Finding Olmsted – Genius of Place​

“Genius of Place,” Olmsted’s first design principle, led me on a surprising Google journey. I fell into a rabbit hole of information as I searched through the old stand-bys like Wikipedia and Britannica, and other, more-surprising resources in order to uncover the story behind this phrase. The first revelation was that it is generally not used to describe Olmsted himself (although I do think that was Jason Martin’s intent when he titled his biography of Olmsted “Genius of Place”) but instead the genius of a particular place and how it can inform the landscape. Olmsted wrote about this as part of his philosophy of design. My second revelation was that Olmsted did not create that phrase. As it turns out, it was Alexander Pope, a famous poet of the early 18th century, who is credited with its invention in his Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington: consult the genius of the place in all;That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;Calls in the country, catches opening glades,Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs. Although I am not a poetry lover, especially in older English, I did read the entire 300-year-old poem. I felt that another verse could be written now. To build, to plant, whatever you intend,To rear the column, or the arch to bend,To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot;In all, let Nature never be forgot. As I progressed further down the Google rabbit hole, I found the term Genius Loci referred to as the influence on Pope, who is actually credited with translating this Ancient Roman belief into a philosophy for landscape and garden design. The definition of Genius Loci is a protective spirit of a place. Britannica defined it as “the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place.” Pope defined it as Genius and Olmsted made it a driving principle in how he designed his landscapes. Moving beyond Olmsted, there are many other translators of the Genius Loci or Genius of Place. The most extensive modern treatise was written by Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz in several books, most importantly his book titled Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. His theory was that people had a sense of a place based on the physical as well as symbolic features that define the place, natural and manmade. But a TED© talk I watched a few years ago by Janine Benyus, cofounder of The Biomimicry Institute, presented the most comprehensive theory on genius of place. She defined it in the context of her theory of biomimicry as “… an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” In other words, nature is the genius and its lessons can be translated into various forms of design including industrial, product, energy, marine, architecture and landscape architecture. The concept expressed so poetically by Pope, brilliantly by Olmsted and scientifically by Benyus is still being explored by landscape architects. In the current issue of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects magazine, “The Connecticut Landscape Architect,” there is an excellent article about biomimicry and the landscape by UConn student Rubson Guimaraes. “By utilizing nature’s genius,” Guimaraes writes, “we can design in a sustainable way.” Another interesting article, Biomimicry from the Ground Up, is in November, 2016 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine by Zach Mortice. It discusses what we can learn from nature methods that can rehabilitate soil, which is the building block of every landscape. Olmsted was a genius but he also was a student of the landscape. He incorporated the landscape’s knowledge into his designs, which continue to be vibrant and sustainable because he believed in the Genius of Place. This is our history as landscape architects -- and our future.​

finding Olmsted's theory of design

One of my hardest tasks when I teach landscape design is explaining how to design. Is there a method or is it just innate talent? Are there guiding principles to the design of a landscape? I decided to look to the original master, Frederick Law Olmsted, and I asked my intern, Leo Abreu, to help. Leo spent hours researching all websites and available literature about Olmsted and specifically his process and theory of design. Leo uncovered several outlines of Olmsted’s beliefs that translated into his work. Especially interesting was how much Olmsted’s time in Connecticut and his father’s love of scenic landscapes guided him to a deep-seated belief that the scenic landscape is a necessary place for all people to spend time and take respite.Olmsted was born and grew up in Hartford, CT.  While riding horse-back with his father through the countryside surrounding Hartford, Olmsted experienced the 19th century agrarian Connecticut landscape. He was impressed by its vistas, rolling hills, rock outcroppings, streams, and charming structures. This early landscape experience became the lens through which Olmsted would view his future designs.Olmsted was also influenced by books he read at the Hartford Young Men’s Institute. One was Solitude by Johann Georg Zimmermann. The premise of the book is not that we should live entirely in solitude, but that we should occasionally take respite in nature to balance one’s body and mind. Olmsted read books on landscape art that helped develop his aesthetic viewpoint and opened his mind to the power of scenery. Uvedale’s An Essay on the Picturesque  and Gilpen’s Remarks on Forest Scenery were in Olmsted’s library.Another influence on Olmsted were the writings of Horace Bushnell from Hartford, whose treatise stated that The most important and constant influence that people exerted on each other … was a silent emanation of their real character that showed in their habitual conduct and made itself felt at a level below that of consciousness. Olmsted realized that his designs could be the places to which people would go to appreciate and be a part of the scenic landscape. Importantly, the habitual experience could become part of visitors’ character and could even shape their foundational beliefs.After pursuing other professions, Olmsted settled into landscape design (architecture) and through his career designed iconic places that still have context today. His writings also contributed to the American landscape as a set of design principles that, as described by Charles E. Beveridge in his essay for the website of the National Association for Olmsted Parks http://www.olmsted.org, were and are “a blueprint for the creation of beautiful and enduring works of landscape architecture.” Beveridge outlined Olmsted’s principles, and the keywords alone describe how he approached every project in order to create unique places that are still embraced by their communities. The Olmsted principles are:  A Genius of PlaceUnified CompositionOrchestration of MovementOrchestration of UseSustainable Design and Environmental ConservationA Comprehensive Approach What a legacy!As we continue our journey to Finding Olmsted, I will discuss how Olmsted integrated these principles into each of his Connecticut designs, how Olmsted’s legacy continued after his death, and how his principles are still viable for modern landscape architecture. ​

FINDING OLMSTED

  Why at my age do I feel the need to understand history? History has never been of much interest to me and was always my worst subject. Maybe it was the way it was taught, so many facts and figures. Maybe because when I studied Landscape Architecture, my interest was in the modern landscapes designed by Balsley, Friedberg, Halprin and my personal favorite, Carol Johnson. The historical figures of Olmsted, Manning, and Downing were just old men with beards to me. And I pretty much felt that way my entire professional career. It was not until I became president of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects that I began to focus in on Frederick Law Olmsted, not by choice but by obligation. You see, Connecticut is the birthplace of Olmsted, who is affectionately referred to as FLO by his admirers. Also, the state has a FLO day and the chapter a FLO award. Therefore, as president of the chapter, I was obligated to sit in on all meetings and conference calls regarding the choice of our Olmsted award winner. At one such call, an animated discussion ensued among the committee members and Norma Williams, a FLO advocate and landscape architect. She went into a dialogue about how Olmsted was influenced by his youthful interaction with the Connecticut landscape. She explained how the areas around his hometown of Hartford informed his landscape sensibility; the rolling verdant hills, the agrarian vistas and the circuitous hilly roads. It suddenly occurred to me that the beauty of Connecticut had made an important contribution to the entire American landscape -- a legacy this state should honor, protect and promote. I decided at that moment that I had to find Olmsted for myself. The first obvious task was to learn some background about the man. Coincidentally, I was also in charge of programming for the chapter -- so I promoted the idea of an Olmsted-centric gala for April, 2013, during which both Olmsted’s birthday and Landscape Architecture Month are celebrated. I was lucky to connect with two great presenters for that gala: Justin Martin, the author of “Genius of Place,” a book about Olmsted. Here is a  You Tube video presentation by Justin .And , Larry Hott the filmmaker of the documentary “Frederick Law Olmsted – Designing America.”  click here to view info about Larry’s film . The gala was a magical night and it strengthened my intrigue with the man and the legacy of FLO. I will be blogging about my journey to Find Olmsted over the summer.PLEASE JOIN ME FOR THIS ADVENTURE. I know now that history provides great insights for the future. 

april is world landscape architecture month

This month we are celebrating National Landscape Architecture Month in the state in which Frederick Law Olmsted was born. If it was not for FLO we would not have Central Park or the Emerald Necklace nor Beardsley Park or Seaside Park in Connecticut.  His influence is nationwide but his first footsteps were taken in Hartford.  He was born in 1822 and although much of his career was practiced outside of Connecticut, his design sensibility was formed by his boyhood adventures in the Connecticut landscape. I hope to share more information regarding FLO as the Father of Landscape Architecture whose legacy still lives on in our national outdoor places.  So please journey with me in the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted.​

welcome to our dala blog

Welcome. This is the Didona Associates - Landscape Architects (DALA) first post on our brand new blog. I am Jane Didona. So, after almost 40 years of practice, why a blog ? I have to admit, I am a bit selfish. I want to conquer my fear of writing. I feel that this commitment will provide me with the discipline to write on a regular basis. I also feel I have a lot of information to share and it is time to give back. Years ago, I was walking on a wooded site in Trumbull, CT. and Dr Phil Barske was spending a great deal of time explaining the ecology of the site and the impact our plans would have. I thanked him for taking the time to teach a young Landscape Architect. He said, when you get to be my age, don't forget to give back. It is time.  For the next 6 months, I have committed to writing twice a month on topics that interest me and that I have a certain expertise in. I hope you are interested, that you learn something but most important, that you share. I hope we can have a dialogue. Topics that interest me are of course design and landscape architecture, but also sustainability, resiliancy, storm water management, kayaking, painting, hiking, climate, alternative energy, WEW!!! Well I think you get the picture, I love the outdoors. I want to know all I can. So, this will be an adventure; a Journey in cyberspace. Thanks for your interest.  I'll be back to you soon. Jane

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Sustainable Site Design and Landscape Architecture

 

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