Soon after Hanna/Olin was formed to handle the I.M. Pei projecta new headquarters for Johnson & Johnson Baby Products near Princetonthe founding partners landed jobs designing Denver’s 16th Street Promenade and landscaping 200 acres for an Arco Chemical research facility in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. They had no employees, and were working out of a kitchen and living room.
“We were swamped,” Olin recalls. “So we scrambled around and we found some space over a bar next to a strip club opposite the old Greyhound station on Market Street.”
That seedy block soon became one end of a pipeline fed by Penn’s Department of Landscape Architecture. Dennis McGlade GLA’69, Lucinda Sanders GLA’89, and Susan Weiler GLA’83 joined the firm in its first decade. Now partners in the Olin Partnership (formed in 1996 when Hanna went out on his own), each of them has returned to Penn at one time or another to teach. Along with Robert Bedell and David Rubin, they form the leadership of a firm that has made Olin the landscape designer of choice by some of the best architects in the world.
“I have six partners, and they’re brilliant,” Olin says. “Their curse is that my name is still on the door.”
Be it as a surname or the shorthand title of a firm numbering 60 employees, Olin today could hardly be more sought after. Collaborations with architects as stylistically diverse as Norman Foster, Richard Meier, and Peter Eisenman have extended the firm’s reach into just about every corner of the built environment. “The biggest problem, because he’s so in demand, is getting his attention,” Frank Gehry told the Los Angeles Times last year. Gehry and Olin have collaborated frequently in the past and are now joining forces not only for the Atlantic Yards project but for Harvard’s new 200-acre campus in Allston.
Meanwhile, except for a stint as chair of Harvard’s Department of Landscape Architecture between 1982 and 1986, Olin has remained an integral part of Penn, where he is currently practice professor of landscape architecture. “He’s been a force here,” says Gary Hack, dean and Paley Professor of the School of Design, who calls Olin a “triple threat” as a designer, teacher, and author. “He’s taught a whole generation of landscape architectsand not just teaching studios, but he also has taught landscape theory courses, history courses … and he always does it with a kind of calmness that amazes me.”
What he brings to the classroom is another kind of trifecta. An educational background in civil engineering buttresses Olin’s credentials in architecture and landscape design, which is one reason his firm is unsurpassed in the multidisciplinary realm of large-scale urban design. Covering the concrete jungle with living stuff is as much an engineering challenge as a gardening one, especially when it comes to green roofs. “We talk about the $10 tree and the $100 hole,” Olin quips.
The word infrastructure may have puzzled him 50 years ago, but today Olin’s firm is writing the book on it. Although the grade-school field-trippers turning cartwheels on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall would never guess, the grass, elms, and poplars they play among are in fact part of a roof that conceals not only a parking garage but an electrical substation. Visitors to the gargantuan Church of Latter Day Saints assembly building in downtown Salt Lake City go to the top to discover a three-acre meadow (designed by Susan Weiler) that appears to have been lifted out of a valley in the Wasatch Mountains, where the faith took root. And Olin’s proposal for the Atlantic Yards project makes those endeavors seem almost simple by comparison. On a site that includes an eight-acre rail yard, hosts 10 subway lines, and boasts the most intense automobile traffic in Brooklyn, Olin plans to crown the new basketball arena with a green roof and to capture almost all of the parcel’s storm water runoffwhich currently exacerbates flooding on the nearby Gowanus Canalfor reuse in irrigation, cleaning, and gray-water plumbing.
Yet it is easier to marvel at the technical feats of these projects than to unravel the conceptual threads that unite them. “I don’t think there is an Olin signature style, in terms that you could look at it and say, ‘That’s Laurie Olin,’” says Witold Rybczynski, Martin & Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism and architecture critic for Slate, who co-authored the 2006 book Vizcaya with Olin [“All Things Ornamental,” March/April]. “You would have to characterize his approach as one that is not eclectic, exactly, but which tries to find the right solution for the specific problem at hand, rather than applying a particular personal style or approach to all problems.”
It would be strange to find a one-size-fits-all dynamic in a firm whose senior members are pacesetters in their own right. Nevertheless, the shared emphasis on site specificity is probably what has kept all of them comfortable under the same roof for so long. At one time or another, each of Olin’s colleagues has probably had a moment like the one Sue Weiler had a few years back. “I remember working on a project late one night,” says the longtime partner, “and thinking, ‘After ten years, can’t we ever do something twice?’”
Jason Austin GLA’05, who has made field trips to China and the U.S.-Mexico border with Olin’s classes as a student and teaching assistant, has a similar take. “If you walk into a studio with Laurie, it’s very clear that [the students] have been someplace. They’ve studied a place, they’ve learned from a place, and they’re going to try somehow to recreate or reinvent the place, taking in these other aspects,” he says. “And it’s not about him. It’s never been about Laurie. It’s always been about trying to maximize a kid’s ability and their interest. He’s more or less the editor along the way. Even in his working relationships with Gehry and all these guys, it’s all about his editing and his filtering process with [architects] who can get a little extraneous in their own right. I think that’s a hard thing to come by in an ego-dominated profession.”
Olin is fond of the editorial analogy himself, and sharply aware of the sensitivity it takes when the metaphorical text is a living and breathing city or the natural syntax of creation itself. The onetime anti-planning activist may now be the ultimate master planner, but his core concerns aren’t really all that different. Fond though he may be of bold rhetoric, Olin’s reputation for ego abnegation is no accident; it is the organizing principle of his design philosophy.
“If landscape architects approached landscape the way architects approach buildings, people would be driving off the road and falling down,” he says. “They couldn’t focus. Part of our social obligation is to make places that are safe and supportive of human activity, and in many cases are background for other things. Sometimes the people should be the flowers.”
There is no better example of this essentially sociological approach to design than the renewal of Bryant Park. Situated in midtown Manhattan behind the New York Public Library, the four-block courtyard had by 1980 become a crime-ridden vortex of urban abandonment popularly known as Needle Park.
“It was dangerous,” Olin remembers. “It was run-down. People weren’t putting money into it. People were afraid to go into it. It was deteriorating. People were killed there.”
It is not often that society turns to a landscape architect in hopes of preventing the murder of its citizens, but Hanna/Olin’s final design helped to turn one of the city’s most frightening places into one of the safest and most popular. Their approach struck some as paradoxical. By stripping away the barriers that protected the park from the bustle of traffic on its edges, they aimed to turn what had been conceived as a peaceful respite from urban life into a busy focal point of it. Forsaking grand gestures and concentrating instead on tiny details like balustrades and folding chairs, they refashioned Bryant Park stitch by stitch.
“At first glance, the park looks almost the same, just a cleaner, fresher version of the old,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New York Times. “But the cumulative effect of small changes is to render it a dramatically different place, vastly more open than before, more tied to the street and the city around it.”
Here there was another level of paradox, for Hanna/Olin’s success in restoring the urban qualities of Bryant Park stemmed from the partial commercialization of what had previously been purely public space. The redevelopment had been underwritten by the privately funded Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, one of the first examples of what are now commonly known as Business Improvement Districts. By effectively taking over the municipal government’s responsibility for managing the park, the BPRC won the privilege to use it as a venue for entertainment programming, restaurant concessions, and the like. Hanna/Olin’s disciplined design was a critical piece of this new vision.
“In a sense, it tells you that it’s controlled, that it’s not ‘true public,’” says George Thomas. “It’s sort of like a mall, or the mall as a public space but under private control. And as a result, people are expected to behave in a certain way. You could almost make the case that Bryant Park is a highly corporatized landscape, and in its lack of freedom it tells you what it expects of you.
“But if you look at the historical context, cities were under great stresses, and it was important to make places seem clean and safe,” Thomas continues. “And you can make the case that that’s a big part of what a lot of Laurie’s work does. And that it’s badly needed.”
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Wagner Park, New York City (Lucinda Sanders, lead designer).
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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/28/07