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A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmstead and America in the Nineteenth Century

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmstead and America in the Nineteent
Witold Rybczynski
New York: Scribner
Publication Date: 

cloth, 480 p., $28.

This book is an incredibly detailed account about Frederick Law Olmstead. Mr. Rybczynski has clearly created the definitive biography of the man behind landscape architecture. It is written in an easy, personal style with anecdotes included from the author about his own experiences and interpretations. However, I found myself anxious for this book to tackle the business of landscape design. The details of Olmstead's early life, while to some degree relevant to the development of his vision, were overly tedious. Every name of every person Olmstead knew seems to be included. His work during the Civil War was unknown to me, despite having studied several of his more famous projects extensively. My flagging interest in the book returned as the author turned to the processes behind Olmstead's work during the late 1800s — Central Park, Riverside and the World Columbian Exposition. As I read about these efforts, I was impressed with Olmstead's vast influence over his projects. I was struck by several larger questions — where are the landscape architects in master planning processes today? Where is the sensitivity to open space and the experiential landscape in our contemporary urban planning? And where is the vision to plan for the long-term so that our children will benefit from our work rather than be left with the problems of our short-sightedness? If this is the message other readers are left with, then reading A Clearing in the Distance is surely worth wading through the details.

— Rory Klick