This week we’ll be making a trip to the Carmichael Library to investigate the documents and ideas behind the design of the current University of Montevallo campus. As we’ve said before in class, Montevallo’s campus was one of many across the country to be designed by the Olmsted’s landscape architecture firm, which was established after the death of Frederick Law Olmsted and led by his two sons. The construction of our campus places us in the company with some elite colleges and universities across the nation, including Bryn Mawr College, the University of Notre Dame, and Johns Hopkins University. Yet each of these colleges could be said to have participated in a process of brand consumption. They each replicate a vision of nature that began with the ideas of Frederick Law Olmsted.
It’s interesting to take a look at landscape plans like this and juxtapose them with what we actually see and experience every day when we walk across Montevallo’s campus. I think at times we forget how much of a deliberate, ongoing effort is made to maintain the aesthetic of a natural, yet controlled world that we take for granted.
Some of these elements are basic. Think about the way that the pathways are constructed across the main quad area of campus. Each brick pathway leads you through a circuitous route to a central location that is often “out of the way” from places you need to get to. This design is intentional and is a direct extension of Olmsted’s ideas about the restorative qualities of physically being in the “natural” world. He writes in his “Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report” (1865) that being in nature has a healing quality:
It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of mean and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them
What better place to engage in this healing, contemplative connection with nature than on a college campus? Olmsted wants us to slow down, observe, and appreciate the chance to be outside and in contact with the world around us. This seemed to be a core belief of Frederick Law Olmsted, but as his sons expanded their services to contract with college campuses all across the country, they weighed their father’s vision against the practical realities of how people tend to operate while in college. That is, they realized that people in college are often in a hurry and just want to get to where they are going.
In 1906, the Olmsted Brothers firm was contracted by Iowa State College to investigate the possibility of a campus redesign. Although Iowa State’s Board of Trustees elected not to retain the services of the Olmsteds, they did take some of the advice from their preliminary report to heart as they moved forward.
I return to the issue of circuitous pathways, which appear to be so closely wedded to the elder Olmsted’s vision of human interactions with nature. The Olmsted Brothers write in their report to Iowa State that the college should preserve a “large area remaining free of important working buildings” because it is “well furnished with the trees originally planted,” making it “extremely desirable to reserve it mainly for landscape effect.” Putting buildings in this area, they warn, will ruin the beauty of the landscape:
This is that if there are buildings there it will inevitably follow in time that the great natural lawn will become traversed in many directions by short cut paths and these would for the most part have to be improved as a matter of comfort and convenience into regular walks with hard, smooth pavement.
After designing dozens of campuses, it appears that the Olmsteds know how college students (and faculty) operate. They take short cuts and walk across grass in efforts to get where they are going as quickly as possible. Thus, their campus design principles weigh competing attitudes toward nature, and they balance the classic contest between form and function that we see in almost all architectural design.
This is just one example of the contest between nature and culture that we see not only in college campuses but in all public spaces. It’s remarkable that so many college campuses across the country directly or indirectly bear the influence of Olmsted’s landscape vision. His aesthetic features are almost ubiquitous. The other day I was talking with a friend and she told me that Ashland Park, which is a place I always went to when I lived in Lexington, KY, was designed by the Olmsted Brothers’ landscape firm.
I have to admit that I didn’t realize the Henry Clay Estate, which is located in Ashland Park, was an Olmsted design, but I was not surprised. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Olmsted’s vision has invariably influenced people’s attitudes toward what “nature” is supposed to look like, especially in urban settings.
So what do we have at Montevallo? Is this a kind of early version of a “McCampus?” A franchise brand of nature that gets reproduced all over the nation to connote certain ideas about learning and contemplation? And why do we respond so predictably to the design of college campuses that follow in the vein of the Olmsteds?