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Classical Form, Human Impact

Profile: Laurie Olin, FASLA, Principal, Olin Studio

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor




Laurie Olin, FASLA,
Principal, Olin Studio

Photos courtesy of Olin Studio
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In describing his journey, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Principal, Olin Studio, recalls, ''There is no one thing that led me to landscape architecture. It was a gradual process of mental and professional evolution. I started with civil engineering, then shifted to architecture, then shifted to art and poetry and took a few breaks, and finally ended up as a landscape architect.

 



Laurie Olin points out, ''Part of the problem and challenge we face when incorporating natural systems into our planning is Western Civilization itself, which has a lot of deeply entrenched philosophical positions that have to be abandoned or we will fail at this. We try to base our decisions on returning to a natural balance, but we still have banking, mortgage and tax structures, petrochemical requirements, highways, etc., that are formidable roadblocks to change.''

 

That sea change was the net result of the great teachers and people at the University of Washington, such as Richard Haag, founder of the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Washington, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Theodore Roethke, plus examples of landscape architects' work and moving to New York.''

''There really was no one 'Aha!' moment,'' recalls Olin. ''In New York, I got to see Olmsted's work. In fact, I think Central Park is the greatest work of art in this country. After that, I went on to study English and French classical gardens. In 1972, I went to the American Academy in Rome.''

 



The design of Columbus Circle makes this a useable civic space and monument as well as a place to pause in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in New York. Says Olin, ''We should make our cities the most wonderful places to live. We are lost because we don't save our cities—as it is, people don't like their density. They want private splendor and accept public splendor, especially in California.''


''Starting in childhood, I have always read a lot. You must always read because it's your lifeline to the world. Of course, a large part of that was a result of growing up in the Alaskan wilderness,'' he continues.

''I got my BAarch in architecture from University of Washington in Seattle. Five guys in that graduating class won the Rome prize. After that I had a self directed two-and-a-half years on a Guggenheim Fellowship and went all around Europe.''

''Having a vision of a beautiful environment is a great joy. It means you are trying to produce something that speaks to your intellect as well as your essential needs. I have found that both the biggest challenge and the greatest joy is getting things built. However, it's harder to get things beautifully made at a higher level,'' Olin points out. ''The greatest challenge is doing public work. With the Playa Vista project in Los Angeles, for example, I won all the battles and ultimately lost the war. The only consolation is that we enlarged the Ballona Wetland with 100 acres of beautiful space. Unfortunately, the architecture and social environment is not that good.''

 



''Actually, a friend of mine once said after the Columbus Circle project in New York City, 'There's a lot of Paris in you.' And I guess that's true,'' Olin recalls. ''I know Rome better, but Paris is so resolved and so livable in so many ways. They may have problems with immigration and how to incorporate other cultures into their own, but they use their parks as a political influence to teach people how to be French.''


''I can't say which projects are my favorites. If I say it was this park then someone else will feel hurt. Most times, my favorite is the one I've just finished. Those keep happening—Canary Wharf in East London, the green roof on the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City, the J. Paul Getty Center. It's like a piece of chamber music. Each new place creates it's own music, it's own artistry.''

''It's what J.B. Jackson said,'' explains Olin. ''He founded Landscape Magazine in 1959, and published an article called 'The Imitation of Nature.' To paraphrase, Jackson said every American city should be an environment that is socially just, ecologically healthy and spiritually rewarding. It's an ancient principle put in modern language.''

 



''All projects are challenging in different ways,'' states Olin. ''One's early projects seem the most challenging because you haven't done much, or had that much practice in winning arguments, either. But then as you succeed, more projects come your way and the level of difficulty goes up.''


In his article, Jackson went on to say, ''Up to the present we have given all thought to the first of these. There are signs that the second will receive its due attention before long; for it is already outside the city gates. But the third will be realized only when we ourselves are enlightened: when we learn once again to see nature in its entirety; not as a remote object to be worshipped or ignored as it suits us, but as part of ourselves.''

''As far as the role landscape architects have in protecting the planet,'' Olin says, ''Landscape architects can only do so much, but they can advocate for quality on many scales – small projects set examples, one site at a time. For a while, a city or a region can set an example. Today there are more people at the table, and we can do more with the clients through teaching. What else is there to do? We must let our light shine so people can see our good works.''

 



''Public projects are difficult because in a democracy everyone should have a voice. There should be a debate and an open society,'' says Olin. ''What that means is landscape architecture in the public realm is possibly the most political thing to be engaged in.''


''Landscape architects can be self satisfied and smug, but we also have to get our hands dirty and get into the mix in order to make a difference. When you are in the vanguard of a quantum shift, there are a lot of pressures. It is tiring to battle uphill, to battle city hall, and the politics is worse than unpleasant because money is a never-ending problem. Why wouldn't you build something to last? We are unable to come to terms with density. As long as we encourage poor land utilization through our developments, habits, and fallacious thinking, we face a daunting challenge.''

 



Bishopsgate is a mixed use development in London's financial district adjacent to the Liverpool Street Rail Station and above its rail yards. The design concept was to create an active Piazza for people-watching and civic gathering, while providing much needed open space that creates a framework for future development in the area.

 

Life and Art and Things

In a conversation between poet Michael Palmer and Olin called ''The Unstated Goal'' Olin explains, ''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.''

 



''…walking in the open air is very healthy, particularly for the eyes, since the refined air that comes from green things, finding its way in because of the physical exercise, gives a clean-cut image, and by clearing away the gross humors from the frame, diminishes their superabundance, and disperses and thus reduces that superfluity which is more than the body can bear.'' (Vitruvius, 'De Architectura, Book 5, Chapter 10, paragraph 5, c. 15 BC, translated by Morgan, 1914)


''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.''

 



The role of the landscape architect in revitalizing the Brancusi Ensemble in Targa-Jiu, Romania was primarily that of editing—removing many inappropriate structures, screening others and adding only that which would enhance the experience of viewing Brancusi's powerful sculptures commemorating the heroic soldiers of the town.


''But then the third activity is possibly the most difficult for everyone, and that is invention: what to bring to a place and insert what is new and was never there before; what is 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.'' To which Michael Palmer replied, 'The difference being that I don't have to take a poem of Milton's and figure out what lines to erase.'''

 



''For a landscape architect, using elegance and beauty can serve several purposes at once,'' says Olin regarding this private residence design in Ohio. ''I can create a space that's lovely, it'll bring in other clients and maybe I'll give the client something truly elegant and simple. However, I will also be teaching something at the same time. Elegance is not dependent on using a lot of marble.''


Form, Function and Social Responsibility

''J.B. Jackson's version of Vitruvius has to do with being a good citizen of the world,'' notes Olin, ''which brings up philosophical attitudes like 'What's the point of it all?' You don't think about those things when you are sitting there with a pencil. You can draw with a wood stick just fine.''

''I have no idea how my artistic nature informs my work,'' Olin says. ''I've drawn and looked at things all my life. And much as I love to draw—I draw compulsively—it is better to love the world than love a drawing.'' (Editor's Note: Olin seems not to recall that his sketches are quite classical—shades of Bernini, I would say—and I have a couple of them to prove it.)

 



The landscape concept for Robert F. Wagner Park, the southern end of the 1978 Battery Park City Master Plan, creates a powerful impetus to reflect in the presence of the Statue of Liberty and its optimistic message of New World values.


''However,'' he continues, ''I've always been interested in form and expression as the result of artistic effort. Think of the thousands of chairs that have been made since the Egyptians. Some are functional as well as beautiful. Most are not. I took some students up the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia and there must be at least ten bridges crossing it. All of them were built within a hundred years of each other. These things are all instruments to solve the same problem, getting across the river. Some are elegant as hell, some are dopey and some are ugly. They all work, but some are more pleasing than others. Solving the problem isn't enough. You have to get to some level of expression and resourcefulness that expresses your special turn of the mind.''

 



''At the American Academy in Rome, I was living and working with historians, scholars and artists,'' remembers Olin, ''while I learned from the European masters by seeing their work in all seasons. I've been connected to the American Academy as a trustee for 20 years—and led the plans to restore all those grounds.''

 

The Challenge is Just the Beginning

''All projects are challenging in different ways,'' Olin points out. ''Some are politically difficult because there are forces that don't want a project to happen at all, or there is legislation against them. Money is always a problem, and has never made a designer's life easier.''

''A lot of people want their fingerprints on a project,'' he continues. ''You can only build one thing in one place—so you are up against the laws of physics on one hand, plus political problems. And then there is the problem of a Balkanizing public which is what we've had in the last few decades—do you make a skate park or listen to concert? It's like Gresham's Law—Bad money drives out good, and some projects drive out others. There has been an escalating level of activities that drive out other activities. Tranquility and calm are the most fragile states.''

 



Regarding the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City, a green roof that now sports all kinds of wildlife. Olin says, ''If landscape architects can get involved in doing the planning, or if people will listen to us, we can always set examples. We have always been the professionals advocating natural systems in planning and design. But we were the only group who had any interest in that.''


The Politics of Art

''Most of the sustainable concepts such as permeable paving and green roofs are now state of the art for landscape architects,'' Olin points out. ''Most firms know how to do that. I don't find standardization interesting except in the sense of Olmsted, Ford and L'Enfant—What can you do that helps produce a more democratic environment that is sustainable? I do not know one landscape architect who doesn't automatically incorporate sustainable principles today.''

Says Olin, ''Flat roofs should be green, or catch water, or they should be handsome pitched roofs for some good reason. The idea of standardization is like William Morris asking how to get machines to achieve as much quality as possible and make it available to everyone. In my world there is good stuff I can use right off the shelves, not just furniture, but stuff that has another purpose as well.''

 



From Laurie Olin's sketchbook. Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiume, 1981. (To see more of his drawings, go to: LandscapeOnline.com/research/article/11680

 

Influence Goes Both Ways

''Many people have powerfully affected my thinking and process. Some were teachers I had when I was in college, like Rich Haag. Also, Victor Steinbrueck, who taught architecture and theory and was instrumental in saving the Pike Place Market in Seattle. He taught me about the politics involved in designing public spaces.''

In 1963, a proposal was floated to demolish Pike Place Market and replace it with Pike Plaza, which would include a hotel, an apartment building, four office buildings, a hockey arena, and a parking garage.

This was supported by the mayor, many on the city council and a number of market property owners. However, there was significant community opposition, including help from Victor Steinbrueck and others from the board of Friends of the Market. Recalls Olin, ''Working on Pike Place Market was wearing and we had TV and newspapers against us, too. However an initiative was passed on November 2, 1971 that created a historic preservation zone and returned the Market to public hands.''

 



When the grounds of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles were designed, the spaces were intended as a ''vestibule'' for the offices and museum, and to ''set the stage'' for the treasures people would encounter when they came inside. Olin recalls, ''It turned out that people came to the Getty because they needed a nice, beautiful public space. People also came and sat around outside because they wanted a visually soothing, aesthetically pleasing and spiritually uplifting place in which to just 'be.'''


''Another great influence was Theodore Roethke as well as Robert Lowell, both poets,'' he continues. ''Once during mid term exams at college, Ted picked me up and yelled, 'What does art say?' as he shook me. Then he said, 'Change your life is what it says!' When you meet people like that as an undergraduate, it's a powerful influence.''

''My heroes are all the fabulous designers I studied. Look at Bernini—he could draw, and think, and handle himself politically—and that's hard work. Olmsted is another one of the great heroes, as well as people like Larry Halprin, and Andre Le Notre who designed Versailles for Louis XIV, and William Kent, who invented English landscape.''

The Best Part is…

''I'm not done yet. I'm still having fun. It's still fun even though it's still hard, but I can't think of anything else I could have done with my life that would have integrated all the different aspects of my personality in the same way. I listen to music endlessly so it might have been music, but I wasn't around musicians early enough to learn to play. I'll be out somewhere, and afterwards someone will say, 'You're so lucky'. However it's not luck. It's hard work. Everybody has ideas. It's what you do with them that's important.''

 





 



The Olin Studio. From the left: David A. Rubin, Robert J. Bedell, Laurie D. Olin, Dennis C. McGlade, Susan K. Weller, Lucinda R. Sanders.

 

Awards

Olin is a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, an American Academy of Rome Fellow, an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the 1999 Wyck-Strickland Award recipient, and a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Olin won the Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture in 1972, was the recipient of the 1998 Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Most recently, the studio received the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Design. Olin was honored with the Landscape Architecture Firm Award of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2006, and the ASLA medal for Design in 2005.


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