Conservation: Geniuses of Place

A recent article written by former UVA School of Architecture Professor Ethan Carr, published in the journal Nature in July 2016, traces the arc of influence in landscape creation and preservation from 'Capability' Brown to Frederick Law Olmsted and the US National Park Service. Professor Carr was instrumental in early conversations about the creation of a Center for Cultural Landscapes and now teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can read an excerpt below and access the full article here

A coincidence of commemorative dates makes this year an important one in the history of landscape design and scenic preservation. As the 300th anniversary of the birth of the landscape gardener Lancelot 'Capability' Brown is celebrated on one side of the Atlantic, the United States is marking the centenary of the National Park Service, the federal agency that acts as the steward of the nation's most iconic natural areas and historic shrines. The two are connected by the complex and evolving cultural construction of 'nature', its representations, its manifestations and its benefits.

Brown's landscape parks expressed the eighteenth-century's fascination with nature itself, which was increasingly the subject of scientific inquiry and a plethora of botanical and zoological discoveries. Nature offered templates for ordering society, too. When the poet Alexander Pope exhorted, “In all, let Nature never be forgot,” he was describing more than the new style of landscape gardening. Brown's composed scenes of pastoral greenswards and planted woodlands expressed picturesque aesthetic theory; they also imposed a more scientific and modern order on the land.

In the United States, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted developed his own 'natural style' in the nineteenth century. Olmsted was deeply influenced by his experiences in Britain, which he described in his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852). In the spring of 1850, he visited Birkenhead Park in northwest England, noting that in “democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable to this People's Garden”. Olmsted also responded to the countryside itself, and, above all, to the landscape parks he visited. About the designer of the grounds at Eaton Hall in Cheshire, he wrote: “What artist, so noble ... as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colours, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions.”

That artist was Brown, who had died in 1783. His park landscapes, now mature, thoroughly impressed the young “American farmer”. Sweeping meadows, clumps and belts of native (and North American) trees, sheets of impounded water and winding drives were the elements that shaped the aesthetics and image of the “natural” in an urbanizing and industrializing world.

Shaping democracy

Brown is supposed to have said, “One does not go up and down steps in nature”, referencing his preference for smoothly graded contours over retaining walls or terraces. In their Central Park competition entry, Olmsted and Vaux similarly insisted that: “the interest of the visitor ... should concentrate on features of natural, in preference to artificial, beauty ... Architectural structures should be confessedly subservient to the main idea.” In the changed context of nineteenth-century, urbanizing US society, the main purpose of the large, public park (whether municipal, state or national) remained constant: to provide a dramatic sequence of affecting landscape experiences and effects, unencumbered by encroachments, and now made available to “the body of the people”.

This rhetoric of public park-making is particularly important while the centenary of the National Park Service is being celebrated. Congress created the agency in 1916, giving it a famous mandate “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” of the national parks, and “to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. This key portion of the legislation was written by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, who continued his father's professional practice in the twentieth century, and who was directly inspired by his father's Yosemite report in drafting the park-service bill.

Congress had created national parks in the mid-nineteenth century — notably Yosemite in 1864 and Yellowstone, Wyoming, in 1872. But the far-flung group of about 35 reservations had remained relatively inaccessible to most people. That changed with the advent of affordable and reliable automobiles. The park service was created to better manage both the great potential for public enjoyment and the great peril to the parks presented by vastly increased numbers of tourists in cars.

Today, there are more than 400 'units' in the national-park system, including scores of historic sites, memorial landscapes and archaeological sites, in addition to the better-known large-scale wilderness reservations. The national parks are often characterized as 'America's best idea', a bromide that obscures as much as acknowledges their significance and origins. The idea was rooted in the nineteenth-century park movement, and therefore in the thought reflected in the elder Olmsted's writings, and embodied in his designs. These in turn have unambiguous links to that “artist so noble”, born 300 years ago, Capability Brown.