“A Wholistic View of Place”
A review of
Genius of Place:
The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted.
by Justin Martin.
Review by Mark Eckel.
There is something innate in the heart of humanity for planning, pruning, and producing. Our creational, kingship responsibilities continue to prompt our cutting lawns, painting houses, planting crops, fixing roads, in short, establishing order. It is foolish, for instance, to think that all creation must always remain pristine, without human investment or intervention. When I pull weeds out of my garden, I do so because I want to eat tomatoes in August. Obviously there are places that should and must remain as they are, without human interdiction. National forests, monuments, and wildlife parks exist for us to explore. In some cases, I just want to pull up a chair and gape in wonder. At the same time—it should be obvious—there are deep concerns about how humans live in God’s world. How much do we create or recreate along with creation?
This was the discussion I was having with myself as I read Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Justin Martin’s deep research to expose the inner life of Olmsted combined with his engaging writing style, contributed to broadening my own view of place. Olmsted’s multi-disciplinary mindset sets the stage for expansive contributions. Traveling over vast stretches of American landscape impacted not only his view of America but of Americans. Educationally centered from his earliest days, Olmsted used his learning practices for a lifetime. It must be said, were it not for his father’s paternal backing, Olmsted may never have been able to accomplish what he did. Surveyor, sailor, journalist, farmer, design-engineer, and entrepreneur are markers of a man’s accomplishments but arise out of the interior foundation of a person. One cannot help but marvel at the unusual movements within Olmsted that made possible the marvels he produced.
Key to understanding the man who would benefit New York with Central Park was his view of life’s meaning found in work. His faith was not in an organized religion but in organizing the world: construction that abated chaos. Olmsted’s philosophy of work included the beneficence of others.
Most of all, Olmsted would approach this task as a social reformer. Park making was another opportunity for the activism that Olmsted had earlier applied to scientific farming or writing about the South. From the outset, he saw Central Park as a place of tranquility for all the residents of the crowded metropolis. “The Park is intended to furnish healthful recreation,” he asserted, “for the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous” (140).
While there must be some question about how Olmsted took advantage of low wages and seven-day work weeks to accomplish his goals, his belief in human personhood cannot be doubted as a flaming Abolitionist.
Olmsted’s care for people resulted in a lifetime achievement which dwarfs the parameters of a short book review. He designed 30 city parks, the U.S. Capitol grounds, city communities, and university campuses. His vision was panoramic in scope, surely benefited by the magnificent vistas he experienced throughout his travels, not the least of which was his farm on Staten Island. Key to Olmsted’s contributions was his view of longevity—he wanted work and wisdom had to last for generations. Olmsted was progenitor of terminology we take for granted: e.g., “green space.” Urban planners constantly take pages from Olmsted’s written plans. Olmsted, Jr. perpetuated his father’s vision by establishing educational direction for landscape architecture at Harvard. Legacies depend on influence. Unequivocally it can be stated that every designer over the past century owes a debt in some way to Frederick Law Olmsted.
This week I found myself in a Catholic church building, built in 1879, which is being refurbished in Indianapolis for architectural firm office space. The transcendent lines marking the inside and outside of the edifice stirred my soul. Knowing my love of architecture, a student-friend of mine, an executive in the company, had invited me to the walk-through with others in his office. As we all talked together I was taken again with the spirit of Olmsted—taming the unruly aspects of creation to creatively create creature space. Kevin explained his views with a tattoo on his leg which reads, Earth Ethos, Genesis 1:28. He went on to explain, “I have been given responsibility within God’s creation to manage and conserve the place I live. I take my responsibility seriously. So even in the reconstruction of office space within church space my mind is controlled by concern and care for everything from maintaining the original intention of the builders to the way our work will fit into the neighborhood.” I was pleased to hear such a wholistic view of place; Olmsted would have been proud.
Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College. Some of his writings can be accessed at www.warpandwoof.org.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com