Saturday, June 7, 2008

Designing the Parks Conference--John Dixon Hunt

I attended the Designing the Parks Conference in Charlottesville Virginia, May 2008. I wanted to expand my understanding of the park system and found myself immersed in the Centennial Challenge of 2016. It will be a hundred years for the National Park Service (NPS). This conference was a look at the history of the parks and to the past, and conference II will be in December in San Francisco to look to the future. I intend on attending that conference as well.

My grad project includes an old park designed by George Kessler, Rotary Park in Oklahoma City. Although Rotary Park is nowhere in scale to Yosemite or importance as the First Federal Park, I am reflecting on my grad project and my interest in the unique “Place” of Oklahoma.

I took notes of the conference, and I'm going to truncate them into incoherent little pieces of thought in an effort to stimulate thought and exploration.

My notes from John Dixon Hunt's presentation: "Translation of Landscape Attitudes

John Dixon Hunt-Professor of History and Theory of Landscape, University of Pennsylvania

John Dixon Hunt was the most fascinating of speakers. Being naturally drawn to such theory based lectures; I was a little bit star struck by his discussion and prose of the picturesque. I have learned in numerous classes, even back to architecture, about the picturesque. The Oxford Architectural Dictionary defines the picturesque “It was a standard of taste, largely concerned with landscape, and with emotional responses to associations evocative of passions or events…Picturesque scenes were full of variety, interesting detail, and elements drawn from any sources, so were neither serene(like the Beautiful) nor awe-inspiring (like the Sublime).

Early American parks were set up perfectly for the picturesque and somewhat unrefined (un-Beautiful) characteristics. I wonder if part of this is because they were so different that they immediately became associated with America. When I see a pastoral field, an ancient oak and a row of field stone I think of an English farm. When I see a Giant Sequoia, Old Faithful or the famous Yosemite park I think of the U.S. It would be hard to associate these images with Brittan. But I can see numerous replicas of the pastoral field and stone wall and immediately associate it with England and her people and what she represents.

I think the picturesque, the sublime, and the Beautiful ideas may be part of the reason Oklahoma has an identity crisis. ( and I do feel that Oklahoma, especially the Oklahoma City Metro, has an identity crisis associated with lack of "place". ) How do you classify the the Oklahoma landscape? It can be sublime in a strange way with its endless horizon and dramatic sky’s that can bring as much terror as any sea storm. However, I would argue, it is not the sublime or picturesque of Yosemite or Grand Canyon. Pictures of the late 1800s show a much more severe and un-English like landscape. The Oklahoma landscape could also be transformed into a pastoral scene within a few seasons of farming. My ancestor’s farm in Lexington has a gentle rolling topography. It was prairie that no doubt was tilled and transformed as required to obtain the deed from the land run. In rapid succession the pre-landrun prairie was turned into agriculture. My ancestor's farm is now as pastoral as any scene of ‘Capability’ Brown. In true romantic notions it was named Willow View, probably after the willows that colonize the meandering stream.

Oklahoma was not a southwestern landscape with stone and desert plants. It does have unique red sandstone stone, which could be associated with the southwest or mud. The stone is soft and loses its crispness quickly as if melted by the never ending wind that blasts upon it. It looks aged and weathered, but never in a wise or sophisticated way.

I would not have noticed, until going to Virginia, how unique the native Oklahoman oaks are. They are rugged and sturdy. Their branches are stout from battling the wind and anticipating the ice. Their stature is slight in comparison of the mighty oaks of the east. The Post Oak and Blackjack hunker down to the ground in large thickets and brambles. The eastern oak is tall and majestic, stretching its refined branches out to soak up the soft gentle falling rain. The Burr oak of Oklahoma is anything but refined. Its arms flexed; its bark rugged; its stature eminent in preparation for the pounding rain and related weather it will endure.

I jump to Rotary Park with many thoughts. George Kessler would have been well aware of the picturesque and beautiful ideals A.J. Downing described in “Landscape Gardening and Rural Architecture” 1841. The World’s Fair had been designed in elms and natives and picturesque textures. George Kessler was familiar with the Oklahoma landscape, the landscape of Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas. The prairie aesthetics were his specialty. Rotary Park was designed with some of these picturesque principles, even though a more active play park was becoming the next movement. It still would have been seen as a park for improving health and maintaining good morality, embracing many of the Olmsted principals of park design. At this point I haven't had the opportunity to dig through the actual design of Rotary Park. It is shelved until I finish a little more preparatory reading.

A little post conference research:

Kessler, George Edward (1862-1923)

“Pioneers of American Landscape Design”

· Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. recommended Kessler to the Kansas City, Fort Scott, & Gulf Railroad to take charge of the firm’s pleasure park in Merriam, Kansas.

· Designed Kansas City’s first park and boulevard plan for the city—Considered one of his finest works—A vision of the City Beautiful and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago

· Fairlawn Cemetery, OKC 1892

· Riverside and Overton Park and park system plan for Memphis, TN 1900

· Louisiana Purchase Expo in 1904

· Boulevard plan for Indianapolis 1905

· Park System for Syracuse, NY 1906

· Cincinnati park system 1906

· Fort Worth park and boulevard system 1907

· Denver Parks 1907

· 1910 starts work for Dallas

· 1911 publishes his proposal, which is showing signs of the “City Practical” movement as well as the City Beautiful