The Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, which I mentioned in my last post, is 264 acres of wetlands and ponds (former shipping canals), shrubby thickets and grassy mounds (former landfill) in the (post-)industrial wilds of South Buffalo. Formerly George Washington Tifft’s dairy farm, then the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company’s transshipment terminal, Tifft fell into disuse (i.e. re-wilded) and eventually was acquired by the city to dispose of municipal waste displaced by a new sewage treatment facility built on Squaw Island (a site I also mentioned in my last post). A handful of engaged citizens (who had been visiting the Tifft wilderness over the intervening years) agitated for a preserve, and the city complied: from 1973-1975 the refuse was shaped into mounds that were capped and seeded, the runoff of which is captured for water treatment. It is now a spectacular spot from which to view Lake Erie and the monumental grain elevators, looming at the edge of the marsh like Wordsworthian cliffs.
Tifft also is classed an “important bird area,” with 240 species of birds logged. A great place to “get away.” I often had the entire preserve to myself, when I went there on weekdays: “the more humble or even degraded sites . . . offer . . . possibility for being in solitude” (Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”). In fact, I spent much more time at Tifft than in the Olmsted Parks. Spoils of the Parks, perhaps, is my attempt to atone for that, in revisiting the American landscape through Olmsted’s (rather than Thoreau’s) eyes.
Tifft and Olmsted’s projects share ancestry in Adolphe Alphand’s Parc Buttes Chaumont, one of my favorite green city spaces, in Paris’s 19th arrondissement. Alphand created the Bois de Boulogne, which inspired Olmsted and Vaux in their designs for Central Park and for Prospect Park. (Olmsted visited the Bois de Boulogne eight times during his 1859 working tour of European parks, while he was building Central Park.) Alphand’s design for l’Avenue de l’Imperatrice (now Avenue Foch) would inspire Olmsted’s and Vaux’s plans for Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn (and other parkways that were part of the Prospect Park design but never built). But Alphand’s 1867 Buttes Chaumont, built on a crescent-shaped piece of land the city had used as a quarry, a dump, and even a mass grave, realized an early (and successful) model of the remediation or reclamation park. Louis Aragon later immortalized the park as, along with the covered 19th-century “passage,” a site for the city’s unconscious, a machine for dreaming and surrealist revolt, in his diptych masterpiece, Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant): “Here is the palace you need, big thinking mechanism, to learn at last who you are.”
Contemporary landscape architects, given blighted sites like defunct steel mills, sanitary landfills, polluted riverfronts, brownfields and exhausted quarries to work with, strive to transform them into places that challenge not only our preconception of what makes a park but also what makes a landscape beautiful. It took one Robert Smithson (especially in his essays “A Brief Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,” and “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”) to draw attention to Olmsted’s role as an early land artist, a shaper of wastelands, helping us to see his parks as overgrown earthworks. (Part of Delaware Park’s design, in Buffalo, included an old quarry converted into gardens–sadly since filled in. More on that later.)
Tifft thus joins sites like Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park (Seattle, 1971-1975) and Mount Trashmore Park (Virginia, 1973), and contemporary projects like Hargreaves Associates’ Crissy Fields (San Francisco), Abalos’s and Herreros’s Northeast Coastal Park (Barcelona), Desvigne’s “intermediate landscapes” plans for the Greenwich Peninsula (London) and for the Garonne River (Bordeaux), Peter Latz’s awesome Duisburg-Nord Landschaftpark (in the Emscher region rustbelt) and, finally (perhaps the most ambitious example, still in its nascent stage), Field Operation’s reclamation project for the Freshkills landfill on Staten Island, as a state of the art urban landscape in the Open Space era of urban planning. (Some landscape historians divide urban open space planning into four eras: the 19th-century Pleasure Park, the progressive era Reform Park, the 1930-1965 Recreation Facility, and the post 1965 Open Space System.)
Part of what is fascinating about these Open Space System projects is what one might call the negative capability of the design: as planners cannot possibly control such large and complex sites, and as budgets are often quite limited anyways, natural processes will to some (or even a great) extent determine the qualities of the changing landscape. Tifft was not designed: its layout is probably haphazard, and the Buffalo Museum of Science adheres to a policy of minimal intervention. And yet it functions and evolves dynamically. That said, the Buffalo Museum of Science has just issued a new comprehensive management plan, prepared by David Spiering, the ecologist at Tifft Farm Nature Preserve. It is an impressive document that I look forward to studying more closely:
You can also read all about Tifft in my forthcoming poetry collection, Birds of Tifft (BlazeVox, 2010).
The areas of Olmsted’s parks that have been neglected or abandoned look and function more like Tifft than like Capability Brown’s country designs. Central Park looked this way when Smithson explored it, at its managerial nadir, in the late 1960s.
Olmsted might have classed these rougher aspects of his parks under “pleasure ground,” in the category of the “picturesque.” Central Park’s “The Ramble” is probably the most famous example, though its roughness was closely planned, and currently is undergoing some heavy restoration. ”All the roughness of the process arises out of the park’s earlier condition” (Smithson, op cit).
A tour of Olmsted’s parks, in their current condition, views them not just as well preserved, faded or even mutilated beauties, or as classical artworks in need of restoration, but also as multi-layered ecodynamic sites, teeming with semi-realized potential, evolving emergencies in the open space system.