Olmstead… and the Seven S’s

May 19, 2011

Beginning in 1857 with the design for Central Park in New York City, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), his sons and successor firm created designs for more than 6,000 landscapes across North America, including many of the world’s most important parks.  Olmsted’s remarkable design legacy includes Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, Mount Royal in Montreal, the grounds of the United States Capitol and the White House, and Washington Park, Jackson Park and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.  Olmsted’s sons were founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and played an influential role in the creation of the National Park Service.

From Buffalo to Louisville, Atlanta to Seattle, Baltimore to Los Angeles, the work of Olmsteds ( father and sons) work reflects a vision of American communities and American society still relevant today—a commitment to visually compelling and accessible green space that restores and nurtures the body and spirit of all people, regardless of their economic circumstances.  The Olmsteds believed in the restorative value of landscape and that parks can bring social improvement by promoting a greater sense of community and providing recreational opportunities, especially in urban environments.

On a slightly more personal note, Olmstead is also credited for the design of Buttonwood park, a treasure in New Bedford MA, the place I call home.  Under pressure from groups supporting the expansion of the Zoo at Buttonwood, the Park is/was listed as one the 10 most endangered historic sites in Massachusetts.  Sadly, some people still think zoos are a good idea, I personally don’t get it… in this day and age where the internet can bring you closer to any wild animal imaginable, why do we feel the need to cage beautiful animals that should be living in their own natural habitat?  …but I digress.

Here are the seven S’s, attributed to Olmstead and his design principles…

Scenery  Design of “passages of scenery” even in the small spaces and in areas intended for active use. Creation of designs that give an enhanced sense of space: indefinite boundaries, constant opening up of new views. Avoidance of hard-edge or specimen planting, creating instead designs that have either “considerable complexity of light and shadow near the eye” or “obscurity of detail further away.”

Suitability  Creation of designs that are in keeping with the natural scenery and topography of the site: respect for, and full utilization of, the “genius of the place.”

Style  Designing in specific styles, each for a particular effect. Primarily in the “Pastoral” style (open greensward with small bodies of water and scattered trees and groves) for a soothing, restorative atmosphere, or in the “Picturesque” style (profuse planting, especially with shrubs, creepers and ground cover, on steep and broken terrain), for a sense of the richness and bounteousness of nature, with chiaroscuro effects of light and shade to produce a sense of mystery.

Subordination  Subordination of all elements, all features and objects, to the overall design and the effect it is intended to achieve. The “Art to conceal Art.”

Separation  Separation of areas designed in different styles, so that an “incongruous mixture of styles” will not dilute the intended effect of each: separation of ways, in order to insure safety of use and reduce distractions for those using the space; separation of conflicting or incompatible uses.

Sanitation  Provision for adequate drainage and other engineering considerations, not simply arranging of surface features. Planning or designs so that they promote both the physical and mental health of users.

Service  Planning of designs so that they will serve a “purpose of direct utility or service;” that is, will meet fundamental social and psychological needs: “So long as considerations of utility are neglected or overridden by considerations of ornament, there will be no true Art.”

(the seven S’s written by Charles E. Beveridge, January 1986)


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