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Brainiac

Olmsted, the Boston years

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

Johns Hopkins University Press

In the late 1870s, New York’s loss was Boston’s gain: Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned for designing Central Park but then booted from the Big Apple, landed in Brookline. Over the next decade he’d lay plans for the Emerald Necklace and transform the young field of landscape architecture.

A new book details those momentous years. “The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Early Boston Years, 1882-1890,” is the eighth of nine planned volumes of Olmsted’s papers edited by Charles Beveridge and published by Johns Hopkins University Press. In 1878, political infighting led to the elimination of Olmsted’s job as New York City’s resident landscape architect. At the same time, officials in Boston were struggling to find a suitable proposal for restoring the Back Bay Fens (a project biographer Justin Martin wrote about for Ideas in 2011). Olmsted swooped in and during the 1880s designed the Back Bay Fens, Franklin Park, and the Muddy River Improvement.

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There’s no clean way to separate ideas from events, and Olmsted’s Boston years show how the two feed each other. Olmsted could have gone anywhere when he left New York, and he chose Boston not only because the city had a project available, but because it also offered the best opportunity for intellectual collaboration. Olmsted was close friends with Charles Eliot, son of Harvard University president Charles William Eliot, and in 1900 Harvard opened the country’s first landscape architecture program. Out of his home in Brookline—known as Fairsted—Olmsted and his stepson, John Charles Olmsted, developed the first modern landscape architecture firm.

The letters, photographs, and drawings in the book are of historical interest, of course. They document how Olmsted turned his radical vision of different kinds of parks connected by pedestrian-friendly links into a cornerstone of Boston’s urban plan. But they’re also still useful today: They’re being used to guide restoration projects in the Emerald Necklace, including a major restoration of the Muddy River Improvement currently being carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Not exactly cottony soft

Art is often beautiful, but within that beauty can lurk something uncomfortable. Sculptor Mandy Smith of England places this tension at the center of her work. She crafts
perfect-looking objects that, on closer inspection, are surfaced in brightly painted sandpaper. Smith has a good eye for the kinds of things that lend themselves to such rough (yet delicate) treatment: a roll of toilet paper, a bikini, a playground slide. Working with photographer Bruno Drummond, she creates bold, technicolor images that make her sculptures look as enticing as candy. Beyond the visual pun, they embody a dynamic of allure and risk: Watch yourself, they seem to be saying. There’s danger in every desire.

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Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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