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Frederick Law Olmsted and American Landscape

Even if you haven’t heard the name of Frederick Law Olmsted before, there’s no doubt you’ve come across his work. If you’ve ever visited Central Park or read about Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, you’ve seen Olmsted’s fingerprints across urban design. Olmsted was an American landscape architect, journalist, social critic, and public administrator. Widely considered to be the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted’s life and work were vastly impactful to cities across the world.

From a young age, Olmsted was immersed in greenery. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut in1822, and his father had his own interests in nature, people, and places. Olmsted lived on a farm for years before deciding on a career in journalism, which took him over to England. There, his visits to public gardens sparked inspiration that would form his later works. His profession in journalism would take a sudden turn in the 1850s, with the help of his mentor, Andrew Jackson Downing.

Downing was a landscape architect himself, and was one of the first to propose developing New York’s Central Park. He introduced Olmsted to English-born architect Calvert Vaux and their plans for the vast green space. Tragically Downing passed away, and Olmsted was left to fill his shoes in presenting their design. Prior to this, Olmsted had never created or executed a landscape design, but his theories and political contacts were invaluable. With the Central Park project won, Olmsted’s name began to explode across the industry.

Early designs for Central Park. Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site
Early designs for Central Park. Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Over the years, Olmsted worked on the designs for Prospect Park in New York City, Walnut Hill Park in New Britain, Connecticut, Cadwalader Park in Trenton, New Jersey and more. His reach extended into larger urban planning initiatives, such as the country’s first coordinated system of public parks and parkways in Buffalo, New York and the country’s oldest state park, the Niagara Reservation in Niagara Falls, New York. Olmsted also had a large impact on the city of Chicago; his design for Jackson Park, Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance are still in existence today. 

Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy on American landscape and urban design is a lasting one, and his work a medium of art all its own. As his fellow Chicago planner colleague and friend, Daniel Burnham, once said, “an artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views.”

A Brief History of the Terrace

A hallmark of Optima properties is our integration of the built environment with the natural. Oftentimes, we employ terraceslevel platforms incorporated into buildings that allow for plantlife to thrive—that allow our buildings, and their residents, to live in harmony with the surrounding landscape. The usage of terraces is one that dates back for over 12,000 years, evolving over the millennium to be the sophisticated components of urban architecture that they are today.

Terraces of Ancient Times

The word terrace is derived from terra, the Latin word for earth. The technique has been in use for over 12,000 years, first utilized as an ancient farming method in hilly regions. Agricultural terracing involved cutting the land into a series of successively receding flat platforms, much like steps, to allow for more effective farming, by decreasing erosion and surface runoff and increasing the effectiveness of irrigation.  

An illustration of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
An illustration of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

In 9800 BC, ancient civilizations realized that they could adapt this technique to buildings, and they began to add terraces to their homes and other domestic structures. This first usage was seen across the globe, from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands. The most famous interpretation is undeniably King Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Although no actual proof of its existence has been found, depictions show an ascending series of tiered gardens abundant with plantlife, complete even with a waterfall.

Thousands of years later, from 3000 BC – 600 BC, Mesopotamians grew gardens atop ziggurats, terraced religious temples that allowed for religious spaces to become placed ever higher. The structures were placed upon many layered platforms, and it’s believed that ziggurats were what inspired the Biblical parable The Tower of Babel. 

Terraces continued to be integrated into homes. Around 1500 AD, Venice adopted terrace design to the tops of their homes, called altanas. Altanas were private, slat-floored roofs. They started out as a place to hang laundry out to dry, but continue to be used today as social spaces.

The terraced design of Optima Camelview Village.
The terraced design of Optima Camelview Village.

Terraces in the Modern Age

Following the progression of altanas as a place to socialize, people began more and more to use the terrace as a location to congregate in privacy. Private rooftop and per-unit terraces became luxury amenities in the 1920s, when building height began to increase due to the adoption of the elevator. At that time, terraces become a status of wealth, allowing for privacy, fresh air and separation from the increasing bustle of life on city-level. 

Today, the use of terraces continues to flourish, finding increased purpose and urgency in response to population growth and a changing environmental climate. They provide private places to reconvene with nature, away from the bustle of the city. Terraces also create sustainable and contributive space, by providing thermal insulation, solar shading to mitigate air pollution, increased biodiversity and enhanced quality of life. 

At Optima, we incorporate terraces to create private social space, to integrate nature into our communities through our signature hanging gardens, and to contribute to our sustainability practices at many of our properties, including Optima Camelview Village, Optima Sonoran Village and Optima Kierland. Terraces at Optima serve as outdoor living space, connecting the outdoor and indoor for a seamless living experience. From agricultural beginnings, the terrace stays true to its roots, allowing us to find harmony with nature.

The New Architecture: Integrating the Built and Natural Environment

In a recent New York Times article, author Karrie Jacobs wrote that the “hard barriers between the designed environment and the natural one are softening maybe for good.” 

Jacobs went on to say, “Designers today are rebalancing the relationship between architecture and nature, with the goal of increasing the quality of life, especially in urban settings.” 

The NYTimes article features several new and innovative works by global architects who are designing to fuse outdoor and indoor, with structures that are both influenced by and have influence on their environment. We love to see the innovation taking place throughout the architecture world, and the continued conversation surrounding how design can evolve to appreciate nature.

From the beginning, our work at Optima has celebrated this fundamental connection between design and nature as a way of enhancing the human experience. Since our founding in the late 70s, we have been utilizing Modernist design to create homes that are an extension of their environment and integrate nature into the lives of those that live in them.

Sandy Knoll, Optima, Homewood, Illinois
Sandy Knoll, Optima, Homewood, Illinois

One of our first residences, Sandy Knoll, demonstrated how modular housing could integrate a home into a steep, challenging wooded knoll. What resulted was a beautiful home that preserved the integrity and grace of its site, with mature trees and local Illinois vegetation creating the views out of glass-paneled walls. 

Since then, we have continuously challenged ourselves to evolve new ways of incorporating nature into our design. Green space has always been a large component to the communities that we build, and our move to Arizona has only deepened our intimate understanding of landscaping.

Relic Rock, Optima DCHGlobal, Scottsdale, Arizona
Relic Rock, Optima DCHGlobal, Scottsdale, Arizona

Our desert dwellings incorporate the elevation, vegetation and climate of the desert into every facet of design, from bridged courtyards to the materials and colors used for each home’s exterior. Glass curtainwalls also provide uninterrupted, panoramic views of the sweeping landscape, so that the mountains of the desert feel a part of each home.

Optima Sonoran Village, Scottsdale, Arizona
Optima Sonoran Village, Scottsdale, Arizona

In our multifamily work, we incorporate the Optima vertical landscaping system to create protection, privacy and beauty. For us, lush landscaping vertically and horizontally across our communities is an integral part of creating connection – a connection that is both physically inviting and spiritually inviting, as our design seeks to connect people with their surrounding environment.

We look forward to the future, to constantly pushing the boundaries and exploring how to further unify the built and natural environment. We’re excited that the work we do is part of a larger conversation in the architecture world and can’t wait to see what we, and others, do next for architecture and for the earth.

A Brief History of The Courtyard

An iconic architectural design feature of many Optima projects, the courtyard is a long-beloved piece of home and history. A space designed for peace, socializing and beauty, the courtyard has a rich history that has led to its modern interpretations. 

It’s estimated that the first courtyard houses made an appearance around 6000BC in the Jordan Valley, used for purposes ranging from cooking, sleeping, working, gardening or even housing animals. Before courtyards, open fires were used within a central place in a home, with a small hole in the ceiling for the smoke to escape. Gradually, the holes became larger and evolved into open courtyards more similar to what exists today. 

Courtyards are an iconic staple in many cultures throughout the world, though they vary in style and function. The central uncovered area in Roman architecture was referred to as an atrium, and would often contain a central pool used to collect rainwater and a garden. In China, the courtyard was a central space for multiple homes and families, and used as a place for privacy and tranquility. The medieval European courtyard was used for working, gathering and protection. With such a rich and diverse history, it’s no surprise that the courtyard continues to withstand the test of time. 

A courtyard at one of the Optima homes in Arizona.

Traditionally, courtyard homes are prevalent in temperate climates, since the open space helps maintain a cool temperature. To take advantage of the functional and aesthetic benefits of the courtyard, many of our Arizona projects feature courtyard greenspaces. Our Arizona Courtyard House is even named after the feature that makes it unique; outside and inside flow together to create a seamless layout and beautiful views of the landscape.  The home is arranged with the main house to the south and east, and a fitness center and lap pool to the north creating a private courtyard in the center.

The essence of a courtyard is the physical expression of the concept of connection, and ours are built with the hope that they will provide a peaceful oasis in which residents can reconnect to their friends, family and the surrounding environment.

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