About the Author
John R. Stilgoe, Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University, is the author of numerous books, including Train Time, Outside Lies Magic, Lifeboat, and Landscapes and Images. The author lives in Philadelphia, PA.
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By Laurie D. Olin and Michael Palmer
LO At its simplest landscape architecture comprises three activities. When you come to a site, what stays and what goes is the first decision. It's probably the one with the most profound effect in the terms we're discussing right now. The second activity is one that I would call editing or emphasis. That is where you take something and you make it more of itself—you exaggerate. An example would be Olmsted and Vaux in Central Park scraping away earth by a rock so the tall part is taller and the low part is lower and it feels rockier. That's an editing function that goes beyond removing things or saving things. It's an adjustment. But then the third activity is possibly the most difficult for everyone, and that is invention: what to bring to a place and insert that's new and was never there before—what's appropriate and why. What do I keep, what do I throw out, what do I make that doesn't exist? These activities are basically similar to those in many of the arts.
MP The difference being that I don't have to take a poem of Milton's and figure out what lines to erase—though there is a poet, Ron Johnson, who has done just that to interesting effect. Is there a project that really exemplifies all three for you?
LO This guy across the street, which is as yet very much unfinished.
MP The redesign of Independence Park?
LO Here, I blew away a previous park. The National Park Service had done some studies that convinced them that it did not function properly and was a failure. They then asked Bob Venturi's firm to do a feasibility study for a new visitors center and a new pavilion for the Liberty Bell. And we worked on that, and in the course of working on it with Bob, we realized that they should never have torn down three blocks of the city to start with. But now that they had them, the federal government could not just take a piece of a national park and turn it over to private commerce; they would need an act of Congress to do that even if it might be better if it were only two blocks long. So the question was, how do we make a park that is going to work in the city and have it be attractive for the people who live here to go and hang out and have lunch, not just visit on the Fourth of July?
It was a very difficult problem. I had only one little old building to work with, the Arch Street Friends Meeting House. So I conceived with my team to put a building on each block, which would make at least one street feel like an urban street. There would be something on each block to give it program and activity, so we wouldn't have an abandoned block, which had happened previously. Everybody would want to see Independence Hall, even from the third block, so that meant the other buildings couldn't get in the way. Visitors would also need to be able to circulate in the park, and go back and forth, so the people in the city wouldn't feel the park was a problem anymore.
I began trying to work with the concept that, when all this history took place, Independence Hall was at the edge of America, facing farms and wilderness. It occurred to me that there was this kind of American pastorale—the sense of buildings confronting a pastoral setting, confronting trees—and that that was part of our love of parks. This suggested a way to take what people conceived of as a park—a greensward and trees, and a café and that sort of thing—and to stretch that into three blocks.
So it was pretty much all invention, and it was very tough. Right now it feels very dead. The park's not finished, we don't have a café yet, the first block is not finished. In ten years, people will get what I was trying to do, and hopefully it will work.