for the public good, and not just for the good of the wealthy.

Perhaps the most pertinent example here is the way we approach parks. There was an era when creating large parks open to everyone was a priority for growing cities. And these were not cheap - they were quite expensive to design, build, and maintain. And they were huge. It is easy to forget that in 1850, New York City had a population of just under 600,000 - that’s about the same as the metro Bakersfield area. Likewise, when Montreal contracted with Olmsted to create a public park, it was a city of merely 120,000. Yet that is when large sums of money were set aside to build Central Park in New York and Mount Royal in Montreal. While Bakersfield has invested in some truly public parks over the years (and seems to be finally interested in improving Hart Park - which dates back many decades - these are all on a much smaller scale. And, as far as neighborhood parks, more and more of these are sequestered in gated communities, where the common riff-raff is carefully excluded. (In practice, segregation rearing its head again…)

One of the reasons for this shift is a change in the social contract between the classes. At several junctures, the book notes that part of being a “gentleman” was a responsibility to the common good. A man who didn’t use part of his wealth to benefit the commons was despised - by his peers. Not so much now. While there are exceptions, far too many of our own oligarchs believe they have zero obligation to the common good whatsoever. Ayn Rand has won their hearts.

Olmsted and others who worked for the preservation of wilderness (such as Yosemite) and creation of urban wilderness (through the parks) noted that in Europe at the time, all the best places were owned by the rich and carefully kept off limits to the commoners. Europe has since acted to change this - establishing its own national park systems and opening many formerly aristocrats-only parks to everyone. Now, it is the United States that is toying with privatizing public land and letting the wealthy buy up ever more of our public spaces.

Olmsted himself saw the beginnings of this transition, and it worried him. Always opposed to the institution of slavery, he noted that it “hindered the development of civilized communities” - not just among slaves, but among slave owners. (In my opinion, the support for the public sector and public good in the United States cratered after the end of Jim Crow. Whites were unwilling to share, and thus decided to oppose all public sector spending.) Olmsted further worried about the over-emphasis on self-reliance that went along with pioneering. It tended to degenerate into self indulgence and greed. Even the social and political institutions formed were based on self-interest rather than community. It is a problem that truly plagues us today.

Back to Olmsted himself. It took a while for Olmsted to find his career - and he did so in part because he was looking for a steady job. He dabbled for a number of years, taking a voyage as a common deck hand, gentleman farming, writing. He took a tour of the South and wrote about it in a mildly anti-slavery way. Actually, this trip served to make him even more abolitionist than he was. Back in his time, moderates called for a slow phasing out of slavery (by, for example, making the children free, and letting the existing slaves slowly die out.) However, he realized as a result of this trip that the Southern slave owners had no intention of any compromise. Rather, they required ever more land to work with slaves, and intended to make the United States mostly slave territory in the future. In what sounds all too familiar now, Olmsted wrote that the Southern gentry “do not seem to have a fundamental sense of right...Their moving power and the only motives which they can comprehend are materialistic.” Kind of like the modern Right...profit is all that matters. Olmsted made some money off his books and publishing ventures. But more than that, he got his name out.

I also found interesting Olmsted’s personal journey and concerns. Like most “moderates” of the time, Olmsted had misgivings about outright abolition. Some of their concerns turned out to be all too real. One of the main reasons he opposed outright, immediate emancipation was that he realized that vicious racism would prevent true integration. In addition, decades of suppressing the education of slaves meant that there was a huge task in mainstreaming a large population kept purposely unprepared for full civic participation. In the actual event, the necessity of a bloody war to end slavery meant a lack of political capital to finish the job of integration - and contributed to 100 years of Jim Crow and a nation that is still not fully integrated. One does have to wonder how things would have gone differently had the South agreed to phase out slavery and the North had truly invested in educating and integrating the children of slaves.

Olmsted’s fortunes changed dramatically when he was encouraged to apply for - and won - the position of designer and park superintendent for the soon-to-be-built Central Park. This would launch his career as a landscape architect, and provide much needed income for his family. (He married his brother’s widow around this time - it turned out to be a happy marriage, even if it may have started as a bit of a marriage of convenience.) 

 Part of Olmsted's original Central Park plan.

Soon afterward, he met a man who was to be his partner for over a decade, and an occasional collaborator thereafter: Calvert Vaux. Olmsted had a pretty good handle on the landscaping thing by that time, but he was trained as a surveyor, not an architect. And Central Park needed some buildings too. Vaux was an architect, and shared many of Olmsted’s aesthetic values. The two of them would eventually open a firm together and work on dozens of major projects. There is a list in the back of the book of projects Olmsted worked on, both alone and with various collaborators. It’s quite fascinating. While the collaborators are too many to mention individually, I do have to at least mention Jacob Wrey Mould, designer of a since-destroyed church nicknamed “The Church of the Holy Zebra.”  

 One of the most iconic Central Park landmarks: the Gothic Bridge, designed by Calvert Vaux

There are a few more unrelated things that made an impression on me.

First is that all of these major projects, public and private, had cost overruns. Every. Single. One. So, whenever a current public project goes over budget, well, this is certainly nothing new. It has always been the case. So, if you are complaining about cost overruns...maybe you really just object to the actual cost of public infrastructure. At least, you might want to think about it a bit.

The second is an interesting episode in Olmsted’s life during the Civil War. He was plased in charge of the Sanitary Commission. For those not familiar with the story, the military medical establishment turned out to be completely over their heads in dealing with the horrors of a large scale war - particularly the ravages of the minie ball. To cope with the high casualties, the Sanitary Commission was founded. The military lent ships and supplies, and the civilians provided the workforce. It was quite a success for the first part of the war, but was eventually supplanted by the military, which finally got up to speed. In part because of the lessons learned and taught by the Sanitary Commission. Anyway, Olmsted made a discovery that many have made before and since: even though they were largely volunteers, the female nurses were the backbone of the workforce. As Olmsted put it, “They beat the doctors all to pieces.” In turn, the nurses loved Olmsted for the respect and support he gave them. As the husband of a nurse, I thoroughly agree with Olmsted and his approach.

The final observation. The Chicago Exposition was an event for which we have no real modern analogue. At the time, the population of the United States was 63 million. In a period of six months, 27 million visited the Exposition. Nearly half! That’s incredible, particularly in an age when transportation wasn’t as easy or affordable for many. (Richard Peck wrote a book about it - one we really want to read at some point - his short story on the topic was great.)

There is so much more of interest in this book. Olmsted was a prodigious letter writer, so his own words appear often in the book. I have enjoyed Rybczynski’s writing on other topics for some time, but this book is a biography - a bit out of his usual type. The writing is good, however, and the author’s extensive knowledge and experience of architecture and design serves him well.

Anyone interested in landscape design, urban planning, or the Gilded Age will find this book fascinating. Whether you knew Olmsted before or not, his story and his influence on American planning is unmistakable.

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