Wednesday, July 13, 2011
I've been immersed in the life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted since school ended in June, planning for a new interdisciplinary course this fall. In conjunction with the National Park Service, furniture-maker Dale Broholm and I have been teaching an interdisciplinary curriculum at Rhode Island School of Design, called the Witness Tree Project, focused on fallen historic trees from national historic sites. Essentially, the students study the history and context of a "witness tree" in a seminar, and then use that research in a furniture studio to make objects out of the historic wood. We've already taught courses using trees from the Hampton National Historic Site in Maryland; the George Washington National Birthplace Monument in Virginia; and the Sagamore National Historic Site in New York. Next up is an historic elm from the Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The relevance for this blog, where I think aloud about enthusiastic audiences, is the extent to which Olmsted understood landscape as a powerful means for creating very specific effects and experiences; the natural environment was always, for him, an intense performance that needed to unfold in myriad ways as people moved through space. Especially important was his ideal of "passages of scenery" in which people are drawn through passages that dramatically lead from one scene to another. As Olmsted wrote: "The chief end of a large park is an effect on the human organism by an action of what it presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words." (Boston: Parks and Parkways, 1882, in S. B. Sutton, ed., Civilizing American Cities, 1997: 259). This ideal is also the source for things like parkways (an Olmsted invention), which are intended to connect various natural space in the urban environment.
I've always thought of landscaping as rather static, a still-life of sorts, an attitude that Olmsted frequently and frustratingly encountered himself throughout his career. But understanding the intended dynamism of Olmsted's creations was a big clonk on the head for me. In my recent research, I've been thinking about antebellum working-class parades and the ways in which they moved through the spaces of cities; parades were powerful not only for being loud spectacles but also for crossing private/public and class boundaries, dynamically marking and re-marking territory. While movement through space was not political act for Olmsted, it was equally powerful aesthetic act. In fact, the success of any of Olmsted's designs were dependent on a certain willingness, on the part of park-goers, strollers, and leisure-seekers, to willingly give themselves over to Olmsted's manipulations, to the effect of an "action...that goes back of thought."
Nineteenth-century Americans keenly attended to their experience of landscape, staged or otherwise, much in the same way that they were fascinated by their experience of plays, concerts, shows, and other performances. They had to become enthusiasts in the true sense of the word, participating in a process of "taking in" a somewhat mysterious but invigorating force outside of oneself. Of course, urban amusements and nature parks were opposed in the view of moral reformers, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the reformers' view was not necessarily one shared by the middle-class public, many of whom (in diaries and letters) tended to enthuse about, and make connections between, their experiences of space. (Thus people would "take in" the scenery, as well as "take in" a play; the act of "promenading," too, was integrally linked to both pleasure gardens and commercial concerts). I can't quite prove it yet, but I believe the sensation of space was a primary allure of the Victorian era, and audiencing--whether in a new concert hall, exhibition building, or park--was very much a part of that allure.