Video Profile: Landscape Architect Laurie Olin

A new video series from the Cultural Landscape Foundation investigates the work of landscape architect Laurie Olin.

“It’s ugly. It’s horrific. It says, ‘Go away, you don’t have access to your government,’” the eminent landscape architect Laurie Olin complained to me, as we sat together in his beautiful Philadelphia office. A white-haired, articulate gentleman with a deep, measured voice, Olin is one of those people you wish would never stop talking—especially when he holds forth on something that strikes to the core of his beliefs. We were discussing the unnecessary and ill-designed security measures on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and Olin was frustrated with the destruction of a public landscape that should have been one of the great symbols of American democracy. Parts of our conversation turned into a feature story, “The Trouble With Washington,” and a separate interview featured on this blog. But even those represent only a small portion of the wide-ranging discussion we had, because any conversation with Olin is filled with historical references, quotes from his eclectic reading, and rhapsodies of his passion for landscapes.

So it is very fitting that The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has selected Olin as the latest subject of its Oral History Series. The documentary thoroughly explores the various dimensions of Olin’s work in 29 segments, along with a very handy transcript of conversations with him. It is an incredible way of really encompassing the work of a great landscape architect, with an immediacy and intimacy that a monograph could never achieve. The production values are great, and with Olin’s erudition to carry you along, the 90 minutes that it takes to watch all the clips go by pretty fast.

A recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, among many other honors, there is little doubt that Laurie Olin is among the finest practitioners in the field alive today. Below are two videos from TCLF’s excellent series, along with excerpts from my own conversation with Olin.

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“One of the things that interests me about the work of the Olmsted firm, that we’ve tried to do in our work, is to have a sense of generosity of spirit. There is a sense of ‘Don’t make anything too short. Err on the side of generosity, make it a little longer, make it seem ample.’ When people are in a special place, they want to feel that there’s no meanness. That its not cheap, its not mean, its not constipated, that there’s a kind of openness and ease with which things are done. Now, you have to work a lot harder to make something look that easy.”

“When we did the Washington monument, there were two issues (and these two levels occur with most things): there were large bombs and vehicles; and then there is the human being walking in and blowing themselves up. Earlier, an American had driven up the hill and crashed into it with a truck. Lunatics are attracted to government, in terms of wanting to attack it and thinking that it is somehow a threat to them and a problem for the world. We’ve produced a large number of them, and will continue to, it seems. So the fear of a vehicle was a genuine one. That was the easy thing to disarm [with the low walls.]…

The next was people with a backpack or something like that– somebody getting inside the monument with an explosive. In trying to solve that, when I proposed an underground facility to do it, it was stopped by a group who felt that it was dangerous and it was going to topple the monument—they said all sorts of stupid things. The little temporary shed that’s built next to the monument and is attached to it—this is something if Prince Charles called it a carbuncle he’d be correct—is still there, because no one could come up with a solution.”

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