Across the Open Field: Essays Drawn from English Landscapes

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"Twenty-eight years ago I went to England for a three-month visit and rest. What I found changed my life."

So begins this memoir by one of America's best-known landscape architects, Laurie Olin. Raised in a frontier town in Alaska, trained in Seattle and New York, Olin found himself dissatisfied with his job as an urban architect and accepted an invitation to England to take a respite from work. What he found, in abundance, was the serendipity of a human environment built over time to respond to the land's own character and to the people who lived and worked there. For Olin, the English countryside was a palimpsest of the most eloquent and moving sort, yet whose manifestation was of ordinary buildings meant to shelter their inhabitants and further their work.

With evocative language and exquisite line drawings, the author takes us back to his introduction to the scenes of English country towns, their ancient universities, meandering waterways, and dramatic cloudscapes racing in from the Atlantic. He limns the geologic histories found within the rock, the near-forgotten histories of place-names, and the recent histories of train lines and auto routes. Comparing the growth of building in the English countryside, Olin draws some sobering conclusions about our modern lifestyle and its increasing separation from the landscape.

As much a plea for saving the modern American landscape as it is a passionate exploration of what makes the English landscape so characteristically English, Across the Open Field is "an affectionate ramble through real places of lasting worth."

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Jenkyns
Beautifully written and illustrated with intelligent charm, Across the Open Field may well turn out to be a quiet classic, in the company of The Pattern of English Building, by Alec Clifton-Taylor, and The Making of the English Landscape, by W. G. Hoskins. But it will be a pity if it gets tucked away on the shelf labeled Anglophilia. Its studies of the particular have a universal significance: this is a book about man as an animal -- a part of the ecology -- and about man as an artist, a being with a compelling need to create beauty and order if he is to be happy.
The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher

"Beautifully written and illustrated with intelligent charm . . . a quiet classic."—New York Times

"Beautifully written and illustrated with intelligent charm, Across the Open Field may well turn out to be a quiet classic. . . . Its studies of the particular have a universal significance: this is a book about man as an animal—a part of the ecology—and about man as an artist, a being with a compelling need to create beauty and order."—Richard Jenkyns, New York Times

"These essays and the beautiful line drawings that illustrate this sumptuous work are a richly satisfying entity. . . . Across the open Field bids fair to become a classic."—Journal of the New England Garden History Society

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812235319
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Series: Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 8.36 (w) x 11.32 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurie Olin is Principal of Olin Partnership and Practice Professor of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to his extensive work on landscape projects, including Bryant Park in New York City and the Getty Center Gardens in Los Angeles, Olin has written frequently on the history and theory of landscape architecture for various professional journals, for which he won the Bradford Williams Medal in 1991. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is an Honorary Member of the American Institute of Architects. He is a coauthor of La Foce: A Garden and Landscape in Tuscany and Vizcaya: An American Villa and Its Makers, also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

ONE DAY NEAR THE END of my first summer in Britain, while visiting Magdalen College, Oxford, the cumulative experience of recent walks, sights, senses, and ideas, the layering of efforts and disciplines that have made the landscape of southern Britain, became overwhelming. Many thousands of people before me have passed through this college and its environs and have been moved by its tranquil cloister, commenting on the charm of the river and bridge, the shady waterside path known as Addison's walk, and the harmony between Sir Christopher Wren's classical building and the earlier Gothic arcades and tower. On this particular occasion I happened to find myself at a corner of its little park beside the Wren building. It was a beautiful warm afternoon, and a small herd of fallow deer was browsing near the railing, their mottled tawny backs moving in and out of shadows cast by centuries-old oaks. It was calm and quiet. Birds chattered and cooed somewhere above. A bell chimed the hour. I studied Wren's graceful facade, the tall window frames and buttery-gray stone of the wall, their cornices, the central arcade, and the vines growing upon it. I turned and found the massive hulk of an ancient tree. Beneath it was a plaque. The text explained that this plant had been one of the first London plane trees to be grown in the seventeenth century in the botanical garden across the road from the college. They had been started from cuttings brought from the very first such plant in London, where specimens of Oriental planes and American sycamores had accidentally (naturally?) cross-pollinated in the nursery of a leadinghorticulturist who had been actively importing plants from around the world.

    The tree and Wren's building were the same age. I thought about the effort and vision of the people who created this ensemble, the optimism and care with which they had attempted to combine the latest science of their day, in this case botany, and the exploration of distant continents with the accident that had produced this hybrid, which has been such a blessing for the great cities of the world ever since, and of architecture and planning — again in this case the use by Wren of the very latest and modern architectural style and technology to produce a bold and handsome building, one that holds its own with the equally strong (and contemporary in their own day) late Gothic buildings it faces, forming a court without rejecting them — and of the deer, themselves a remnant of medieval landholdings and hunting privileges, not to say culinary habits. The trees, the animals, the buildings, the steady and serious scholarship taking place inside, the lighthearted recreation on the river outside, together presented a clear attempt by the men of the seventeenth century who created this ensemble to produce a harmonious world through the combination of art and science, nature and culture. It isn't Utopia, but it is humane in the deepest sense of the word. Also it is beautiful. As I finished reading the plaque the intelligence and combined efforts that produced this ensemble struck me, and I burst into tears.

    Not many other physical environments have had such an effect on me. On another occasion several years later, however, I had a similar reaction late in the afternoon at the Villa Lante. I was sitting alone on the edge of the basin of its water parterre, looking at one of the little stone dwarfs with his flower-shaped blunderbuss standing in one of the stone boats that appear to float on the water and are derived from an ancient Roman votive navicella recently discovered at the time of the garden's creation, with Cardinal Gambara's delicate pavilions and unsurpassed series of fountains and terraces hanging above in the golden light. I have thought about my reaction to these particular environments and such moments on more than one occasion since. The source of my reaction and the strength of my emotion probably lay in recognition that certain values and aspirations I hold dear were given particularly clear and potent physical form in these cumulative environments. Additionally, aside from their physical endurance (no small feat for a landscape), and therefore the craft and materials employed, there was also an overarching grace and calm present in them that I suppose I have sought to invest subsequently into work of my own.

    I was in a particularly receptive frame of mind that summer in England. While I didn't know it at the time, I was entering an intense phase in my education to become a landscape architect. In retrospect it is obvious that I had been headed that way for a long time, but like many people I didn't aspire to the field earlier because I didn't know it existed, and like others, even after I learned of it, I had little idea of its legacy, complexity, and potential. Since then I have learned that a large proportion of students entering landscape architecture programs at America's great universities are changing careers, have come from some other field, have been out of college working for a few years, and as often as not have been drawn to urban centers from small towns or rural environments. Most place a high value upon the natural environment and have a creative, even artistic, urge, often coupled with a sense of social and moral purpose. In several ways I was somewhat of an extreme case. The impact that England, in particular its rural landscape and gardens, had upon me and the sort of landscape architect I was to become are related to the intrinsic properties of these landscapes and gardens, my own personal background, and the timing of the encounter within the trajectory of my life. A brief sketch of that background might help to understand my frame of mind at the time.

* * *

    I was born in a small town in the middle of Wisconsin during the Depression. My father tried various jobs at an ice cream plant, a plywood plant, an egg ranch with a friend, and tending bar at a roadhouse on the Rock River — none of which lasted long. We moved west soon after the outbreak of World War II and came to live in a small town near where the Snake and Columbia rivers meet in what was then a beautiful valley between the Rattlesnake and Horse Heaven Hills of eastern Washington state. While my father began working for the Defense Department (this was a spot where supplies were sorted out for shipping to the troops in the Pacific and the top-secret Hanford atomic works was under construction), I began kindergarten in a chaotic one-room school with an outhouse in the middle of an asparagus field. My parents had a large "victory" garden where they raised beans, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, and other common produce, all of which seemed interesting if not tasty to me. Some, like the peas and other vines on their strings and frames, I recall towering overhead in great green walls. There was a lovely small river below our house lined with tall cottonwoods. All around lay desert, where we would drive on the weekends, with sagebrush and jackrabbits. Not far away were the extensive orchards of Wenatchee and Yakima. The two biggest events I remember were a spectacular train wreck and the communal harvesting and dismemberment of an ancient and giant Bing cherry tree that had come down in a windstorm. Surprisingly my father was abruptly drafted into the army — the war effort was quite desperate by 1943 and even thirty-five-year-old men with children were plucked out of defense jobs. My mother (whose father was from Nova Scotia) and I moved to Vancouver, Canada (where she'd been born), to live near her aunt and uncle.

    There, while learning to sing "God Save the King" in assembly along with a sketchy history of the Hudson's Bay Company, England, and Canada, while attending all of first and part of second grades at Prince of Wales School, I had my first glimpse of the English landscape. This was in the form of pen-and-ink drawings by E. H. Shepard in a copy of Winnie-the-Pooh a young girl had brought from London, where she and her mother had been bombed out in the Blitz. Bundled together with refugees from the Japanese occupation of Asia, we lived in a huge Victorian pile that had become a boarding house to support a woman who had two sons in the Seaforth Highlanders, who at the time were struggling northward against the retreating German army in Italy. Subliminally, I suppose, I must have absorbed a significant amount about England and the British Isles during those years. Certainly I can close my eyes and see E. H. Shepard's drawings for Pooh: the old beech trees that housed Piglet and Christopher Robin, the tall scruffy Scots pines, the drowsy midsummer meadows and stream banks. They were superb distillations of particular ordinary aspects of the English countryside.

    When the war ended in the summer of 1945, we moved south to Seattle, where my father felt fortunate to obtain a job as a civilian with the Corps of Engineers. With so many men returning from the war, and the armament industry closing down, there was massive unemployment and labor strife across the country. Even so, Vancouver and Seattle were energetic, bustling, and physically attractive to me with their parks and beaches, shops and trolleys, boats and airplanes, bridges and hills. I was dropped into a new school and the stimulation of a racially mixed community of postwar temporary housing. Then in June 1946 my father joined a small group of men who boarded a ship for Alaska to establish a new District for the Corps of Engineers in preparation for the immense construction effort that was about to commence. World War II was hardly over, but the U.S. government believed it was soon going to be drawn into another war, this time with Russia. Fairbanks was a boomtown, awakened from the drowse it had fallen into after the hectic days of the gold rush before World War I. The defense construction was challenging in its scope and central to the intellectual and economic life of the region of Alaska known as the Interior to which we had moved.

    I was eight years old at the time, and nothing could have pleased me more. There, in one of the most beautiful and astonishing natural landscapes, I had the privilege to grow up. There I began to draw and paint. There for several years we lived twenty-six miles from town, and I attended two-room schools. My playgrounds were the woods, streams, and hills of the Tanana valley and the large-scale construction projects administered by my father and his colleagues in the Corps of Engineers. Eventually we moved back to civilization, and I had the additional pleasure and curiosity of getting to know the town of Fairbanks and many of its most interesting and eccentric inhabitants, which numbered only about fifteen thousand at the time.

    I was a small child when I arrived and twenty-one when I left, having finished university. It was a marvelous place to be a child, to explore, and to witness nature at work over an extended period of time — a privilege few people in the industrialized world today ever have. For a small frontier town, it was an intensely social scene, isolated in some ways physically, yet connected to contemporary life in the United States through radio and magazines, catalogues, books, records, air travel, and the constant influx of workers and military personnel, not to mention fur trappers, Eskimos, Indians, and bush pilots, as well as the usual shopkeepers, priests, doctors, engineers, bankers, housewives, and children. Although Alaska was a territory and not a state (thus we had U.S. marshals for law enforcement, as on the earlier western frontier), Congress had seen fit to provide a land grant college, which by 1946 had turned into the University of Alaska, located a few miles outside town. If you add the moose and bears, the extraordinarily long hours of sun, heat, dust, and mosquitoes in the summers and the darkness, cold, and ice fog in the winters, floods, volcanoes, and earthquakes, it was an unusually stimulating and at times surreal place in which to grow up.

    Although I had been happy drawing and building things like most children prior to our move to Alaska, by the time we moved to a construction site twenty-six miles from town where there were only three other children, I was doing so constantly. In fact, from the year when I turned eight onward I began to explore the world about me, walking all around, looking, poking, talking to the people I encountered, and drawing. With the exception of an odd and limited natural history museum at the university and occasional exhibitions of native artifacts, my only encounter with the world of art came through books, reproductions, and articles in magazines such as Life, Time, National Geographic, Colliers, and the Saturday Evening Post. Books, therefore, became more than a window to other things, but a whole other world in addition to that which I already possessed, and at times a refuge. Part of my good fortune was that my parents liked to read — the only job my mother ever had was that of a librarian — and our various small and inelegant houses were stuffed with books on many subjects. When I was ten we moved back to the outskirts of town, and in my exploration of it, I discovered David Adler's bookstore. Here I found books on watercolor and drawing techniques as well as art and history. My parents found poetry, biographies, and fiction. In the world before television, shops such as his provided basic knowledge, entertainment, and communion with one's heritage and culture.

    Nevertheless, the intellectual leaders of a frontier society whose economy is based on mineral extraction and military construction and support services, especially those of transportation and communication, tend to be technocrats, primarily engineers. Despite the few priests, doctors, and schoolteachers, most of the people with a college education were engineers. Even the army officers were engineers. A life in the arts was neither expected nor considered. Already as a child, increasingly as a teenager, and even later as an architect, I was not particularly in step with the attitudes and expectations around me. My educational trajectory took me from study in two-room schools to a small public high school and summer employment first collecting fossils with a world-famous German paleontologist in the gold fields and wandering about isolated villages sketching, next to civil engineering on entering college at Fairbanks and summer employment with the Alaska Road Commission as a surveyor and engineer on the construction of roads and bridges in the Chugach and Alaska ranges and on the Bering Sea, and then south to the United States and Seattle where I graduated with a degree in architecture.

    Coincidentally at this moment and as a result of confrontations between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Cuba and Berlin, my local draft board in Anchorage let me know that I was to enter the army one way or another. Upon graduation from college, therefore, I journeyed to Fort Ord, California, on Monterey Bay, where my father had been stationed twenty years before. This brought exposure to yet another powerful landscape, a couple of interesting towns, and an important city, San Francisco. The coast from San Francisco south through Monterey Bay and Peninsula, to Point Lobos and the Big Sur is one with a particularly strong and unique ecology and physiographic character as well as a long and elaborate settlement history and a literature that extends from Philip II of Spain and the Law of the Indies to John Steinbeck, migrant workers and labor movements, Beat poets, psychedelic rock, gay liberation, and a revitalization of American cuisine. San Francisco, one of the most vibrant cities in the United States, is where I learned to play boccie, eat abalone, and listen to some of the best jazz in the world at the time while on weekend passes from military duty. So too I was exploring the back alleys, cemeteries, and vernacular buildings of Monterey and Carmel, sketching at the old mission and remnant ranches, reading under the eucalyptus, pines, and cypresses. I was learning an enormous amount about the environment and design, about landscape and communities, but very little seemed connected to the substance of my college training and supposed future occupation.

    Leaving the army, I began to work as an apprentice in the offices of gifted designers in Seattle, subsequently moving to New York and exposure to more of what America had to offer in the arts and architecture at the time. In 1967 after three years in Manhattan, culminating in the inclusion of some of my drawings in an exhibition entitled the "New City" at the Museum of Modern Art, I withdrew from the scene and moved to a cabin in Amagansett at the end of Long Island, again to explore, to draw, to examine a particular place, and to try to understand more about the relationships between people, the things they make and do, their setting, and the world of nature and natural process. I took a brief but indelible visit to Paris and Provence. It confirmed things I'd suspected for years — not just that France would have good food and art (which of course it did), but that there was something important about dwelling in a place and developing layers, that cities really were like landscapes and vice versa in terms of their complexity, evolution, and composite systems. They were different, very different, but there were powerful analogies and congruities. I was interested in memory and its use in art in general; years later I would see how that might also apply to landscapes. Then came 1968, and the entire world seemed to come apart at the seams: there was war in the Middle East; America erupted in massive rock concerts and political confrontations. Journeying to Washington with friends, I was equally taken aback by the widespread presence and use of drugs as I was horrified by the tear gas that confronted us at the Pentagon and our disorderly retreat across Memorial Bridge and past the Lincoln Memorial. Traveling through Chicago that summer on the way to a family reunion in Wisconsin — by coincidence at the very moment of the horrific Democratic convention — I was afraid to leave the bus station as I saw jeeps full of armed soldiers rushing to and fro. In one city after another, students and minorities were rioting. Russia rolled tanks into Czechoslovakia to stop the liberalization and progression toward an open, capitalist society. On television one could see Parisian students hurling paving stones at squadrons of riot police followed by the latest bad news from Vietnam. The world seemed to be flying apart.

    Leaving New York, I embarked upon a trip across the country that eventually took me partway down the Pacific coast and into the interior of Mexico before ending up back in the Pacific Northwest. Again, I was just looking at and recording what was there: the landscape, the towns, the buildings, and the people. And I drew it a bit more, and a bit more carefully. Returning to Seattle, I also returned to work as an architect, but not as the same one who had left four years before. I moved to Agate Point on Bainbridge Island and rented a small studio in the Skid Road neighborhood, only to become embroiled in the civic politics of preservation, planning, design, and urban renewal. Alternating drawings and paintings of the rocks, plants, stumps, and objects I found about me in the woods and beaches of the island and the denizens of the flophouses, streets, and historic district near the waterfront of Seattle across the sound, I initiated and published an antiplanning tract about the Skid Road community. I advocated a new series of urban parks and worked with others toward their realization. I became vice president of an organization calling itself Friends of the Market, participating in hearings, demonstrations, and a ballot initiative, this last — literally a citizens' revolt — entailed doing the fieldwork over a weekend with one of my teachers to place the Pike Place Market on the National Register of Historic Places, part of our fight and lawsuits against the business community and city government that wished to raze this market and section of the city. It would be a few more years before I came across Francis Bacon's remark from his Essays of 1598, which to some may seem a cliché today, having been invoked so often in the landscape press in recent years: "God Almighty planted the first garden. Indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks; and a man shall ever see that when ages grow to civility and elegancy men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection."

    Whether this is generally true or not, it seems that for some people, especially for some designers, it is as true today as when he wrote it more than three hundred years ago. In my case an intense conscious interest in landscape design began in my early thirties. Despite having worked in remarkable offices for distinguished architects on both coasts, despite having designed and built handsome, thoughtful buildings and having drawings and paintings in museums and collections before I was thirty, I had already left the field of architecture twice for extended periods to paint, write, and sort myself out. It was not enough, or at least not for me at that moment. When I returned to the field, largely for an income, I gravitated toward things that seemed more interesting than mere buildings. These included: a series of campus plans; helping a local society of architects propose and explain a series of urban design proposals largely concerned with parks and open space; a master plan for a zoological garden; the conversion of an abandoned courthouse into a county museum of art and history (while figuring out how to recreate a missing Victorian tower that had burned in a fire and for which no drawings existed); dreaming and scheming with a former teacher, the landscape architect Richard Haag, how to save a gasworks and convert it into a park; consultation with a wealthy neighbor on an island in Puget Sound about an unfinished garden and pond in his woods; and a series of skirmishes with the Seattle City Council and its planning department who were hell-bent on wrecking the city they were meant to be leading and assisting.

    In a situation of exhaustion, of dissatisfaction, and of searching for alternative models for design and an occupation that suited me, I accepted the offer to come to England and spend time with friends near Oxford. Thus my flight to Buckland and immersion in the countryside, my discovery of the landscape garden and its history, which I fairly quickly realized was not adequately or honestly portrayed in the standard texts of the day, and my subsequent years of study there and in Italy.


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Table of Contents

1 As the Twig Is Bent 1
2 On Buckland and Drawing: First Impressions and Later Observations 25
3 Village and Farm: Longbridge Deverill, Wiltshire 71
An Agricultural Lindscape 73
Bronze and Iron Age Developments 81
Medieval Longbridge and the Emergence of Wessex 92
Norman Prosperity 97
Architecture in the Landscape: The Great Rebuilding 101
Climate, Ecology. and the Landscape 127
Longbridge at the Crossroads 187
4 Et in Arcadia Ego: Landscape Gardens and Parks 207
Love at First Sight 209
Habits of Mind 214
Longleat 222
Italian Moods, Palladians, and the Landscape 233
Stourhead 257
Lancelot "Capability" Brown 276
The Landscape Movement Spreads 286
Pusey House 292
Buscot House 298
Wardour Castle, Buckland House, and Richard Woods 308
In Conclusion: Beauty Past Change 325
Suggestions for Further Reading 331
Acknowledgments 343
Index 345
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