Friday, July 12, 2013

Laurie Olin Receives the National Medal of Arts

On Wednesday, July 10, 75-year-old Laurie Olin became only the fourth landscape architect to receive the National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States. The others all had New York connections: Dan Kiley is represented in New York City by the atrium of the Ford Foundation on East 42nd Street and by Blackwell Park on Roosevelt Island; Lawrence Halprin’s firm was responsible for the plaza at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on Roosevelt Island; and Ian McHarg, who founded the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania, was part of Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd, which worked on the plan for lower Manhattan in the 1960s. But none left a mark on Manhattan remotely like the one that has been left by Laurie Olin. Olin, either with his onetime partner Robert Hanna in the firm of Hanna/Olin, or later through the Olin Partnership, is synonymous with the 1980s and 1990s transformation of open space that we also strongly associate with the writer William H. Whyte, whose 1980 film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces wrought a revolution in urban perception similar to that of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961.

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Bryant Park (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

We also associate Olin’s New York works with the self-described public gardener Lynden B. Miller, who contributed so significantly to Bryant Park and Wagner Park, which, with the Battery Park City Esplanade and Columbus Circle, represent Olin’s impressive corpus of Manhattan projects. Even small landscape designs are collaborative affairs, and it’s hard, even after careful study, to assign credit for specific features to specific firms or designers. At Wagner Park, Olin worked with, in addition to Miller, the talented Argentinian architects Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado.

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Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

At Columbus Circle, Olin worked with the renowned fountain designers WET Design.

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Columbus Circle (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

And yet, we seem to have no problem regarding Olin as the auteur of all these designs. Bryant Park is not simply a realization of the ideas of William H. Whyte, nor is Wagner Park simply a vessel for Lynden B. Miller’s container gardens. Each of these spaces hews to a vision that is Olin's own (or Olin’s and Hanna’s).

The first time Olin was ever mentioned in the New York Times was back in 1983. On May 22 of that year, Paul Goldberger wrote: “Next month...what may be the best public space in Manhattan in a generation—and surely the finest riverfront park in New York City since the esplanade at Brooklyn Heights was completed in 1951—will open. It is the Battery Park City Esplanade, a linear park that runs for 1.2 miles along the outer edge of the 92-acre landfill site on the Hudson River that will contain the immense Battery Park City development.” (In 1996, Goldberger would write, of another work to which Olin contributed, “Wagner Park is one of the finest public spaces New York has seen in at least a generation.”) The next Times mention came later in 1983, on December 1, in a piece in which Deirdre Carmody wrote “An unusual public-private partnership is planning an $18 million redevelopment of Bryant Park that will include a huge glass restaurant, a cascading fountain with reflecting pools, four food kiosks and a permanent security force.”

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Battery Park City Esplanade (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

We may then date Laurie Olin's profound involvement with New York City to 1983. In that year, I had been in the city for four years, and no one—no one—knew where the city was headed. The problem-plagued 1970s—during which the city lost nearly a million in population—were more than fresh in people’s memories. And though the Wall Street turnaround boded well for city finances (only a few short years after the city nearly declared bankruptcy and was stripped of much of its financial home-rule), the crime rate was still going up (homicides would not peak until 1990), and many New Yorkers lived in perpetual fear. Amid the civic disorder—the growing homeless population, the graffiti, the fear of crime—it’s hard to think that anyone would look to parks as part of the solution. In fact, historically we have always looked to parks as part of the solution. Central Park was built in part as a means of pacifying the restive masses during a period in New York of even greater disorder than the 1970s. Robert Moses and Mayor La Guardia sought to take the edge off the Great Depression by building swimming pools and Orchard Beach and by the comprehensive renovation of all the city’s parks, which had been badly neglected during the prosperous 1920s. Olin—and those whom he collaborated with—were thus part of a tradition. This is something I thought of when I read Inga Saffron’s fine appreciation of Olin in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. She wrote: “Olin is the product of the vast open spaces of the Pacific Northwest. Yet he ‘fell in love with cities’ at the precise moment when places like Philadelphia [where Olin’s practice has been based for many years] and New York were hemorrhaging middle-class residents, and has always seen parks as a means of seducing people back.”

But unlike Olmsted and Vaux, whose vision of urban parks was that they should be antidotes to the city, Olin has shown how small parks, at least, can, and perhaps must (though as we show in the book there has lately been a reaction against this line of reasoning), be of and not merely in the city. Olin’s parks thrive on urban density, and Bryant Park, as I’ve said so many times, feels like a party (even as it can at the same time feel like a refuge).

To call Bryant Park seductive is an understatement. And to say that Laurie Olin is one of the American creators most richly deserving of the National Medal of Arts is also an understatement.

I will say no more here. There is plenty about Olin in the book, and check out these links:

A very nice profile of/interview with Laurie Olin.

The Hanna/Olin page at the Cultural Landscape Foundation web site.

Olin and his friend Witold Rybczynski wrote a wonderful book on Vizcaya, the house and gardens that my late friend Henry Hope Reed called the most beautiful in America.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Socrates Sculpture Park

By Robin Lynn

Socrates Sculpture Park, on the water’s edge in Long Island City, is not an outdoor park covering hundreds of acres on a hilly landscape with precisely sited sculptures hidden among its hills and dales. It’s an urban sculpture park: a 4+-acre plot of land cheek-by-jowl with a Costco parking lot, separated from it by a prosaic chain link fence. It’s large by city standards and roomy enough to present multiple large-scale sculptures (changed annually), with enough space for the non-profit to offer outdoors movies and opera productions, yoga classes, and even kayaking off of its cove. Best of all, it can be reached by foot from the R train after an urban hike past auto repair shops and one-story factory buildings.

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Socrates Sculpture Park on the Long Island City waterfront looking across the river to Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Photo by Robin Lynn.
The park isn’t that old: It opened in 1986. But it’s ancient in terms of representing a topographical and cultural shift in the art world. First, it’s in Queens: giving validity to this outer borough as a cultural player at a time when Manhattan was the only player in town. Its organizers recognized the physical allure of the water’s edge, long before the city began developing its recent slew of waterfront parks. A lot of the park’s charm, and its breezes, are based on its location on the western shoreline in Queens (across from the East 80s, if you’re still counting in Manhattan terms).

Its founding even represented a bottom-up approach to developing open space, an idea gaining traction now as residents claim, and redesign, alternative open spaces such as traffic triangles, and work with the New York City Department of Transportation to bring more seating, less traffic, and more light into their neighborhoods. The well-known sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose waterside studio, where he creates his large-scale COR-TEN steel sculptures, is located just north of the park, was a formative player in developing the park. He and other artists began exhibiting art on this run-down plot of land slated for development; their visibility, their art, and encouragement from the community eventually led to the area being demapped and demarcated as an official city park, under the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation.

Today the sculpture park presents the work of emerging sculptors. In other words, this is not the sort of work seen along the median of Park Avenue where the selected artists are already well-known, many at the peak of their careers. At Socrates the sculptors are building their careers, doing well but could be doing better, and this exposure is very helpful indeed.
This summer the Architectural League of New York is presenting the winner of its Folly competition, with a work where architecture, design, and sculpture intersect to interpret architectural folly. Toshihiro Oki won with “tree wood” [sic], a whimsical, wooden structure that has nothing practical about it. The work—and it’s hard to know whether to call it art or architecture, but that’s the point—is on exhibit until August 4, 2013. It has a still-under-construction feel to it, although it’s complete. It’s just a force of linear elements that’s open to the elements, and fits perfectly into a park which was itself a folly back in the day.

Other works include “do it (outside)”—more conceptual than sculptural—where artists’ instructions are spelled out on long boards. Presented by Independent Curators International, and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the art is cerebral, and evokes past art historical movements. In the continuing Broadway Billboard series, Brooklyn-born artist Chitra Ganesh creates a sort of end-of-the-world narrative entitled “Her Nuclear Waters.” These colorful works give off a cheerful sense of desolation. Should the end of the world really look this good?

Chitra Ganesh, “Her Nuclear Waters,” at the entrance to Socrates Sculpture Park. Photo by Robin Lynn.
Within the park, the many works of sculpture, and sometimes multi-media art, have unlikely competition: a meandering path along the water’s edge, shielded from the sculpture by an allĂ©e of trees. In the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” school of thought, the park has built a perimeter walk where visitors can think about the art, and relax, while viewing the high-rises across the river in Manhattan, themselves a series of sculptural forms. For one year in the not distant past, there were even hammocks by the water’s edge, good for falling asleep after having taken in the art.

I’ve watched this relatively small sculpture park evolve from an underutilized lot, once a dumping ground, to a “gotta go there” space during the many years I’ve lived nearby. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an equally worth seeing smaller enclosed garden nearby in the Isamu Noguchi Museum—a five-minute walk south along Vernon Boulevard. The former factory, across the street from where the Japanese-American artist lived and worked from 1961 until his death in 1988, exhibits his life’s work—sculpture made from basalt, marble, metal, and other materials—as well as his tools, photographs of his studio in Japan, examples of his lightning design, and others aspects of his life and work.

The Noguchi Museum. Photo by George Hirose © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.

But it is the outdoor sculpture garden within the larger museum that is astounding: among the most serene, yet dynamic, open spaces in the city. The high walls, covered with ivy, and open to the sky, enclose a small space with an artful arrangement of trees and sculpture. This private domain, one man’s sanctuary, is still and perfect, and keeps the city at bay. It is the opposite of Socrates Sculpture Park, an open-to-the-elements, come-one, come-all multi-purpose site, with multiple artists and points of view, where traffic pulses past the front gates. The two open spaces are point/counterpoint. Go look.


Socrates Sculpture Park
The Noguchi Museum

Friday, July 5, 2013

Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes Available for Pre-Order

Following some unexpected shipping delays, The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes (W.W. Norton) now has a publication date of August 5. That actually means the book will be in bookstores any time now, and is available for pre-order at Amazon. Many thanks to William Menking for his nice post about the book at the Architect’s Newspaper blog. He wrote:

This is the perfect book to consult before your relatives come to town and expect an insider’s tour of the city or before you pass by an unknown bit of green in the city. Many of the urban landscapes described in the guide are likely known only by nearby residents or only the most keen city observers.

The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes is Robin Lynn’s and my attempt at a first-ever survey of what we mean by the catch-all term “urban landscapes”: parks, plazas, green spaces, open spaces, atriums, trails, community gardens, even green roofs. Urban landscapes are more on the minds of city dwellers today than at perhaps any other time in history. In New York in recent years we have seen a revolution in landscape, as mile after mile of disused waterfront, once dominated by industrial uses, has been converted to linear parks. The High Line, a park built atop a disused railroad viaduct in Chelsea, has become one of the city’s principal attractions. And the city has banned vehicles from huge swaths of the roadbeds of Broadway and some other streets to create pedestrian plazas, replete with movable chairs and tables, rimmed by bike lanes.

Urban Landscapes

Our intention in the book is to look at these new developments in the light of what has gone before, such as Green-Wood Cemetery (pictured on the book’s front cover) in the 1840s, Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza in the 1890s, the reign of Robert Moses from the 1930s to the 1960s, and the influence of William H. Whyte from the 1980s to today. We may, indeed, say that each of these represents a distinct phase in the landscape history of New York City.

This blog has two purposes. One is to serve as a companion to the book. Here I—and my co-author Robin Lynn—can amplify certain entries in the book, make corrections, and add material for which we simply—a reality of the making of books!—ran out of room. (For example, both Robin and I very much wanted the book to contain an entry on Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens. That entry, instead, will appear, soon, on this blog.) Another very important thing: Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged some of the city’s landscapes, happened when the book was too far along in production for us to make changes. This blog will include Sandy-related updates to entries, as well as track any other changes to the landscapes covered in the book.

The blog’s other purpose is to be its own thing, to offer new perspectives on the city’s landscapes, to muse on landscape history, and to draw the reader’s attention to interesting places, exhibits, articles, and resources. For example, come back for my reviews of Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, at the Museum of Modern Art through September 23.

Both book and blog are about more than just describing landscapes. They are about the unique power at the intersection of urban design and landscape architecture to alter the city dweller’s patterns of use and attention, and both to shape and to reflect his changing wants and needs.

At any rate, I hope you will buy the book, and I hope you will follow the blog and join in the discussion of what has been and will continue to be a central issue in the life of New York and other cities (yes, I will get to other cities, too) in the 21st century.