What cities need now is the great question of our day. In 1976, when Olin and Hanna opened their first office within spitting distance of a strip club and Bryant Park was the kind of public space that scared the bejesus out of the public, no worry was wasted on the potential pitfalls of privately controlled open space. Thirty years later it’s a different story.

Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project don’t really fear that its open space will be commandeered by heroin addicts; they worry that a design executed on behalf of a single developer will tacitly tell average Brooklynites to stay away. Their frustration is deepened by a perceived dearth of transparency and public dialogue. In contrast to the well-received citizen forums that helped to shape the design for Bryant Park, Ratner has been accused of riding roughshod over his critics in Brooklyn. (A recent non-disclosure agreement between his company and the Olin Partnership prevents the display of site plans and drawings in this story.)

“New York folks are smart,” says former New York City planning commissioner Ron Shiffman. “They know where they’re wanted and know where they’re not wanted.”

Shiffman sits on the advisory board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, along with longtime New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, former Major League pitcher and author Jim Bouton, and several dozen other notable locals who oppose Ratner’s plans. Early drawings that depict the demapping of some streets—the ultimate public space—to increase greenery and pedestrian corridors inside the development are part of what has Shiffman and his allies exercised.

“Olin is very talented. I wouldn’t in any way want to diminish his stature or the quality of what he is doing,” he continues, “but the open space, while beautifully designed, it’s really courtyards of buildings, not really public space.”

There is a degree of irony here. The newfound confidence in big American cities is at least partially the legacy of privately funded successes like Olin’s watershed intervention in Bryant Park—not to mention the design of Battery Park City, London’s Canary Wharf, and Penn’s West Philadelphia campus. Where once was abandonment, there is now vigor and gentrification. By that metric, Olin has earned the right to be self-assured—maybe even to the point of thinking that he and Gehry can make up for their client’s perceived shortcomings. Yet if superlative design has had a hand in bringing contemporary downtowns to some kind of tipping point, it now has to respond to a new set of circumstances.

“You really have to worry about whether what you’re doing, even if it’s for a private corporation, is the right thing for the greater public good,” Olin says, voicing that landscape-architecture melancholy again. And what that means in terms of publicly accessible open space is a hard thing to fathom.

From the 19th century through the Second World War, urban parks were a central part of the public good. “People used to go to parks for concerts, they used to go to parks to watch plays, they used to go to parks for athletics,” Olin says. “Now they go to the gym. They watch television.”

By the middle of the 20th century, as suburban development emptied American downtowns, parks had hit a low point. Cash-strapped municipalities stopped spending money to maintain them, according to Witold Rybczynski, and “people had sort of lost interest in them, partly because they were dangerous and unattractive, but also because they somehow seemed old-fashioned.”

Whether due to the profusion of leisure activities, or a pace of life quickened by an overdriven work ethic, or an economic order that boxes each income bracket in a world of its own, the slow pleasures of public space seem to have a lesser claim on us now.

“Yet in terms of what parks did for health, and for community,” Olin says, “running into people who aren’t like you—socializing with other classes, shall we say, folks from different backgrounds—these are things that can only be brought to us by the sun and the rain and the leaves and the seasons. Those things that television doesn’t do very well and professional basketball doesn’t do very well.” There is passion in his voice, and memory of youthful hours spent on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where he used to climb a Douglas fir to sit above the art museum and look out over the city.

After half a century in which municipal priorities shifted decisively away from the creation and upkeep of public space, Rybczynski sees evidence of the pendulum swinging back again.

“There are all these activities which really didn’t exist in the 1950s, like jogging, bicycling, and walking for exercise. And a really big public interest in nature,” he says. But the kinds of spaces that worked a hundred years ago are no longer feasible, and not just because land is too expensive for anything approaching the scale of Central Park. The hallmark of Olin’s approach is an attempt to invigorate the urban outdoors with as many uses as possible. If private control is part of the picture, so be it. Anything that can help make density work.

“It’s not a law, but it is a generally accepted principle that more complex environments tend to be richer and more productive and more stable than simplified environments,” he reflects. “Monocultures are unstable. Diversified environments are more stable—you can see it in oceans, you can see it in forests, you can see it in cities.”

This is the philosophy that underlies the tightly defined courts, groves, and lawns his firm has envisioned for Atlantic Yards. Yet there is a tension between that quest for diversity and the constraints that arise when a single developer controls a very large site. This is the real challenge Olin faces in Brooklyn. If the project moves forward—demolition started earlier this year but legal challenges have thrown up speed bumps—it may hark back to an era when landscape designers were the primary shapers of big parcels, not merely people brought in at the end to stitch together what building architects had laid down.

These stakes amplify all of the decisions that run through the craft—what to edit and what to emphasize, what to change, what to invent. But Olin has been facing the same questions throughout his career, “with a grasp of urban issues and broader cultural aspects of his art that rivals Olmsted, in his day,” as Rybczynski, who wrote a biography of Olmsted, puts it.

As he contemplates an unprecedented new vision for Brooklyn, Olin may hope that his old Boston Globe editorial will prove prophetic. Writing to praise the audacity of an earlier generation of architects and planners, he anticipated the moment he finds himself in now. “There was vision, gumption, commitment, and talent,” Laurie Olin declared. “Controversy broke like waves over those who took up the challenge—and great things got done.”

July|August 07 Contents
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COVER STORY:
Mr. Olin’s Neighborhood By Trey Popp
Project photos courtesy the Olin Partnership

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Bryant Park, New York City.

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Last modified 6/28/07