Topic: Architecture / Chicago
TAKOTRONsemester001 officially ended yesterday as I handed in my paper, "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Democratization of Landscape Theory," at 12:06PM. For the topic I researched the famous American landscape architect in relation to 2 major theoretical movements that directly influenced him, the English Picturesque of the mid to late 18th century, and American transcendentalism of the mid 19th. Both movements were rooted in our experience of rural landscapes, but had elements somewhat contrary to democracy. The Picturesque was put forth by wealthy British gentlemen who created contrived "natural" landscapes for their enormous country estates. Transcendentalism had a strong moral, even theological undertone that enveloped its aesthetic ideas, but it was too introverted and rural to be directly applicable to the urban industrial life that would grow to dominate American society.
Frederick Law Olmsted (right), who was an established social activist before he began designing landscapes, was able to adapt his influences to create a plethora of urban park systems that would serve the surrounding communities democratically. He made it a point to avoid loud details like flower beds, fountains, and symmetrical open squares, instead developing experiential, all-encompassing scenes that would have an "unconscious influence" on visitors. His hope was, and he succeeded, to introduce into our cities "scenery offering the most agreeable contrasts to that of the rest of town; an opportunity for the people to come together for the single purpose of enjoyment, unembarrassed by the limitations with which they are surrounded at home or in the pursuit of their daily avocations."
Olmsted's first design was New York's Central Park, planned with architect Calvert Vaux beginning in 1858, and he would go on to design many of the nation's campuses and most treasured parks, among them Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Boston's Jamaica, Fenway, and Franklin Parks, Niagara and Yosemite national parks, and Chicago's southern park system. The last was planned in the 1870s, and would be modified as the site of 1893's World's Columbian Exhibition. The fairgrounds comprised Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance (where the first Ferris Wheel was featured), which extended West to Washington Park.
So I had turned in this paper and was on my way home when i decided to take the long route and walk through Washington Park. The Green Line drops you off on Garfield Boulevard across the street from the oldest existing original "L" station, from 1892 (left). The area has changed completely since the late 19th century, and the idealistic hope that went into it is difficult to discern. In the 19teens and 20s the neighborhood bordering Washington Park to the west rapidly shifted to African-American and, unfortunately, many of the previous settlers dispersed. Today it remains almost completely African-American (>98%) and is one of Chicago's more impoverished regions, with a median income barely over $15,000 with almost half of its buildings vacant. The area east of Washington Park, called Hyde Park, is a diverse and well-reputed neighborhood, partly because it is home to the University of Chicago.
During the surrounding area's demographic changeover, the University made active moves to prevent blacks from settling near Washington Park, and may today be somewhat responsible for the park's function as a sort of buffer zone separating the haves from the have-nots. It is still a beautiful escape from city life, featuring a (frozen) lagoon, a variety of trees, wildlife, bridges, and paths, and is treasured by many different people, including students, locals, school groups, nature-watchers, and even cricket players.