For anyone who regards landscape architecture as the humdrum business of planting shade trees and laying out hedgerows, the studio workshops on the fourth floor of Meyerson Hall would be a mystifying sight. As spring semester was drawing down in late April, Olin’s students had plastered the concrete walls and cubicle partitions with giant renderings of development schemes intended for cities as different as San Francisco and Bombay. Every surface that didn’t support coffee mugs was draped with layer upon layer of 24-inch trace paper. Scale models were perched atop sawhorses, detailing sophisticated pieces of engineering infrastructure—“a word,” their teacher once wrote, “that would have been a puzzle to me when I graduated from architecture school.” In each of the water-use plans and traffic-flow diagrams and pencil-rendered layers of living stuff, there was a forceful refrain: landscape design is not what it used to be.

Olin began his professional life as an architect, earning a degree from the University of Washington and then practicing in Seattle and New York during the mid-1960s. By 1968 he had grown weary of “making mere buildings,” and as an explosion of civil unrest rocked cities from Chicago to Paris, he left the field. Though he would return to it briefly following an extended trip through Mexico and the United States with his sketchbook, his perspective had permanently shifted.

After touching back down in Seattle he threw himself into civic activism, fighting an attempt by the city’s government and business leaders to raze the Skid Road neighborhood and Pike Place Market. The world was in turmoil and Olin was undergoing an awakening of his own. While waging battle in court, on the streets, and at the ballot box, he also published his first book, an anti-planning manifesto focused on the struggle over downtown Seattle. Olin contended that the area’s street life had an organic quality whose cultural value, though perhaps not measurable and out of step with middle-class aesthetic norms, dramatically outweighed whatever economic stimulus a proposed convention center complex would bring. The future proved him right about Pike Place Market. “It’s now the biggest tourist attraction in the city, but they didn’t get it,” he laughs.

“I was looking at cities more in terms of their ecology—their human ecology—as natural formations like a forest,” he recalls. “Things were being born, things were dying, things were changing. Cities were evolving and I began to see them differently. I realized they were a landscape, but most people couldn’t see it.”

As a child growing up in Alaska, Olin had been on intimate terms with one of the great wilderness environments in the world. Soon he got the chance to complete that education, accepting a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the subtly but rigorously managed landscapes of England and Italy. As the next 2 years unfolded in Europe, Olin’s future began to take shape. When he returned to the United States, Penn was on the hunt for new faculty members whose work stood at the crossroads of social issues and urban design. The job description couldn’t have fit Olin more snugly if he’d written it himself.

At that time the Department of Landscape Architecture was still headed by its iconic founder, Ian McHarg. “McHarg had been a teenaged commando during World War II in the Mediterranean with the British Army,” Olin remembers. “He was the kind of guy who swam ashore with his knife between his teeth and a Sten gun and blew up bridges behind German lines.” His academic reputation was, if possible, even more formidable. The author of the seminal book Design With Nature, McHarg pioneered the field of ecological design and developed the analytical methodology underlying the modern discipline of Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

Olin brought a slightly different sensibility into McHarg’s domain. “It was so clear that all the things I cared about in terms of ecology, they knew more about than I did,” he says of the new colleagues he joined in 1974. “But they were a little bit ignorant, and, I felt, a little dismissive of—if not hostile toward—culture … I was a cultural antidote. Not to oppose anything, but just to add a layer.”

He didn’t have to wait long to start making his mark. In 1975 the University undertook a comprehensive overhaul of its disjointed campus grounds under the direction of Sir Peter Shepheard, the new dean of what was then known as the Graduate School of Fine Arts. “The campus of the ’60s and ’70s was leftover, unloved space,” remembers George E. Thomas Gr’75, now a professor of historic preservation and urban studies. “Under Shepheard, the core idea was that campus had to be the first presentation of the institution—and when people came on campus and saw a shabby, unloved place, they didn’t see the ideas.”

Sinking money into landscape design was not initially a popular decision. “The faculty were enraged,” Thomas says. “Because, you know, they were going to waste money that could have given them 14 cents more in salary.” But as the campus metamorphosed into a greener, more coherent, more inviting space, prospective students responded. “There was this incredible bump in applications,” Thomas says. “And Penn suddenly realized that they were selling an experience, they were selling a visual representation of their value. And in my mind, this was the real step that pushed Penn from a solid, first-rate university into a top-tier university.”

That transformation was substantially the work of Olin and a new firm called Andropogon Associates, which brought together fellow faculty members Colin Franklin GLA’67, Carol Franklin GLA’65, Leslie Sauer CW’69, and Rolf Sauer C’67 GA’71. The most significant outcome of their collaboration was Blanche Levy Park between College Hall and Van Pelt Library, and for Olin it would be the first of many contributions. Between 1998 and 2001 his firm would collaborate on another development plan for the campus, which overlaps to a great degree with Sasaki Associates’ current proposal for Penn’s eastward expansion, known as Penn Connects [“New Campus Dawning,” Sept/Oct 2006]. Meanwhile, Olin’s extension of the Woodland Walk diagonal into Hill Field exemplifies the firm’s approach to strengthening the connections between Penn’s pedestrian corridors and the street grid.

“The firm that has shaped the visual qualities of the campus has been Olin,” says Thomas, characterizing their aesthetic as “regimented and ordered … much more in the realm of urban landscape” than the more naturalistic ethos associated with McHarg and his disciples.

In the midst of his early, pro bono work on the Penn landscape plan, Olin suddenly found his commercial opportunities multiplying so swiftly that he could barely keep up. After presiding over a studio class one afternoon in 1976, he wandered over to La Terrasse for a drink with Bob Hanna, the chair of the Design of the Environment program.

“Bob, you know how young faculty members are always grousing about how they’d like to practice, but they can’t get a job?” he asked. “And how we’re always complaining that we know so much, we should be doing the work, but the people doing the work don’t know how to find us?” Hanna of course knew the feeling. “Well guess what,” Olin continued. “I have a job. It’s 125 acres with I.M. Pei. Do you want to help me?”

July|August 07 Contents
Gazette Home

Mr. Olin’s Neighborhood By Trey Popp
Project photos courtesy the Olin Partnership

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Olympic Village, Barcelona (top); Independence Mall, Philadelphia (middle); 16th Street Promenade, Denver (above).

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/28/07