A City, A Landscape

A City, A Landscape

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Ryan Flener
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Ryan Flener

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A City, A Landscape: An Interview with Laurie Olin, FASLA, Hon. AIA

In this exclusive interview with leading American landscape architect Laurie Olin, examples of Paris, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, DC, are compared to Dallas to consider how architecture also should involve attention to the in-between spaces where we, indeed, live and breathe. To Laurie, a city is a landscape and part of that means conscientious design of the public realm.

Laurie is founding partner of The Olin Studio, a Philadelphia firm specializing in landscape architecture and urban design. He is practice professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His numerous awards and honors include the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award, and the National Medal of Arts. He is author of Across the Open Field and Transforming the Commonplace. He holds a degree in architecture from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Laurie was interviewed while in Dallas to speak for the Dallas Architecture Forum.

In general, how did you become interested in "civic space" as it relates to landscape architecture, and how has this shaped your design philosophy?

I became very interested in it by accident because of the politics in Seattle, I guess, back in the ‘60s. I discovered cities. I’m from Alaska. I grew up there. When I came out to the states, as we would say, to the University of Washington to study architecture, I fell in love with cities. And Seattle in those days was kind of a pokey city, but still for me it was so stimulating and exciting, and so interesting; the diversity of people, of buildings, a kind of jumble of ambitions and history, and all. I really found cities to be wonderful. After I got out of architecture school I went to San Francisco. Well, I really went in the army, Ft. Ord, but went out on weekend passes to San Francisco and thought, “Wow, this is cool!”

After working in Seattle as an architect, I moved to New York because I thought I really wanted to see a real city. New York really blew me away. It was wonderful and I lived two blocks from the Seagram Building. I went to work for Ed Barnes, who did the Dallas Museum of Art here. I found cities to be so interesting, but I became less and less interested in the buildings and more and more interested in the public space that the buildings framed—or not—and the way that people mingled and saw each other and moved around. I realized that there was something important about the space in cities that was … How do I say this? It had to do with conviviality and sociology.

I moved back to Seattle and immediately got involved with urban design politics and lived on skid row. My friends and I got into a big fight with the city because they were going to tear down the Pike Place Market, which I consider to be one of the more astonishing mixing bowls of society that I had ever seen. I had also been to France by then and looked around and had seen some of the spaces in Paris, and I realized how important the public realm was to the sense of the community and to its social health. I also realized that the bulk of public space is in streets, that they’re too important to just leave to traffic engineers because they comprise the light and the air and the space where people meet and see each other. It’s how they find each other, go in and out of shops and houses, and how they present themselves there. It’s what they all share.

The thing about a building is that all the spaces in it are almost always private, unless it’s a civic building like city hall or a courthouse. Even at universities, only some people from the university go into those rooms. But the outside—we all do look at the outsides of the buildings; we can’t help it. So there is a public or civic role that one has responsibility for, but the spaces themselves have many functions, and those functions go beyond utility. They go beyond just serving your bodily daily needs. They really have to do with your sense of well-being. There are cities that have terrible public space, and there are cities that have wonderful public space, and there are cities that have some of it but want more, and they’re very precious, those spaces. Then I began to understand that some spaces need to be functional and ordinary and others need to be more special.

A problem that I had begun to discern in architecture in the late ‘60s and in the ‘70s, when I was having my sort of mental gyrations was what I should do with my life. I realized that a lot of architecture was about making objects, and I was interested in something beyond an object. I was interested in the environment as a supporting thing for not just an individual, but for the group, and that led me into worrying about quality of public space. Architecture at that point, and is still to some degree, [is best described this way.] Many of my dear friends, everything they do they want to be special. They think it should be unique, but a lot of the world shouldn’t be, and especially in the public realm. There are things that need to be ordinary and in the background … which is true of buildings. An issue with cities is that they are an ensemble. No one person can design them all or control them all or should. They need to support difference and people who don’t necessarily like each other, people with different agendas, but need to do it with a certain equity and justice.

Do you feel your perception of the city has changed over the years that you've practiced and taught?

Undoubtedly it has. I would say I probably stated out focused on particular spaces and then I became interested in networks and infrastructure. Now as a more … should I say … mature person, I’m back to looking at how to make some places very special in a matrix of things that are very serviceable and are doing a good solid job.

Whether utilitarian or something special, there's a large part of the design research that you're involved with at your office and also as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania over the course of 30 years. Does technology drive that? Do we act any differently in civic spaces than we did before?

The answer has to be “Yes” and “No,” of course. … One of the ironies of modernity and of today is that we yearn for new things and stimulus. We want change and we want to be excited, but also think that there should be some new paradigms that would help deal with the emerging cities that are at such a different scale than what cities used to be. And yet, at the same time we want to find new things and novel things and some other paradigms. There’s this incredible need and yearning for the known, the familiar, the comfortable, the supportive, which is part of our health. So we want something we know, like these trees and this grass and the sky, but then we also want to say, “Show me something new!” We want both with almost equal passion, and sometimes they’re in conflict and sometimes not at all. How to bring them into some congruence is a wonderful problem.

I’m interested in design beyond instrumentality, and yet, it’s like when an owner comes to someone to do a building for them … I guess I used to explain it this way. They assume you know how to do a building that won’t fall down and crush them. They just figure you’ll do that. They don’t ask you. But they’ll say they want a mud room or so many square feet of this or that, and they have some other ideas from magazines, but the things they don’t know how to ask an architect is “When I wake up in the morning, I want to feel alive and the world is wonderful” or “I want my kids to want to come home” or “I want my wife to love me.” There are things about a building that they don’t know how to ask for, but they hope and pray the architect gets that, and I think that’s true of the public realm. I think it’s true with the landscape. One of the things that happened along my career was that I went from seeing buildings to seeing buildings as cities, to seeing landscapes, and then realized a city is a landscape, just an urban one furnished with buildings, beautifully or not. A city is more than a collection of buildings. It’s also more than just a bunch of streets and a few parks. It’s both.

I tease my friends who do wonderful buildings. When I’m working with them I say, “Well, you work on the glass; I want to do the wine.” You know? The space between the buildings is so affected by the buildings and shaped by them. Buildings can be very off-putting and anti-social if they are too much about me, me, me, and “look at me,” or if they’re in the wrong place or pushing at you instead of welcoming you in or whatever. On the other hand, there are times when we really want to look at that. We want that cathedral, we want that museum, we want that courthouse, we want that beautiful house on the estate. We want those things desperately, and so how to have them without it being this chaos of everybody shouting is an interesting problem.

So when you ask about civic space, that has the notion of civility and a social contract, that notion of the dialogue between the individual and the group. In America we’ve been very good about the individual, but we’ve not been so great about the group for a while. Oddly enough I’ve been working on the facilities for the group more than I have for the individual. We do private gardens and estates and institutions that are special, but on the other hand, an ensemble is harder and more fun.

You've done a lot of civic work in Washington, DC—for example, the Washington Monument and the Mall—and in Philadelphia where your practice is based, and in New York at Bryant Park. What advice do you have for landscape architects, architects, citizens, and patrons that cities have to create a civic life that, arguably, we all desire?

Ah, the visiting fireman says “Do this.” That’s a tough question, but whatever the answer is it should begin with “get involved.” Don’t leave it to someone else. I think people have to figure out that they aren’t tumbleweeds; they’re not going to blow away. They’re not going to pull up stakes and go west. You already live here, so you should do what they did in Paris. In Paris they decided to make a city that worked and was beautiful and wonderful for Parisians. They didn’t design the parks and the boulevard for Japanese tourists. They didn’t design it for Americans and Germans. They made what they wanted for a life they wanted for themselves.

The real answer to “What should Dallas do for its public realm?” is build on what you have now. Connect the dots, start doing links, making pieces, move into town, and act like you live here. The part of why Philadelphia has become so much better in the last 30 years is a lot of people moved back into town. When they moved back into town, the restaurants came and [then] the people said, “Where’s my playground?” And they started telling the city council they wanted the parks improved. And so one of the ways to get the public realm that you think is supportive of a vibrant community is build onto and add to the ones you have, but get people to live near them, and then say you need more.

The biggest problem in American cities and in America in some ways is some of its larger land issues. There’re two chicken-and-egg topics. You get them more comfortable with density, living closely together, and if they are going to live closer together then you have to make the place attractive enough for them to be in and raise kids and hang out and fall in love and go out at night. It’s the only way were going to save any of the countryside and stop the sprawl is to make living in town attractive, and the way to make it attractive is to make it healthy. Part of that is design of the public realm.


Interviewed by Ryan Flener, Assoc. AIA, an intern with Good Fulton and Farrell.