Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book Reviews

I was amazed a month or so ago when a few people who read this blog shared that they actually like my book reviews. Egos being what they are, this made me presume the rest of the readers like them as well, so not to hold out, I thought I'd throw some at you.

In the past week I have read two planning related books. The first was Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a new biography about the founder of Landscape Architecture. The second was High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky.  Both were well done. Genius takes the slant that Olmsted was more than a park designer, that he was also an environmentalists and activist. High Line was interesting in that it is 250+ pages, and split almost evenly between an essay tracking the history and development of the rail to trail project and then a pictorial essay of the park itself. 

To place these in context, Olmsted was my inspiration for getting into planning as a vocation. I went to college with other designs (who doesn't - I thought I was going to be the next PJ O'Rourke), and became fascinated by Olmsted's work in Boston, Chicago, New York etc. Back in 1996 I created www.fredericklawolmsted.com (since transferred to another owner), as my senior thesis in college. 

Olmsted is a hectic, brilliant and functional character. He grew up in Hartford, CT, and traveled the country, and the world, having a frenetic career and never really settling down until he was well past 60. This book  follows a similar path. As you might surmise, I have read many Olmsted books, my favorite being A Clearing In the Distance, by Witold Rybczynski. This book traveled many of the same paths, and overall suggests them in a well thought out and developed manner. What held it back for me, was that nothing new was revealed. It felt like a musician that looked at their back catalog and said, "you know we haven't have a greatest hits package since 2001, let's crank one out." This time it has been remastered, so that there is a nice sheen to the writing and songs, but overall if you've heard the first greatest hits package you've heard this one.

The upside of course is that Olmsted is a great figure and very much worth reading about. If you don't have the background and knowledge, and want more than a web or encyclopedia entry, this book will go far for you. His family, work and life is all wrapped into 400+ pages, and it is highly accessible. You could easily read this book and maybe either Viewing Olmsted or Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape both are photographic journeys of Olmsted's work. By the way, email me, if you can point out the Olmsted firm projects in Dover.

Speaking of photographs, half of the new book documenting the development of the High Line park in New York City contains photographs. You might recall that last month I went to visit the High Line. The High Line is a great example of a community based project, a rail to trail retrofit, and from my experience a success in spite of the fact you can't easily find the entry points to the trail when in NYC. I was interested to reading and learning about the experience, so I can extrapolate those experiences into the Dover Community Trail project. 

While in NYC I purchased this book to learn about the development and history of this project. The book is great and a worthy document of the quirky aspects of the park. I say quirky because the park has a lot of variety to it and is just that side of the traditional rail to trail park development model. 

The book is the same way. It could just follow the traditional linear path of concept, inception, construction, grand opening, and future plans. It could just document the obstacles, the NIMBY pressure, the costs, the opportunities etc. It includes this information, but it also goes to the quirky side. You have a first person narrative for maybe 100+ pages, alternating between the two co-founders of the Friends of the High Line

This section is awkward because of the competing voices. I think it could work in a documentary format where voices have sound and you can visually separate the two speakers, but in the written form it is hard to follow. So much so that I decided early on that I didn't care who was "speaking," I just read it as if there was one voice, one narrator. It worked, but I am not sure that I got the affect the authors were hoping for. The information is good and interesting. The political process is explained; the meetings the advocacy etc is similar and different at the same time. 

What didn't work, other than the voice, was that this section was hardly broken up at all. It consisted of basically 100 pages of text. A picture thrown in here and there, but overall it was a struggle to pay attention with all the text. Another aspect that detracted was that the authors presume you are from New York City when you read the narrative. I have no idea where Gansevoort Street is. A map would have been nice. What amazed me is that the web site has an incredibly well done interactive map of the park.

Two things pushed the book back up and then over the top. The topic is great and you are interested and want to read about it. It is compelling and human. The second thing are the pictures that finish the book. They are beautiful and dynamic. They tell the story in a much more interesting and absorbing manner. It inspired me to want to document every project we do in Dover so that we can create a similar photoessay. 

Speaking of Dover, I love this project because of the similarities to the Dover Community Trail. The proximity to an urban core, the variety of plantings and functional space contained within the park is great, and the intention of creating a space neighbors want to use, as well as a space that people will travel from out of town to enjoy. What's not to love about that.

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