Architecture as a practical solution exists simply to house people; its impractical purpose, however, is to house our ideals. The critical distinction between a building of significance and one simply of size is the presence of an organizing idea that permeates every line and angle, giving no quarter to superfluities that might dilute the purity of the structure’s expression. Yet even those of us who recognize where this boundary lies with regard to architecture often fail to appreciate that the same principle applies to setting.
Americans have only reluctantly embraced this truth. In our national infancy, when we endeavored to erect buildings more high-minded than a brick-front store or a clapboard barn, we often discovered that the surroundings of these monuments fell somewhat short of their proposed mark. Our mud-caked, crowded cities presented scenes more suggestive of civilization’s aftermath than of its bright future. And the most vocal critic of America’s urban ugliness during the post–Civil War era was Frederick Law Olmsted.
A onetime merchant seaman and columnist for The New Yorker, Olmsted penned jeremiads against the depredations of city life, which, he believed, undermined the moral and social fiber of the nation. When, in 1857, he obtained an appointment as superintendent of Central Park, these notions found a fresh outlet: He regarded the park not as a decorative patch of green, but as a medium through which citizens could commune with one another, with nature, and with their higher selves. The intent of landscape architecture, as he conceived it, was psychological, invigorating the spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual faculties of its audience through carefully conceived arrangements of light, shadow, color, shape, and perspective. He despised artificiality and the gaudy effects of formal, decorative plantings; his object was to sculpt the landscape so as to pull mountains, trees, water features, and architectural elements into a “unity of design.”
Despite the public-minded nature of Olmsted’s philosophy and the masterpieces to which it gave rise (the Back Bay Fens in Boston and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and Stanford University among them), his civic projects, in the end, led to disappointment. Olmsted strove toward effects that would require as long as 40 years to be realized, but citizens were not so patient. Alterations and the repurposing of spaces stoked his anger. “Suppose,” he once wrote an architect friend, “that you had been commissioned to build a really grand opera house; that after the construction work had nearly been completed … you should be instructed that the building was to be used on Sundays as a Baptist Tabernacle …. Then at intervals afterwards, you should be advised that it must be so refitted and furnished that parts of it could be used for a court room, a concert hall, hotel, skating rink, for surgical cliniques [sic], for a circus, dog show, drill room, ball room, railway station and shot tower?”
This disillusionment with public improvement drove him increasingly into the theater of private estates, where committees gave way to clients who, though as stubborn in their heresies, were at least freer with their purses, allowing Olmsted to pursue his visions. None of his more than 900 private commissions, however, could compete with Biltmore, George Washington Vanderbilt’s 140,000-acre estate in Asheville, N.C. Not only did the property enable Olmsted to apply his evolving theories on scientific farming and forest management, but he also found in Vanderbilt a kindred spirit whose passion for landscape architecture equaled his own. Olmsted became convinced that Biltmore would serve as his legacy. Yet he was never to complete his scheme: Illness (quite possibly Alzheimer’s disease) had taken its toll, and in 1903, he died at McLean Sanitarium in Waverly, Mass., whose grounds he had designed. An outraged idealist to the last, he wrote from there in his final weeks, “They didn’t carry out my plan, confound them!