How to Design a Park
Accordingly, the plan provides a formal elevated stone terrace, connecting by a bridge spanning an intervening traffic-street with a double decked pleasure-pier, which in turn forms a breakwater enclosing a little port, the shore of which will be a bathing beach.
In the adjacent city of Cambridge a rectangular, level, and street-bounded open space has been ordered to be arranged to serve as a general meeting-place or promenade, a concert-ground, a boys' playground, and an out-door nursery.
Accordingly, the adopted plan suggests a centrally-placed building which will serve as a shelter from showers and as a house of public convenience, in which the boys will find lockers and the babies a room of their own, from which also the head keeper of the ground shall be able to command the whole scene.
South of the house a broad, but shaded, gravel space will provide room for such crowds as may gather when the band plays on a platform attached to the veranda of the building. Beyond this concert-ground is placed the ball-field, which, because of the impossibility of maintaining good turf, will be of fine gravel firmly compacted.
Surrounding the ball-ground and the whole public domain is a broad, formal, and shaded mall. At one end of the central building is found room for a shrub-surrounded playground and sand-court for babies and small children. At the other end of the house is a similarly secluded out-door gymnasium for girls.
Lastly, between the administration house and the northern mall and street, there will be found an open lawn, shut off from the malls by banks of shrubbery and surrounded by a path with seats where mothers, nurses, and the public generally may find a pleasant resting-place.
Plans for those larger public domains in which scenery is the main object of pursuit need to be devised with similarly strict attention to the loftier purpose in view. The type of scenery to be preserved or created ought to be that which is developed naturally from the local circumstances of each case.
Rocky or steep slopes suggest tangled thickets or forests. Smooth hollows of good soil hint at open or "park-like" scenery. Swamps and an abundant water-supply suggest ponds, pools, or lagoons.
If distant views of regions outside the park are likely to be permanently attractive, the beauty thereof may be enhanced by supplying stronger foregrounds; and, conversely, all ugly or town-like surroundings ought, if possible, to be "planted out."
The paths and roads of landscape parks are to be regarded simply as instruments by which the scenery is made accessible and enjoyable. They may not be needed at first, but, when the people visiting a park become so numerous that the trampling of their feet destroys the beauty of the ground cover, it becomes necessary to confine them to the use of chosen lines and spots.
These lines ought obviously to be determined with careful reference to the most advantageous exhibition of the available scenery. The scenery also should be developed with reference to the views thereof to be obtained from these lines.
This point may be illustrated by assuming the simplest possible case — namely, that of a landscape park to be created upon a parallelogram of level prairie. To conceal the formality of the boundaries, as well as to shut out the view of surrounding buildings, an informal "border plantation" will be required.
Within this irregular frame or screen the broader the unbroken meadow or field may be, the more restful and impressive will be the landscape. To obtain the broadest and finest views of this central meadow, as well as to avoid shattering its unity, roads and paths should obviously be placed near the edges of the framing woods. In the typical case a "circuit road" results.
It is wholly impossible to frame rules for the planning of rural parks; local circumstances ought to guide and govern the designer in every case; but it may be remarked that there are few situations in which the principle of unity will not call for something, at least, of the "border plantation" and something of the "circuit road."
Within large rural parks economy sometimes demands that provision should be made for some of those modes of recreation which small spaces are capable of supplying. Special playgrounds for children, ball or tennis grounds, even formal arrangements such as are most suitable for concert-grounds and decorative gardens, may each and all find place within the rural park, provided they are so devised as not to conflict with or detract from the breadth and quietness of the general landscape.
If boating can be provided, a suitable boating-house will be desirable; the same house will serve for the use of skaters in winter.
In small parks economy of administration demands that one building should serve all purposes and supply accommodations for boating parties, skaters, tennis-players, ball-players, and all other visitors, as well as administrative offices. In large parks separate buildings serving as restaurants, boat-houses, bathing-houses, and the like may be allowable.
It is most important, however, to remember that these buildings, like the roads and paths, are only subsidiary, though necessary, adjuncts to the park scenery; and, consequently, that they should not be placed or designed so as to be obtrusive or conspicuous.
Large public buildings, such as museums, concert halls, schools, and the like, may best find place in town streets or squares. They may wisely perhaps be placed near, or facing upon, the park, but to place them within it is simply to defeat the highest service which the park can render the community. Large and conspicuous buildings, as well as statues and other monuments, are completely subversive of that rural quality of landscape the presentation and preservation of which is the one justifying purpose of the undertaking by a town of a large public park.
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Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is the best-known and most revered landscape architect in U.S. history. The codesigner of New York's Central Park, and designer of Boston's Emerald Necklace, Olmsted was also a high-profile public intellectual. His diverse activities included writing books about travels in England and the United States, coordinating medical treatment of soldiers for the U.S. government during the Civil War, and serving on the editorial board of The Nation magazine.
Robert Twombly teaches architectural history at the City College of New York. He is also the editor of Frank Lloyd Wright: Essential Texts and Louis Kahn: Essential Texts.
This article is excerpted from Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts, edited by Robert Twombly, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton. Twombly has corrected any misspellings, British and archaic spellings and punctuation, and typesetting errors in the text without indication. ArchitectureWeek has added paragraph breaks.