Witold Rybczynski

An expert on cities takes a detour into the American landscape and found a man Ñ Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Ñ and a country Ñ 19th-century America Ñ full of surprises.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

For Witold Rybczynski, it all began with a walk in the park. It ended with a biography of the man who designed it that has won praise from coast to coast.
And along the way, the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism learned a lot about not only the man, but also the country and the times he lived in.

That man was Frederick Law Olmsted. Most of us know him as the man who, with Calvert Vaux, designed New York’s Central Park, the first major public park in the United States. Rybczynski, a Montreal native, knew him as the man who created that city’s major public park on Mount Royal, and it was his fond memories of that park that eventually led him to write about Olmsted.

But as he was to discover, Olmsted was more than a landscape architect. Rybczynski’s book about Olmsted, “A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century,” chronicles the life of a man of many talents -- farmer, author, journalist, publisher, social reformer -- and great enthusiasm, who lived through a time of both great conflict and great promise.

Like much of Olmsted’s writings, Rybczynski’s book reads like a voyage of discovery. So we asked him why he embarked on it and what he found on his journey.

Q. You’ve written about homes a lot, and about cities and leisure. Why did you decide to write about a landscape architect, and a biography at that?
Well, it certainly wasn’t because he was a landscape architect. What really attracted me to him was -- I had read a very short biography about his life, and I was surprised to learn that he actually had a long life, that he came to his profession very late and that he’d done many interesting things, none of which seemed obviously connected to his later career. And so I became curious about what it was about his early life that made him so successful.

Q. What did you find most surprising as you went about writing the book?
. I expected that it would be difficult to write [about] his life as a farmer and a publisher and the Civil War, which he was involved in, but in fact, that turned out to be really interesting. The two-sentence biography of Olmsted is that he was somebody who tried many things, failed and then finally found his calling, and I found that not to be true.
He’s an important American, and not just because of Central Park. He somehow had the fortune to be everywhere important at the time -- he was in the middle of the Civil War, he went to California at the end of the Gold Rush, he was in the middle of cities when they were growing, he was publishing famous American writers or people who would become famous. That’s why I gave the book that subtitle, because it became a story of the country and not just a story of this person.

Q. It also seems to be a story about social reform. How would you characterize his contribution there?
[Olmsted] belonged to the class of people that in a sense ran the country. The country was extremely decentralized, and essentially it ran at the state, and actually at the city and town, level, and his father was the kind of person who would sit on boards and be active in civic life, and so Olmsted, like many New Englanders, was raised with this ethos, so that he had an obligation to do good. And in some ways, his early life is a search for what is that going to be. He wasn’t searching to make a fortune; he was really searching to make a contribution to the country. And he took it for granted that that was what he ought to do.

Q. These days, I don’t think you can even identify a single class of people who run the country. Would you say the country is better off for that? Worse off?
The country was both smaller in population and size. I think -- despite the Civil War and slavery -- in some ways America was more itself then. There was a sense of responsibility, the consumer society had not happened yet, and there was democracy, but not in the sense of the lowest common denominator. And [there] was also a sense of limitless possibility, which, of course, can’t last forever; you grow up at one point. But you had a sense of great optimism about the future. The title of the book partly refers to that.

Q. I’ll bet that if you asked most New Yorkers to describe Central Park, they would probably say that it always looked like that. Could our notions about nature have been warped a bit by Olmsted’s clever artifice?
I said once, to challenge my audience when I was [promoting the book], that we should not confuse the Olmsted landscapes with nature. I said, It’s not natural, and it’s not made by God -- it’s better than God. Olmsted said that what he was trying to do was take those special places that are natural, like Yosemite, and put them all together, so that wherever you looked it would be this beautiful, incredible aesthetic landscape, which you hardly ever see in real life.

Q. Do you think Olmsted would be dismayed or upset at the way American cities today have spread out across the landscape?
I think he would be upset by the way it happened. I don’t think it would surprise him that it happened, because he was somebody who promoted suburbs and in fact lived in the suburbs most of his life. He saw suburbs as having both the advantages of being close to the city -- he assumed the cities would be the place where you worked, and everything would be there -- but you would live in the suburbs, and the link was very important.
I have no idea what he would think about cars, because that’s the one thing that changed [the landscape] absolutely [that he never saw]. I think the one thing that would disappoint him about many of his parks, which are still used, is the cars. They’re fast, and the drives, which he designed for carriages moving at five miles an hour for pleasure drives, are now traffic routes. And certainly, in the parks, that would disturb him.

Q. If there were any one feature of his personality that you think we would do well to emulate today, what would that be?
It would be very difficult to emulate, but it would be this sense of time, this sense of both patience and looking ahead, of saying there are certain things that take time and you have to plan for them and you just have to be patient, you’re not going to get it right away. We are very impatient, we want results right away, and I think that would be something we can learn from.

Rybczynski will give a lecture on “The Gentle Landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted” on Monday, Nov. 8. See “What’s On.”

The photo on the front page shows Rybczynski in Germantown, in Pastorius Park, designed in part by Olmsted’s son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

Originally published on October 28, 1999