Laurie Olin: Gardens for American Institutions

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 10, 2010

As the October light poured into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s interior courtyard, illuminating the tall single-stemmed chrysanthemums, Chris Reed of Stoss Landscape Urbanism thoughtfully introduced Laurie Olin. After Reed cited Olin’s long list of distinctions—including University of Pennsylvania professor, author, Fellow at both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Society of Landscape Architects—Olin reflected on his firm, OLIN, and its harmonious and contrasting museum landscapes of the last 30 years.

Olin’s work as a landscape architect at OLIN calmly expresses the relationship among people, culture, art and nature. He described his museum landscapes as welcoming places for people to enjoy being outdoors and as settings in which to appreciate art. They accommodate both individual contemplation and group involvement. Olin expanded his talk to include the evolving institutional behavior, away from the internally focused “treasure box” to a more approachable site.  

Most fascinating was Olin’s behind-the-scene stories about the design for the Getty Center in Los Angeles. He described making sense of the center and uniting the entire site after the succession of and collaboration with many designers there, including Emmet Wemple; Dan Kiley; Robert Irwin; and, of course, Richard Meier. Olin explained the inspiration for the gardens and the use of sycamores, stone pines, cypress and cactus. His painstaking and thoughtful selection and placement of the stones, sourced near Yosemite National Park, for the circular fountain was inspiring! A few years later, OLIN designed and integrated the Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Garden at the tram station near central parking. This entire campus is stunning, incredibly detailed and simply one of the most sensual environments.   

Olin went on to describe the history behind the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden in Washington, D.C., and its greater context within the National Mall. As well as showing historic drawings and beautiful photographs of the sculpture garden, he shared how their design evolved to become the successful civic and yet personal space it is today. This garden includes popular summer jazz concerts, and, in winter, the fountain area features an ice skating rink.

He also showed and described his firm’s work on the following projects: the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, the Brancusi Ensemble in Romania, LA County Museum of Art and Hancock Park, and perhaps the not-so-well-received Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus.   

Another takeaway, and one I’ve heard Carol Johnson of Carol R. Johnson Associates say: The best kind of marketing is doing really good work. There’s much to be learned from these lectures, and my only disappointment was not seeing all the seats filled.  

Bring a friend, and check out the next lecture in this Landscape Visions series: “Public Realm of the Senses” by landscape architect Eelco Hooftman of GROSS.MAX., on Saturday, November 20, at 1:30 pm at the Gardner Museum.



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