“He paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views.”
Daniel Burnham, speaking of Frederick Law Olmsted.
In 1893, Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was working hard to finish the design of the Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Columbian Exposition. It spread over 600 acres with more than 200 buildings and attracted some 26 million visitors in its first six months. Working with Burnham was Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of modern landscape architecture.
By the time they collaborated on the World’s Fair, Olmsted had already designed New York’s Central Park and thousands of other projects around the country.
In the mid-19th century, industrialization sparked dramatic growth and cities became crowded and generally unpleasant places to live. In 1857, Harper’s Weekly called New York “a huge semi-barbarous metropolis…with filthy and unlighted streets, no practical or efficient security for either life or property.”
With this as the backdrop, it’s no wonder that Olmsted’s designs, focusing on “pastoral” and “picturesque” scenery, became so popular. Olmsted was all about giving people a natural, restorative landscape. It’s not as easy as it looks, and it’s why his work is still relevant today and why his principles of design are so revered.
Landscape architecture has evolved as the needs of the world have changed. Even so, landscape architects today would do well to paint scenes in the landscape with lakes and lawns and wooded slopes. And though our cities are not the semi-barbarous metropolises of the past, our need for restoration is greater than ever. Good landscape architecture can give us a place where our spirits find rest.