The first lessons
one learns in landscape design theory are basic to all design:
balance (equalizing weight of elements), contrast
(variation of elements), unity (proper balance of all
elements for a pleasing result), rhythm (variety, repetition),
proportion, harmony, dominance (within each element: e.g.,
focal point), gradation.
The elements are: point, line, shape (naturalistic,
geometric; create a sense of movement with repeated shapes, etc.),
space / size (proportion, scale, perspective; size relationships
can be used to create depth), value (light, dark), color
(hue, tone, chroma, value), texture.
Applying any or all of them in a range of compositions--repeating
forms and shapes, juxtaposing for asymmetrical balance, creating
focal points, using and balancing positive and negative space,
and so on--exercises these design basics to create outdoor "rooms."
Visits to arboreta, parks, formal gardens and sites landscaped
by prominent designers all help to anchor theory to application.
The ancient Greeks hit upon the concept of the Golden Mean,
part of which roughly translates into a ratio for that space
in which a human finds his comfort level in proportion to his
own height. The Golden Mean has been a technique rulers and governments
have employed in their designs to put the individual in his proper
place. Those in power who sought to inspire awe for institutions
such as law or religion, for example, designed the architecture
on a massive scale so that the human must feel appropriately
dwarfed by the building's size and scale.
A civilization's perspective is the eye with which the world
is designed. The traditional use of strong geometrical shapes,
forms placed in symmetrical lines, and so on, for example, suggested
a comfortable, well-ordered universe back when the world was
a fully explained place.
Not until civilization spawned a culture that could be comfortable
with the individual as the focus was it possible for a Frederick
Law Olmsted to develop and revolutionize its civilization's designs
for living. Man didn't have to be the center of the universe,
but instead could see himself as a natural part of the larger
whole. America had expanded outward as far as the continent (and
various of Europe's colonial powers) would allow; it was time
to look inward, go from macro to micro. Social beings that we
are, we stopped slaughtering only "the others" and
started slaughtering ourselves. Inward, Americans, navel-HO!
(Where is Firesign Theatre when you need them?)
Emerson, Darwin, and Thoreau were Olmsted contemporaries,
all of whose works resulted from as well as helped further the
loosening of Western Civilization's arse.
But Walt Whitman is the Olmsted contemporary who first springs
to my mind.
When Walt published his revolutionary and enduring work of
poetry in 1856, he was thirty-six, Olmsted was thirty-three.
He would eventually be known as the father of modern American
poetry, just as Olmsted became the father of American landscape
design. Whitman considered himself a public poet. Olmsted considered
himself the designer of the public's parks, from Central Park
to Yosemite. Both of them wrote; both served the war effort to
help alleviate the plight of the Civil War's soldiers; both searched
for the key to the song of themselves.
Still, these are not the reasons why Olmsted and Whitman enter
my mind simultaneously (I do actually envision a whispy version
of the latter reading his poetry at various locations throughout
those grounds landscaped by the former)--and I readily admit
that I had to ponder this for a while.
The design basics mentioned are important to note because
they are conspicuously absent in the landscaping of the majority
of lower- and middle-class Americans' homes, the very classes
whom Olmsted made it a point to consider in the landscapes and
communities he designed. What did spring forth from Olmsted's
designs was the lawn--and, apparently, the dominant philosophy
of landscape design in our culture has since been, "Let
them eat lawn."
And that was it. When I think of Olmsted, I think of Leaves
(Click here to return to "One
Small, American Landscape.")