Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American Landscape Architecture who partnered with Calvert Vaux to create Central Park perhaps would say "The Park is not a canvass, The Park is The Art." This might be his civil response. His response to the commercialization of "The Gates" in Central Park might not be fit to print.
As Olmsted stated when Central Park was near completion, "The Park throughout is a single work of art, namely that it shall be framed under a single, noble motive, to which the design of all its parts, in some more or less subtle ways, shall be confluent and helpful."
"Central Park is the most important work of American art of the nineteenth century," according to Sara Cedar Miller, photographer and official historian for the Central Park Conservancy and author of Central Park, An American Masterpiece.
Olmsted had a fiery compassionate commitment for his art, deeply rooted in nature, filled with ultimate conviction in William Wordsworth's declaration, "Let Nature be thy teacher." An abiding mystery surrounds and grasps the souls of people as they move through a park, often unrecognized by mental thought. In Olmsted's words, "the charm of natural scenery is an influence of the highest value: highest if for not another reason, because it acts directly upon the highest functions of the system, and through them upon all below, tending, more than any single form of medication he can use, to establish sound minds and sound bodies."
For 20 years, Olmsted battled for his principles and practices in New York City, often becoming totally exhausted and ill from the brutal dialogue with politicians and other individuals who wanted to use the park for buildings and other purposes not consistent with his vision of the "single work of art." Wherever Olmsted traveled, his artistic eye filled his whole being with the power of the natural world. By his own self-understanding he was an "unpractical man" in the eyes of society, and his views were often rejected. However, he was pure and uncompromising in his basic beliefs and principles. Once when landscaping a railroad line in New Hampshire in the White Mountains, he regarded the tourists as philistines who were gawking at the Old Man in the Mountain.
Olmsted's uncanny drive, unrelenting commitment and talent to create parks and much more across America in the second half of the 19th century stands as an amazing expression of self realization and dedication for the future of the nation. Along with the parks in major cities of America, Olmsted was the designer of the landscape for the U.S. Capital, the catalyst for scientific forestry at Biltmore in North Carolina, the most influential artist for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the landscape designer for Stanford University and primary mover for the preservation of Yosemite for all people, establishing a foundation for the National Parks System.
So how would Olmsted respond to "The Gates" in Central Park as conceived, funded and executed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude? Would he not be appalled and driven to despair by people "gawking at The Gates," distracting individuals and society away from the true purpose of "the single work of art?"
However, the question we should perhaps ask is not what Olmsted would say about "The Gates," but rather what would Olmsted be doing today? Perhaps his attention would be focused on the rainforest as the great parks of the world which must be preserved in order to save Nature and Humanity for future generations. Olmsted might be working with politicians, business leaders and common people he identified as "Park Keepers" in New York City, Boston and across America and the world to realize the absolute necessity of preserving Nature for the health of all people.
Olmsted did his work focused upon the future. As he expressed in his last report on a major urban park, Franklin Park in Boston: "Let it not be for present use and delight alone, but let it be of such a work that our descendents will thank us for it."
Gerry Wright is author of and actor in the one-person play "Frederick Law Olmsted: Passages in the Life of an Unpractical Man" which has been presented 36 times in the past 2 years.
Gerry can be contacted at FrederickLawOlmsted@yahoo.com or 617-524-7070
FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED
Passages in the Life of an Unpractical Man
Photo credit: Renee DeKona
one-man play by
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Frederick Law Olmsted -- one man play by Gerry Wright
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