Lovely essay by Professor Michael Lewis about Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park.

Olmsted’s work is so lovely and unassailable that one is surprised to realize how unoriginal it was. His entire repertoire of motifs—pleasing juxtapositions of trees and meadows, serpentine paths that hug the contours of the land, rustic bridges and pavilions, sudden passages of rugged terrain and ravines—was thoroughly conventional. So too were his aesthetic values, which might be summarized as variety, contrast, and surprise. These were the principles of the picturesque, which erupted onto the scene suddenly in eighteenth-century England and with worldwide consequences. They were already old long before Olmsted’s birth. Whatever his achievement was, and it was spectacular, it did not consist in the invention of a new approach to landscape. What then, exactly, did Olmsted do?

If the basic American understanding of land was the unsentimental utilitarianism of a colonial mercantile society, there was also a latent residue of idealism. This was the legacy of the religious refugees of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose town planning was saturated with biblical ideas of a perfect ordered society. Olmsted himself was a product of New England Puritanism in its final manifestation, having been born just as its Calvinist core was dissolving into Transcendentalism and releasing its moral energies into American political and social life. Had Olmsted never existed, someone else surely would have applied the moral force of this ethic to landscape design, making parks the vehicle of social reform. But it is inconceivable that anyone else would have had the same deep cistern of human sympathy to drawn on. It was a cistern patiently filled during walks in England, ramblings through the South, urgent work for the Sanitary Commission, and all the other restless divagations that make up the career of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Read the whole thing.

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