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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Public Realm Central Park
Olmsted and Vaux
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Central Park
Olmsted and Vaux
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Frederick Law Olmsted came from a middle-class family, he was very well educated, and he didn't know what to do with himself. He traveled a lot; he traveled in England and had seen eighteenth-century English parks and gardens. He had traveled through the South and had written a very early antislavery tract. He was an experimental farmer on Staten Island. And he fell into landscape design. He becomes the father of landscape architecture in America, but he wasn't trained for this and he didn't plan for this. But he had a brilliant mind, and an understanding both of landscape and planting and also a wonderful way of selling himself and his ideas, and he became enormously successful.

And he teams up with Calvert Vaux, who was a much more sophisticated, trained architect. Vaux was an English immigrant; he had been trained in architecture and design in England. He was very familiar with English landscape design, and the two of them together were able to create an incredibly brilliant landscape that is almost entirely man-made. With the exception of a few of the rocks, which are natural, and some forested land to the north, it is a man-made creation.

In fact, the area that was chosen for Central Park was, as one person noted in the nineteenth century, a "pestilential swamp," and one of the reasons why real-estate interests didn't complain too much about all of this land being taken out of potential development was that it was a very unpromising area for residential development because it was very, very swampy; it had a number of small shantytowns, some with squatters, some with people who actually owned the land, some were immigrants. There was also an African American settlement in what's now Central Park.

But it wasn't one of the most beautiful areas in New York. So this was the area that was chosen, and Olmsted and Vaux very carefully designed an incredibly varied landscape. It basically is lawns, bodies of water, forests, and rocks with some paths, but it's the way these basic elements of grass, water, trees, and a few buildings and paths and rocks were juxtaposed in so many different ways that creates the brilliant design.

This is the Sheep Meadow, which is the largest lawn, an undulating meadow, which is screened from the city. At the distance there's this screen of trees, and of course this park was built at a time when few buildings rose more than four or five stories, so the trees were designed to block out the city; you were supposed to get away from the city when you came to the park.

Now of course today buildings around the park are much taller, so you don't get this effect. But you can imagine the effect of the trees blocking out the city. And here's the lake with the Ramble beyond, the major forested area. And so these are the basic elements that were used to design the park.

But the various landscaped elements create a series of separate rooms, and you move from one room to another. And these rooms are very small. And you connect from one room to another via undulating paths, but you never see where any path is going when you're walking through Central Park, there's always this issue of mystery and surprise, so you're being drawn from one landscape environment to the next, from one body of water to a forested area, to a meadowed area. And you have to choose where you're going to go and how you're going to get there as you go along these undulating paths through the park.


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