Book Review: A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybcynski

Author: Witold Rybcynski
Title: A Clearing in the Distance
Publication Info: Scribner, 1999


This biography of Frederick Law Olmsted remains one of my favorite books of all time. Olmsted is a fascinating person and Rybcynski does a great job of balancing a lot of research with creating a flowing narrative of his life.

Most people know Olmsted as the designer (along with his partner Calvert Vaux) of New York’s Central Park and an originator of the field of landscape architecture (although Olmsted disliked the term). Oddly, the great majority of parks attributed to Olmsted were designed by the Olmsted firm when his sons took it over. But Olmsted’s own designs remain the most inspired and influential. These include the Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Montreal’s Mont Royal, the US Capitol grounds, Buffalo parks system, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Belle Isle Park in Detroit, and my very own Emerald Necklace in Boston.

Interestingly, Olmsted was a bit of a late bloomer, well into his adulthood before beginning a career in landscape architecture. He was a many of many talents who had success in other careers before and during the time of his landscape firm. In the 1850s, Olmsted was a journalist, most significantly travelling through the Southern states and writing dispatches of the Southern people and culture from his perspective as an antislavery advocate. During the Civil War, he served as Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. In the middle of the war, Olmsted left the Sanitary Commission to manage a gold mining company in California near Yosemite (the mine failed, but the landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountains inspired Olmsted). Olmsted also participated in founding The Nation magazine in 1865.

This is a great book about a great life and I enjoyed re-reading it.

Favorite Passages:

Olmsted was one of the first people to recognize the necessity for planning in a large, industrializing country—whether in peace or war. This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood.

It was the future that concerned him, and he had the rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead. I think that was one of the things that finally attracted him to landscape architecture. It is a field where a long time—sometimes generations—is required for the full realization of the designer’s goal.

Part of Olmsted’s problem was of his own making: he was overdoing it. “He works like a dog all day and sits up nearly all night,” Strong noted in his diary, “doesn’t go home to his family (now established in Washington) for five days and nights together, works with steady, feverish intensity till four in the morning, sleeps on a sofa in his clothes, and breakfasts on strong coffee and pickles!!!” No wonder he was short-tempered and picked quarrels with the Executive Committee.

Willa Cather would later make a distinction between wilderness and landscape. The American West, she wrote, is “a country still waiting to be made into a landscape.” The unique and affecting charm of Yosemite, as Olmsted perceptively noted, is that it is both wilderness and landscape. The craggy vastness of the chasm is older than any human presence, yet the valley floor appears comfortably domesticated. Olmsted appreciated this curious contrast; he and Vaux had created precisely this effect in Central Park, where the wilderness of the Ramble was side by side with pastoral meadows.

For Olmsted, recreation—or rather, re-creation—was paramount. When he discussed the recuperative power of natural scenery, he literally meant healing. He believed that the contemplation of nature, fresh air, and the change of everyday habits improved people’s health and intellectual vigor.

Olmsted agreed that what they had done in Central Park—and what he himself was doing in California—was much more than horticulture. It was art. It was, however, a particular kind of art. At one point he referred to it as “sylvan art.” “The art is not gardening nor is it architecture,” he wrote. It was certainly not “landscape architecture.” “If you are bound to establish this new art,” he wrote Vaux, “you don’t want an old name for it.”

More was involved here than landscaping; the park and promenade were conceived on the scale of an entire city. The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space. Even Yeoman’s first foray into journalism, which was an attempt to understand an entire region, was a useful preparation for Olmsted’s adopted role of city planner.

The subtle adjustments to the current policy of continuing the Manhattan grid produced a very different urbanism. The new parts of Morrisania had long blocks oriented north-south instead of east-west, so that all houses got some sun. West Farms consisted of a patchwork of grids whose slightly shifting orientation created variety, the same kind of variety that makes such cities as New Orleans and San Francisco interesting. The picturesque suburban layouts were derived from earlier projects, but what makes the Bronx plan unusual is that Olmsted showed how areas of low, medium, and high density could be combined into a seamless whole that would be “the plan of a Metropolis; adapted to serve, and serve well, every legitimate interest of the wide world; not of ordinary commerce only, but of humanity, religion, art, science, and scholarship.”

The fair was Olmsted’s creation, and not merely because he had contributed so much to the design. “Make no little plans,” Burnham is supposed to have said. Thinking big was something he and his generation had learned from Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted was frustrated by people’s unwillingness to recognize landscape architecture as an art. Olmsted thought that this was chiefly because they confused it with what he called decorative gardening. According to him, landscape architecture involved composition and perspective in which details were subordinate to the whole, contrary to decorative gardening, which treated “roses as roses, not as flecks of white or red modifying masses of green.” He considered landscape architecture akin to landscape painting, except that the landscape architect used natural materials instead of pigments. That, of course, was the root of the problem. Since the medium—as well as the subject—was nature itself, the public often failed to discriminate between the two. No one would think of altering a landscape on canvas, but a garden was different.

That was the chief difference between Olmsted and the architects. They wanted to create order out of chaos. He wanted to accommodate order and chaos.

Recommended books:

Rating: *****