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.

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