Surface Nature

While Central Park resembled actual nature, it was by no stretch of the imagination, the nature that orginally existed between Manhattan's 59th and 106th Streets. Olmsted and Vaux's design for the park required complete manipulation of the land to create a new, artificially rendered, landscape. It was the destruction of the natural to create the pastoral.

Before and after sketches of the Lake from Olmsted and Vaux's original plan, the Greensward Plan.

The pastoral, or picturesque, was the favorite artistic landscape of the day. It portrayed man and his works in harmony with nature. Writers such as Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant not only portrayed these landscapes in their writing, but were advocates for Central Park- Irving was on the New York City Park Board and Bryant wrote many editorials in support of city park in his NY Daily Post. They believed that such ideal landscapes would offer the urbanite relief from the evils of the city. Painters of the Hudson River School followed this sentiment. Thomas Cole was admired for his pastorals that not only portrayed this ideal landscape but through subtle elements instructed one how to read the landscape-both in the painting itself and in actual nature.

Thomas Cole's Arcadian or Pastoral State (1836).
The paths and curves of the landscape instruct the eye through a rambling path of landscape appreciation.

While artists rendered these landscapes on paper and canvas, the new field of landscape architecture attempted to make this artistic ideal a reality. The Ramble of Central Park functioned much as a Cole painting in that it educated the eye. Every turn of the winding paths afforded a new vista in the pastoral mode; the visitor's eye was told where to look to find peace, beauty, and inspiration in nature.

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When the visitor entered the Ramble, s/he was surrounded by nature as constructed by Olmsted and Vaux. The only cultural elements were the paths and bridges which were designed to blend into the landscape. The rambler would stroll and stumbled surprisedly upon these views that revealed how the works of man could exist peacefully in a natural landscape. The visitor was duped into believing that the Ramble was natural, but this natural scene they were meant to appreciate was entire actually manmade. It was a manipulation of real objects into artistic forms. Nature and the works of man can exist in harmony, if nature is also a work of man.
The subtle blend of culture and nature in the Ramble.

Overlooking the Ramble was the Mall, where one could view nature while completely surrounded by architecture and society. The Mall was a promenade that ran from the park entrance on 5th and 59th in a diagonal to the center of the park where one could then proceed to Bethesda Fountain, the Lake, or the Ramble.

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Coming from the Plaza Hotel or the stores of 5th Avenue, the Mall was merely an extension of the landscape of the elite. While strolling down the Mall, one could look not at nature, but at society on display. This area of the park became a place where one could promenade for show. The elite came to see and be seen, while the lower and middle classes came only to see the high fashion and gossip about the elite who, through this public arena, became local celebrities.
The park was not only a display of nature, but of fashion and society.

Although the Mall succeeded in fostering a sense of community amoung urbanites, this community was not as democratic as Olmsted had hoped. It provided a positive community experience for the elite, but created yet another landscape of desire for the lower classes. In short, the Mall failed to provide an escape from the desires of the city. The middle and lower classes came to the park but instead of being surrounded by nature and feeling released from materiality, they saw not the disembodied objects of desires, as they had seen in store windows on 5th Avenue or in the department store, but these same objects worn and owned by people, increasing their envy and magnifying their desire to own the objects of culture for themselves.

Well dressed park vistors on the steps of the Mall.