Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Beauty of a Park

“The park should, as far as possible, complement the town. Openness is the one thing you cannot get in buildings. Picturesqueness you can get. Let your buildings be as picturesque as your artists can make them. This is the beauty of a town. Consequently, the beauty of a park should be the other.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns” (1870)

In Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings about parks, one can hear the sweat of his brow. We’ve become so accustomed to the Olmsted style of park: open greenswards, thickets of trees with curving walks, rambles of greater “wildness,” that they just seem natural. But they are as constructed, and as theorized, as any building. It was his genius to make them seem easy, and thus to allow the masses to move at their ease through his additions to the urban landscape. His parks (the most famous designed with British architect Calvert Vaux) had an agenda, one which derived directly from the idea of the park as a complement to, but ever different from, the town.

The High Line in Manhattan, whose first section opened Monday, would seem to be Olmsted’s nightmare. Built atop an abandoned railroad trestle, it is long and narrow. There is no room for a lawn, the soil is too shallow for big trees, and the city presses in, sometimes closely, sometimes from afar, at every point. There is nowhere to forget where you are, who you are, where you have come from, in the way Olmsted hoped Central Park would (a thought borrowed from A. J. Downing), wiping away class distinctions with fresh air and free admission. The High Line goes against all Olmsted’s principles, and yet reveals what we take for granted in larger more pastoral parks.