Landscape design and landscape architecture have been western notions for perhaps 300 years. In 1712 Joseph Addison a prolific English essayist and letter writer wrote of ‘making a landscape’. One hundred years or so later Gilbert Laing Meason, a Scottish Gentleman, wrote a book called ‘On the Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters of Italy’. The term ‘Landscape Architect’ had never been seen before in the English language and this book was to contain some of foundations of all modern Landscape Architecture.
Landscape Architect was not to be used as a position title until 1863 by one Frederick Law Olmstead, one of two American men who contest the title of ‘The Father of Landscape Architecture.’ The second of these two men is Andrew Downing, a landscape designer who practiced landscaping in New York. There is little disagreement that Andrew Downing influenced the works of Frederick Olmstead. Unfortunately Andrew Downing’s brilliance was untimely ended with his early demise at 37 years of age, with his wife in a steamboat accident incinerating both them and at least 47 other passengers.
Frederick Olmstead sought to commemorate the contribution that Andrew Downing had made to the blossoming science of Landscape Architecture with a bust in Central Park, a project that Downing had pioneered with William Bryant the editor at the time of the Evening Post, now known as the New York Post. They publicly campaigned for a space all New Yorkers could freely enjoy, unfortunately Downing did not live to see his dream made real.
Olmstead undertook the project with Englishman Calvert Vaux; a draftsman, a painter and Andrew Downing’s partner in landscape architecture. The bust was never placed in Central Park, but a memorial still stands at the Smithsonian, one of Downing’s largest projects.
Frederick Olmstead went on to a long and illustrious career, supported at times by partner Calvert Vaux. Calvert Vaux was ‘discovered’ at an exhibition of his landscape paintings by Andrew Downing, who enticed Calvert to emigrate to America and went on to create a successful, although short lived partnership. It was Calvert Vaux who asked Frederick Olmstead to be his partner in the bid for the Central Park design competition with the Greensward Plan – the name given to their winning entry. Vaux approached Olmstead not for his design or architectural ability, but for his political clout and his views on ethical and moral land use. They designed Central Park to be accessible by all people, to be a truly public place, a notion we take for granted in the modern era, but was not common practice at the time. Parks were most often designed and paid for by the wealthy, for the wealthy and parks such as the one at Versailles were only made public due to the threat of them being destroyed in the French revolution.
These three men, Andrew Downing, Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux could all justifiably claim to be the founders of modern Landscape Architecture. Fittingly enough the inauguration of the American Institute of Landscape Architects was by their sons Downing Vaux and Frederick Olmstead Jr. in 1899.
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