Layers of Artifice

"On a bare, unsightly and disgusting spot, they have created an area of beauty."

Nineteenth century New York City was home to both the wealthiest and the poorest American citizens. As the city grew, wealthy and poor neighborhoods collided causing an uptown migration for elite society. These elites desired the society of city life, but not the drudgery, crowds, dirt, and traffic that was increasingly dominanting on the industrialized landscape of downtown Manhattan.

Promenades were built either near elite homes or with the plan to sell surrounding land to elites. These promenades were the first semblance of urban parks and provided a public meeting place. These proto-parks, however, did not provide escape from the architecture and materialism of the city. They may have helped foster community, but they did nothing to inspire the whole person.

When Frederick Law Olmsted was appointed superintendent of Central Park in 1850, there was not yet a design for the park. He was a man of letters and ideas, but had never attempted to put those ideas into practical plans but his association with the park led him to enter the design contest despite his lack of experience. He wanted to give New York City a park that would refresh and renew the whole person: mind, body, and soul. With his partner, Calvert Vaux, an experienced landscape designer, he was able to put his ideas into a practical plan for a new kind of park that would provide New Yorkers, the wealthy and the poor, with both a sense of community and an arena in which to appreciate and heal from the evils of the city through nature.

While ideas of reform and relief through nature are a passive form of recreation, the creation of a landscape in which to do this, is an active form of destruction and manipulative re-creation. It took seventeen years to complete Central Park and in those seventeen years the natural landscape was destroyed, underground structures were layed down, and the surface was layed on top of those in a culturally rendered and aesthetically pleasing landscape that contained both natural and cultural structures. By the time Central Park was completed, it was a multilayered landscape of surface and underground objects of nature and culture appearing in a seemingly effortless landscape of artifice that hid the means of production and the work of maintaining this artifice.