What are some points that should be included in a summary of Elegance and Grass Roots: The Neglected Philosophy of Frederick Law Olmsted by Carol J. Nicholson?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Nicholson argues that Olmstead's political philosophy animated his contribution to architecture.  The points that might want to be made in a summary of her article explore this dynamic, one where political philosophy manifests itself in architectural need and aesthetic.  Within the article, the following ideas help to support this thesis:

1)  The idea of democratic horizons or vistas in the urban setting was embedded in Olmstead from an early age- Nicholson argues that the Jeffersonian idea of democracy as a rural concept was part of his upbringing, but one that Olmstead himself changed as he visited Europe and envisioned what urban democracy could be:

During this early period, Olmstead adopted the Jeffersonian view that the small independent farmer is the nucleus of democracy, but his views changed dramatically after a tour of England and Europe in 1850 opened his eyes to the rapid growth of cities and their large urban parks, and he began to change his focus from farming to urban reform.

Seeing how the urban setting could be a collective point for the democratic experience was transformative for Olmstead, and Nicholson suggests that seeing the European approach to this was critical in Olmstead’s philosophy in his architecture.

2) Olmstead’s commitment democracy was enhanced with his view of the South- After touring the South, Olmstead saw slavery as a dehumanizing institution to both Whites and African- Americans. This helped transform him into rejecting the idea of external controls in favor of a democratic ideal in the public setting.  His construction of Central Park was deliberately undertaken with this in mind, as it was a reflection of  “a democratic development of the highest significance and on the success of which much of the progress of art and esthetic culture in this country is dependent.”  For Olmstead, his commitment to the democratic experiment was due in large part to how it was absent in some parts of the nation.  The park was seen as a focal point for the “communitiveness” or “a feeling of concern for one’s neighbors” and the common good, that drove and animated democracy.  It is in this regard where Olmstead was deliberate in his fusion of architecture and political theory.

3) Olmstead was  a firm believer that democratic experiences and natural conditions converge within the individual- Nicholson asserts that Olmstead believed that “nature affects the emotions both psychologically and socially.  Fresh air, sunlight, and abundant foliage improve physical and mental health through what he called the ‘unbending’ of faculties that are placed under tension by the pressures of urban life, producing a mental tranquility of intellectual vigor… and a healthy mind.”  Olmstead was Pragmatic in his architectural approach that would link both the human experience and the democratic experiment. He asserted that the cultivation of natural elements through architecture can enhance the individual’s participation in democracy, enabling greater promises and possibilities to emerge from it.

4) From these positions, Nicholson argues that “Olmstead’s most original contribution to philosophy is his idea that public parks essential to the ideal of democracy.”  In her mind, this is what moves him into a modern frame of philosophy, embodying tenets of Transcendentalism, Utilitarianism, and Pragmatism. Within this combination, Nicholson argues that Olmstead’s gift is an architectural art form that embodies “the old fashioned philosophy of making cities work by integrating natural beauty and providing the opportunity for all classes to mingle” and by emphasizing a larger vision of the “democratic setting”

5) Nicholson concludes that architecture like Olmstead’s is needed as an alternative to the “consumer society.” In contrast to a setting where “Wal- Marts and strip malls and cineplexes” dominate, Nicholson argues that the balance featured in Olmstead’s commitment to parks and “democratic vistas” is needed now more than ever.

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