Central Park and "The Gates."

What we build.
Feb. 14 2005 7:11 PM

Olmsted vs. Christo

Why the architects of Central Park would have vetoed "The Gates."

Olmsted and Vaux
Olmsted and Vaux 

I'll leave judgment of the aesthetic merits of art installation in Central Park to the art critics, but a comment by Christo and Jeanne-Claude caught my attention. They have written that the name of their project comes from Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who called the various entrances to the park "gates." In fact, the idea of naming the 20 pedestrian entrances to the park after popular professions, such as The Farmer, The Engineer, and The Miner, came from a committee that included neither Olmsted nor Vaux. What struck me was not the factual error, however, but the attempt to enlist the 19th-century makers of Central Park in this modern project.

From the beginning, Olmsted and Vaux strenuously opposed all attempts to introduce art into the park. In their Greensward Plan of 1858—the competition entry that won them the commission—they wrote that while it would be possible to build elegant buildings in the park, "we conceive that all such architectural structures should be confessedly subservient to the main idea, and that nothing artificial should be obtruded on the view." They considered art a similar distraction from the restorative purpose of the landscape and kept statues out of the park. The sole exceptions were Emma Stebbins's Angel of the Waters, atop the Bethesda Fountain, and a series of figures representing prominent Americans that were to adorn the Terrace, but were never erected due to a shortage of funds.

Aerial view of Central Park
Aerial view of the park
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However, then as now, the urge to decorate the park with commemorative artifacts was irresistible. Already by 1873 a monument to Shakespeare had appeared, and no fewer than 20 other works of sculpture had been offered to the city. The memorials were gifts from public associations and wealthy individuals, and the pressure to allow statuary in the park grew simply too great to resist. A committee that included Vaux, as well as the painter Frederick E. Church, drew up a list of rules. Statues would be permitted only along the Mall, and they could not be too large. The aim was to limit the visual impact of the artworks on their natural surroundings. A year later, there was a proposal to build a colossal statue at the south end of the Mall. Olmsted and Vaux vetoed the idea. "The idea of the park itself should always be uppermost in the mind of the beholder," they reminded the park board.

It was not that Olmsted was a purist. He considered skating and boating integral parts of the park experience, and as Central Park grew in popularity he accommodated cricket and baseball. Against the objections of the park commission, he organized public concerts, and he opposed—not always successfully—the Sabbatarians who wanted to restrict such activities on Sundays. He described the intended parade ground as a "country green" (today, the Sheep Meadow) and generally discouraged military drills. The park was not to be a place for ostentation or display.

There are now more than 50 fountains, memorials, and sculptures, though there is no monument to Olmsted and Vaux, who deserve one. There are monuments of famous and forgotten figures, artists, politicians, entertainers, fairytale characters, and even a heroic dog. And now, for a short time, 7,500 orange vinyl gates. Jeanne-Claude has been quoted as saying that she thinks that Olmsted would be "very happy" with the installation. I doubt it.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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