Beauty is for Everyone

When you walk through Central Park you feel like you’ve have escaped out of the city into the countryside—you are surrounded by natural beauty.

Except that it’s not.

Natural, I mean.

The space where Central Park was built was originally a “pestilential, rocky swamp.”

The natural beauty of Central Park is completely designed—to seem as if it wasn’t.

When the park was built, back in the 1850s, only wealthy New Yorkers could afford to go the Adirondaks. The designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, wanted to give those who couldn’t afford to go, the experience of being in the Adirondacks, the same experience of beauty.

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Central Park is a park designed for everyone.

Joshua Cohen wrote of two examples of the designer’s obsessive attention to detail.

First, the park is 2 ½ miles long. The Central Park Commission said that there had to be four cross-streets connecting the east and west sides of Manhattan. To do that and still feel as if you’re in the Adirondacks, Olmsted and Vaux put the cross-streets eight feet below—an innovation in park design.

“Second,… in … the Bethesda Terrace there’s a fantastic ceiling made with more than 15,000 tiles. They’re encaustic tiles which means that the color and geometric design on the surface goes all they way through: it is not a glaze but multi-coloured clay.

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The ceiling was designed by British architect, Jacob Wrey

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Mould, based on his two-year-long study of the Alhambra. So this public park in New York City includes a structure with a ceiling based on one of the most beautiful works of architecture in the world.”

Beauty for everyone.

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I’m so grateful that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux believed everything matters, that they went for excellence—down to the tiniest, most obsessive detail. And, as a result, gave us Central Park.

Excellence, it turns out, is not elitist. Excellence is the most inclusive thing. It is beauty and beauty reaches everyone. It’s a bit like books that way. At least picture books. The best ones are completely designed to seem as if they aren’t.

Truly great design is almost invisible, I think. It’s there not to draw attention to itself—it’s there to not get in the way of the story, the experience, the beauty.

Great art is a generosity. Because it’s not about the creator or the designer—it’s about the person looking at the painting, the reader opening the book, the New Yorker walking across the park.

SLJ.

2 Responses to “Beauty is for Everyone”

  1. Tom G

    Lovely post, Sally. Small quibble, because this is tangential to your point — but when discussing the design of Central Park, I like to give credit where it is due. Frederick Law Olmsted really had very little to do with the design of Central Park, and essentially nothing to do with the design of any architecture within the park. His partner, Calvert Vaux was the true genius behind the “design” of Central Park, of course ably assisted by Jacob Wrey Mould and a few other talented individuals. Of course Olmsted, who later went on to become a talented landscape designer in his own right, brought other strengths to the partnership, including administrative skill, political connections, public speaking, a flair at writing, etc. Olmsted, nevertheless, did claim ownership of the Central Park “design,” even during his lifetime — a fact that caused Vaux, on several occasions, to write to him in an attempt to set the record straight — to no avail. Olmsted was an avid self-promoter, while Vaux remained the shy, retiring artist. Today, most people believe the park was designed by Olmsted, and hardly anyone remembers Vaux, or gives him the credit he so richly deserves. I like to try to remedy that oversight whenever I can. ;o) Incidentally, I was the director of historic preservation for Central Park for three years back in the 1990s, and was very “steeped” in the relationship between Olmsted and Vaux. Best regards, Tom

    Reply
    • Sally Lloyd-Jones

      Thanks so much Tom. That is fascinating. I’m so glad to know this. And what a great job you had! I will make sure to include Vaux and join you in that remedying wherever I can : ) thanks again!

      Reply

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