Sitting at the head of a long table in his office library, half the white whiskers of his close-cropped beard aglow in a stream of mid-morning light, Laurie Olin is having a moment of doubt. It’s something of an unlikely setting. The mere act of walking to the window might be enough to shake him out of it, for the new vision of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall taking shape 11 stories below is just the latest reason to make a man of his accomplishment feel cocksure. But the world-renowned landscape architect and professor in the School of Design stays put. He wants to talk about humility.

“There is a kind of melancholy that people don’t talk about,” he says slowly, “that thoughtful landscape architects I think possess, and that is the sense that some things will be lost or you might make a mistake. It’s the question of change. How to help the world so that the changes are productive and make it richer.”

Gentle tones of uncertainty are not exactly what Laurie Olin is famous for. At 69 he is at the peak of his profession, running a firm whose work spans the globe. From the Olympic Village in Barcelona to the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, from San Francisco’s waterfront to the much-acclaimed new design for the grounds of the Washington Monument, his approach to landscape and urban design is virtually ubiquitous. He is also widely credited for one of the most dramatic urban-renewal successes of the last half century: the transformation of Manhattan’s Bryant Park from a drug dealer’s paradise into a veritable Eden of public assembly, at a time when the revitalization of city squares and gardens seemed a hopelessly lost cause.

But Olin also has another side, one that has little truck with intimations of fallibility. As he showed several years ago in an editorial for the Boston Globe, he can exude a confidence that verges on iconoclasm. “Normative park and urban design planning today in America has become far too cautious, fearful, and backward. It wasn’t always this way, and it needn’t remain so,” he wrote in a declarative style befitting someone frequently compared to Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-century giant of the field who designed Central Park and Stanford University’s campus, among other famous projects. “The pastiche-laden historicist, precedent-driven, and simplistic constraints forced upon the master planners must be shed.”

If the tension between caution and fearlessness has been at the front of Olin’s mind lately, there’s a good reason for it. In partnership with Frank Gehry, the superstar architect most famous for designing the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Olin’s firm is about to embark on the most ambitious urban-development scheme that America has seen in a generation or more. Working on behalf of New York real estate developer Bruce Ratner, Olin and Gehry have been charged with transforming 22 largely fallow acres in Brooklyn into a mixed-use development called Atlantic Yards, whose residential component would make it twice as dense as the most crowded census tract in the country. Their plan calls for raising 16 towers and a basketball arena above neighborhoods known for 19th-century brownstones, including Park Slope and Prospect Heights. And a coalition that seemingly includes half the leading lights in Brooklyn—writers, preachers, urban-planning professors, local elected officials—is dead-set against it.

One of the most critical elements of the $4 billion Atlantic Yards project is also one of the most contentious: the provision of enough open space to make the extreme density work. This extensive site planning is what Olin was brought in for, and it is what his Philadelphia-based firm does best. Last year the American Society of Landscape Architects awarded the Olin Partnership its highest honor, singling out its achievements in urban design, green roofs, and campus master plans—which include significant contributions to Penn’s own, appropriately enough for an outfit brimming with University alumni. Their track record includes London’s Canary Wharf, once known as Europe’s largest real estate development, and Battery Park City in New York.

Yet the scale and ambition of the Atlantic Yards project is without precedent in North America. Critics fear a second coming of the superblock housing projects at the edge of Paris, which are universally regarded as a social disaster. They also worry that what’s billed as publicly accessible open space will function more like a series of private enclaves. A few even go so far as to argue that Olin’s approach to urban design is abetting a creeping corporate usurpation of the public realm.

Moreover, the involvement of Bruce Ratner, who has harvested vast public subsidies to build a number of projects that, as Olin concedes, “are not very good, and are terrible,” inspires still greater pessimism.

These concerns are not lost on Olin. “What a developer chooses to do in Brooklyn, that will affect the lives of thousands, genuinely should be subject to public discussion, debate, contention, worry,” he says with the energetic focus of someone who listens as intently as he speaks. Nevertheless, he is confident in his vision, and he believes that the stakes are in fact far higher than most people realize.

“Landscape architects have to help people come to terms with density and living closer together,” he declares. “It’s the only way to save our agricultural lands and wild lands and to stop the sprawl and spread of cities needlessly.” His voice hits a note somewhere between melancholy and urgency as he reaches his fundamental concern: “The fear of density has driven Americans into destroying so much of what they value.”

In his fourth decade at Penn, whose campus bears his indelible stamp and in many ways catapulted his firm to international prominence, Laurie Olin wants to help us get over that fear. His chosen field may be rooted in the grammar of annuals, perennials, and paving stones, but his aims verge on the utopian. Or as he puts it, “The history of society’s attempt to create a more beautiful, fruitful, and just place to live, in both town and country, is the history of landscape design.”

July|August 07 Contents
Gazette Home

Mr. Olin’s Neighborhood By Trey Popp
Photograph of Laurie Olin by Greg Benson
Project photos courtesy the Olin Partnership

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One of the most acclaimed landscape architects of his generation, Laurie Olin has joined forces with architect Frank Gehry to boldly reinvent the heart of Brooklyn. No urban development project in American history compares to their $4 billion vision. No wonder the locals are restless. By Trey Popp

The Recreation
of Independence Mall

Bryant Park, New York City (left); Washington Monument (top); Canary Wharf, London (above).

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