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A Clearing In the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century by Witold Rybczynski

1998; 480 pp. $28. Scribner.

Witold Rybczynski's erudite and richly detailed life story of Frederick Law Olmsted should be required reading for every landscape architecture student. Rybczynski reminds us of the high-minded values upon which Olmsted founded our profession. He argued that landscape architects ought to carry the vision of land planners. They should design spaces that can keep evolving a century into the future, attend to the spiritual consequences of their work, and accept a civic duty to become involved with urban social problems. These are values sometimes forgotten under the pressure to throw up subdivisions and golf courses. (I know of only one firm, Andropogon Associates in Philadelphia, that's turned down work because it violated the firm's values.)

Although Olmsted is known today as the "Father of Landscape Architecture" and the creator of such famous landscapes as New York's Central Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, and Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., fully one-third of the book details his formative years. Rybczynski places him in his social and intellectual milieu and explores the sources of Olmsted's strong belief in the spiritually restorative role of landscapes and his role in "creating" them.

Rybczynski treats the whole of Olmsted's life even-handedly, including the depression and later dementia that other biographers have glossed over. He makes use of documents not available to previous chroniclers and includes clearer reproductions of plans and redrawn maps. I served as Central Park's planner for fifteen years, but Rybczynski

has located pictures I had not seen before. After reading A Clearing in the Distance you can further sate your appetite by visiting Olmsted's urban parks and parkways, residential communities, and campuses all across America—a legacy of his clear vision and artistry.

 

ISBN: 0684865750

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