VCM: Hello, my name is Veronica Koven-Matasy, it is August 24th, 2010, and I’m at the main house of Dumbarton Oaks to conduct a phone interview with Professor Laurie Olin about his time at Dumbarton Oaks. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.
LO: You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.
VCM: Okay. So according to our records you joined the board of Senior Fellows in Garden and Landscape Studies in 1984 is that correct?
LO: I think so. It seems right.
VCM: Okay. How did you first come to be involved with Dumbarton Oaks?
LO: Well, I had become the chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard in July of 1982, I believe. So, about a year later it was suggested by someone, I don’t know who, that I might become a member of the Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks. And I think it was probably the thought that it would be good to have a tie to the school of design and to landscape architecture, which I think was a good idea. And I think that it’s appropriate that someone from the Design School who knows about landscape be involved at D.O., just help the scholars have some sense of what’s going on in the field currently and what some of the needs and gaps and also strengths of the teaching is at the moment.
VCM: So what were your initial –
LO: Well, I’ll tell you the other thing – how was I nominated? Well, I would suspect it was because Betty MacDougall was then the head of the Garden Library, whatever it was called, the name escapes me –
VCM: I think that it was Garden Library.
LO: I think Hank Millon was one of the Senior Fellows at the time too. You can check that.
VCM: He was, yeah.
LO: Well, Hank was the Director of the American Academy in Rome when I was a Fellow there before he came to CASVA. You know what CASVA is right? Okay. And Betty I’d known in Rome also at the Academy and so they knew me from the seventies in Rome.
VCM: Can I ask what you were doing in Rome? What you were working on?
LO: I was a Fellow in Landscape Architecture for two years. And as an independent study you do whatever you feel like as long as the jury thinks it’s worth sending you. So I ended up basically teaching myself an awful lot about the history of landscape design in Rome both Classical period and in the Renaissance and after. But I was also working – I also had a Guggenheim and I was working on the study of the eighteenth-century landscape in England. And one of the things that I discovered while I was there was that most of the history books are all wrong. The remark of Pevsner’s that the landscape garden was one of England’s only original contributions to the history of world art I discovered was totally inaccurate, and that actually there was what we would call pastoral and landscape gardens in Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. They were well known by people at the time, and are now nonexistent, except you can find fragments of them and all that. That’s how I got to know some of these scholars, was because I was interested in that. And so for a practitioner – and so the Academy, Betty and Hank and all these people obviously taught me pretty much how to be a scholar which I didn’t set out to be, but anyway. You wanted to know what I was doing in Rome, that’s what I was doing.
VCM: So –
LO: So, that meant to people like them at D.O., I was one of those odd creatures who was in practice, was teaching, and knew something about history.
VCM: Wow, the complete package.
LO: Well, maybe – lot’s of gaps.
VCM: When you did first come to Dumbarton Oaks what were your initial impressions?
LO: Well, I knew the facility, the physical facility of course, because I had lived and worked in Washington, D.C. from ’74 to ’76 - ’77 on some urban design stuff, and I stayed in Georgetown with friends and worked there. So, I, you know, went up to D.O. and saw it, and I knew about Beatrix Farrand and her design work and all that. And so I knew it as a place that was important in the history of American landscape architecture. And then I also had things like Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, a little, beautiful little post-Bach thing of which you must know. So I was very interested in the Blisses, I thought that they were interesting people and the fact that they sponsored all this stuff. And there was of course the little Phillip Johnson Gallery for Pre-Columbian stuff, which as an architect I thought it was an interesting and odd little building. So I knew about D.O. as a physical place, and so when I went as a Fellow it was kind of interesting to be on the inside and to discover the other building – there’s that off site building for Fellows, which I thought was kind of dopey. And that there was – the Garden Library was also in a basement or something, and they were treated like orphans; I just found it very interesting. And I found the other people to be intellectually stimulating and fun to be with.
VCM: Had you been to any of the symposia before you became a Fellow?
LO: No, I had not. I knew of them because I had some of the publications. I had about three of the early books.
VCM: Okay. So were there any particularly memorable projects that you worked on in conjunction with Dumbarton Oaks?
LO: I would say that the most important thing was our meetings where we determined fellowships. That was the main purpose – that they would gather the Fellows, and we would review all the applications for fellowships. That was, you know, that was like giving away money to bright people and figuring out how much you have, and who you can give it to, and what you thought of the projects. And those discussions were, I think, remarkable and wonderful and actually helped shape the emerging field of history of landscape architecture in that period very much under Betty’s leadership, and where we chose to push the money and to whom. The other thing was that we also sat around and tried to figure out what the symposia would be. People would have proposals and ideas, and we’d try to figure out how in God’s name to make them happen and who would – if you did a symposium on say Moorish Gardens – who would be invited and how you’d get them to come and all that. So there was a – the Fellows were involved in the creation of the ongoing program, I’d say.
VCM: So –
LO: So, the other thing is, I think after I left – I can’t remember when it was – I think it was sometime after I left –
VCM: Was this the article?
LO: No. I was asked about the physical place and I recommended Meade Palmer to help with the – I think it was Meade I recommended – I recommended a landscape architect to help them with the garden itself, who then helped them for quite a few years. I think he died later. The garden was in a state of disrepair and needed someone to come help them with the ongoing direction and maintenance, you know, how to plant and re-plant and how to edit and all that.
VCM: Were you –
LO: So, I felt pleased to have helped them with that.
VCM: I know they were trying to restore the garden to Beatrix Farrand’s original plans, were you –
LO: To some degree. Well, I helped send them people to work on it, but I was not involved myself at all.
VCM: Okay. So at some points there has been tension between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks-
LO: I’m sure.
VCM: Did you ever get a sense of the prevailing feeling towards Harvard while you were at Dumbarton Oaks?
LO: Yeah, I got the sense from Betty and a little from Giles Constable and then later after I left from John Hunt and others. I got the sense that there was a sense of, “Oh God, they are up in Cambridge, and they don’t really know or care about us.” I think Derek Bok as president of Harvard, under his administration I think they felt a little – on the one hand they had the blessing of being very independent, on the other hand they felt like, “You’re this big rich institution, where’s all the help?” I did get that sense. Nothing, I can’t give you specifics, but there was that feeling. The real tension of course – which you ask about later in your little – is the relationship between Byzantine and Pre-Columbian Studies. Why? Therein lies a lot of probably gossip and rumor and everything. That’s a long story. I can say something about that when we come to it.
VCM: Okay. That’s interesting because I think they try to get along now.
LO: No, it was horrible. The whole institution as far as we were concerned had been hijacked by the Byzantine people. I mean, even the Pre-Columbian people felt, I think, a little bit, if not disenfranchised, certainly poverty stricken. I mean the Byzantine folks were just – I mean, truly Byzantine. The word means what it’s from in English.
VCM: We can talk about that now. So did you get to interact with people from other departments very much?
LO: Virtually none. The directors had to. I would say, Giles Constable seemed like the gentleman and was very nice and he seemed very friendly, and I think he and Betty hit it off very well. That era was pretty good. Thomson I never knew. Angeliki, oh my God, she was really something. She was, I think, incredibly hostile toward the Landscape Department and there was tension over programs, tension over publications, tension over money. I mean it was very, very unpleasant. Part of that I think had to do, I think, with personalities. I would say that the personal relationships between some of the people in Landscape and some of the people in the Byzantine program were absolutely uncomfortable. It was, I think, it was as much personalities – But it also led to huge rows about policy and money and programs. I think Pre-Columbians almost never came up in our radar, and a couple of us at one point thought, “Why don’t we do a whole conference or symposium on Pre-Columbian Landscape” and we tried to do something like that, and at one point there was under one of the Fellows – one of the directors – a conference on Byzantine Landscape, that was I think a bit of a success and there’s a publication and all that. There have been things, but not on my watch, I’ll tell you that. Okay?
VCM: Okay. So, did you – You were here during the transitions between directors from – Were the transitions smooth? Were they problematic?
LO: I don’t know because, you know, I would just go to these annual or semi-annual meetings of the Fellows where we would have a great time. We’d spend a couple of days reviewing things, being together, having meals, talking about the field and history and conferences. Or I would go to symposia, and those were always great fun, because all these people came who you knew and interesting talks and speeches and all that. So the events I went to were always very nice, and, of course, whoever was the director of all of D.O., whether it was Giles, Thomson, or Angeliki, would always turn up and be gracious and do a nice little speech and sit through the talks and that sort of stuff. So on the surface of course it always seemed fine. What was the question?
VCM: How were the transitions between the directors.
LO: I can say I wouldn’t have known.
VCM: Okay. Did you get to attend any of the symposia for the other programs or the concerts?
LO: No. And part of the reason for that is Washington, D.C. is a long way from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and even when I came back to Philadelphia after leaving Harvard and came back to Penn and living and practicing and teaching here, Washington, D.C. is still several hours away even by train, and you know I have to stay over in a hotel somewhere so it’d be rare. But the other thing is that we never ever got invitations or programs or a calendar of the events of the two other programs, ever. I’ve never received in my life a mailing telling me what the concerts are, what the programs are, what’s going on with Pre-Colombian or Byzantine.
LO: They may claim they do it. I’d like them to prove it because I don’t think they ever really solicited the landscape folks. They may now, but they didn’t then. I know of – it just never occurred to them.
VCM: I know you weren’t physically at Dumbarton Oaks very much, but do you know if they tried to encourage socialization among the scholars?
LO: I believe – I don’t know – When you say “they,” I guess you mean –
VCM: Sorry, the administration.
LO: I think a couple of the directors. I think Thomson and Constable did. I have no idea about Angeliki. But I do know that the Fellows themselves by dining would – one tends to dine with the people you know and you are talking to and are working in your field – but, there’s still, even my experience at the American Academy in Rome and other institutions, it’s at the breakouts and at the meals that you actually see the other people and you socialize and everything like that. I suspect the Fellows did some of their own, but I don’t know how much.
LO: That’s usually how it works; I mean, the director can encourage it, but what are they going to do? Well, they have teas; they have afternoon tea right? They can go have a tea, but then you are standing around with the Fellows from your field usually. I don’t know what your experience is.
VCM: Well, they’ve had coffee once or twice.
LO: Yeah, not much. I was always shocked they didn’t use the house more. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t use the house for more events. They have curtains down, doors shut, you know so people would meet wherever their program was or they would meet in the Fellows Building over to the side, over there. I was always puzzled. Because at I Tatti and at the Academy in Rome you used the historic facilities for the programs, you know. I mean, the lectures and the symposia do use the house, but that’s about it in my experience. And I know they use it for the concerts.
VCM: Yep. Is it okay –
LO: Actually I have heard one concert there, now that I think about it. But it was a long time ago.
VCM: Is it okay to move on the Board of Senior Fellows?
LO: Sure, sure, sure. It’s related, so much gossip about that.
VCM: They love gossip.
LO: I know.
VCM: So, you were a member of the Board for six years. While you were there can you describe what you think the major responsibilities were?
LO: I did a minute ago, but I’ll repeat it. And that was, it had to do with the fellowships and grants. Reading all the applications, discussing them among ourselves, coming to conclusions, and then, you know, awarding fellowships. That was one major thing, and the other was as I said, brainstorming about the spring symposia and then trying to help the Director with that. I mean, the Director quite often would bring proposals to us, and then we would kind of chew on them and think about them and often times end up supporting them. But generally what we were trying to figure out was, you know, if you are going to do that, how do we do it. That was the two main things we did I guess.
VCM: Did the process of selecting Fellows ever alter? I know they had like a very firm way of doing it in Byzantine –
LO: Well, you know, it’s like, how do I explain this? I’ve been on lots of juries for many, many years. You know I’ve been reader for the Guggenheim and for various foundation grants and stuff. And so you know what happens is pretty straightforward. You sit around quietly and read everything for a while and then you have a conversation, and then you talk about how many fellowships do you have to give, and then you talk about plusses and minuses, and then you begin to narrow it down, and then you decide who to do. And so I would say, we would rate them in our own ways, but then we would discuss it, and we would come to an agreement. It wasn’t a totally Quaker organization in terms of consensus and waiting for everybody to agree, but we also didn’t have big rows, goading each other or stuff like that. It was a very collegial group who respected each other, but listened carefully.
VCM: Did you have rules about, you know, being able to talk about your own students or anything like that?
LO: Oh, people would acknowledge if they knew a person or something and then would say, but I don’t think we ever had any real conflicts in that way, not in my day. But that’s partly because there weren’t many people teaching history of landscape anywhere. There weren’t very many people doing PhDs in it. So the people who were coming to us were all kind of all over and weren’t usually our students particularly. You follow?
LO: I mean, it’s a much bigger field now than it was then. And we hatched this, you know, old generation now.
VCM: Did you ever work closely with any of the other members of the Board?
LO: Well as I said I had known Hank almost intimately. And I would say Mark Laird – no, I didn’t know him before. I met Mark Treib there; I met John Dixon Hunt there; I met a whole bunch of people. There was a wonderful guy from Penn who was in Islamic and Moorish Studies. He’s now retired, who was a very sweet guy. Then there was Naomi, what’s Naomi last name?
LO: Yeah, Naomi Miller was there. I met her. I think she’s at BU.
VCM: I think she’s emerita now.
LO: And then there was a very lively, wonderful woman from Yale who was in Art History there, what was her name? Anyway, I met a whole bunch of people, they were all enormous fun, but one of the things about them was since then several have become very close and dear friends, since because we’ve known each other ever since and done stuff, like Mark Treib and John Dixon Hunt and others. So does that answer your question?
VCM: Sure, if you want to talk about any projects after Dumbarton Oaks, that’s cool too.
LO: Well, yeah. One of the things that happened out of D.O., having met some of these people when Benedetta Origo decided that she wanted to try and do something with her villa in Tuscany at La Foce, she asked Hank Millon at CASVA to round up some people to help her brainstorm and think about it. And Hank and John Hunt and I were part of the group that were rounded up. And out of that ended up coming the book project that John and I did with Benedetta and with Morna Livingston, the publication in the University of Pennsylvania Press series on La Foce. It was just kind of done to help them with their finances but also to kind of actually study it and know something about it, which I think it’s been immensely helpful for her – its now in several languages, selling everywhere. What we did is that we put all the proceeds to go to La Foce. So there’s a project that came out of people that I met there that had to do with the subject matter. I would say later on a search committee at Penn – well, I was on a search committee for D.O. for a new head, and we picked John Hunt – and then later I was on a search committee at Penn for a new Chair at Penn, and we picked John Hunt. So I helped John with a couple of jobs after. I mean he’d gone from D.O. to Bunny Mellon’s, and then he and I have been closely involved teaching at Penn and doing various odds and ends and things.
VCM: Can I ask if you ever got to work with Wilhelmina Jashemski?
LO: No, I met her only once. She was a very dear friend of Betty’s – Elisabeth MacDougall you would call her – but Betty and Wilhelmina were old buddies, and John and Wilhelmina turned out later – I guess she met him at some point. I don’t think they were close, but they were professionally on very good terms and did a lot of stuff. I never actually knew her. A couple of my students knew her and worked with her.
VCM: That’s a shame; she was apparently a great person.
LO: Well, Kathy Gleason, who was one of my students at Harvard and now teaches at Cornell applied for the Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture and the Landscape Jury sent her over to Classics and they gave her the fellowship to go work on classical landscapes, and she ended up working with Wilhelmina I’m sure a bit. So anyways, it’s a family. So I never actually knew her that much.
VCM: You did work with – I’m assuming you knew Betty MacDougall pretty well.
LO: She was in Rome when I was a fellow in the seventies, ’72-’74. And she was a great help to me. She and Georgina Masson, who is now dead, who’s real name was Babs Johnson – anyway Georgina was a very influential scholar, kind of crazy American woman, who ended up in Rome after World War II – I don’t know whether she was divorced or widowed or whatever. Babs and Betty both shared manuscript information with me; they shared research of theirs with me. They were very generous and helpful. And also, you know, steered me away from some mistakes and towards some really good stuff, and so I liked and trusted Betty. Betty was a difficult person; some people didn’t like her. She was one of – oh what’s his name – Wittkower’s students, like Hank. She’d gone to the Institute in New York, where a lot of the great art historians have all gone and still go and come out of. And so the Institute of Fine Arts – it’s in the Doris Duke mansion, up in the city there, in Manhattan, near the Met. And, Betty was a tough, well-trained scholar of Renaissance. I hired her to teach history at Harvard for one year because I had this problem: the guy that had been teaching for me died. I hired Betty and she commuted from D.O. And the students found her really difficult. She was hard on the students because they were design students and weren’t real scholars. They didn’t read enough. She didn’t want them to smOkaye in class. This is those days, you know. Anyway, she was a tough gal, but I loved her. She was very salty and very direct, but she knew everybody in Europe. She was, she first introduced Michel Conan and all people like that. She was a good soul. What was it like working with her? Fun, it was fun. She was hard on people, and we had an eternal fight with the – Betty and Hank and John and I fought with the administration at D.O. about – We wanted dust jackets on the books, and the Byzantinists and the Classicists were, “Well, we don’t need dust jackets; we are not a trade rag you know. We have these nice cloth bindings with a stamp.” They would have gotten leather bindings if they could’ve, but they were stuck with linen, right? We were saying, “Well we’ll never sell any of our books, damn it, if you won’t let us have dust jackets!” So that was one of our big fights. The challenge was trivial, but it was accomplished after our watch. Isn’t that funny?
VCM: They fight over all kinds of things.
LO: Well, academia is a funny place, as you’ll learn.
VCM: So, you were also involved in the search committee that eventually picked John Dixon Hunt, can you talk about that process?
LO: Well, it was the usual, you know. You round up a committee. You advertise. You get all these CVs, things come in. And then you think this is a funny crowd: we’ve got people who’d never touch us with a tenth foot pole, and then you have people that want the job but you don’t want them, and then there are people that are interesting but they didn’t apply, so you call around to see if they might be interested. The process was very much like any search committee, I’d say. And what it does is it raises issues about what sort of person do we want who will help with the program and fight for it within the institution, but who also understands the field and can help shape the field, which is of course what such a person does. And so, John was kind of a rising star at that point. He was back in England teaching, and we lured him. I mean, he would come – you know, he had been a Fellow. And we decided he had actually a better track record and more potential than the other candidates. It wasn’t too hard to conclude at the time given the pool of people. Does that help?
VCM: Yeah. Talking about small things to fight about, I know that there was some controversy over the name of what we now call Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. Did you have a take on that?
LO: I don’t remember. It may have happened after I left. We may have just talked about it, but we didn’t really fight about it, at least not to my memory, not the gang I was closest to. Our fight was about book jackets. But I think it was good to make it more than gardens because that’s way too limiting. It was a thing just as it’s been a struggle to get art historians to move past objects – it took a while to get them into dealing with the relationship of the art object to society and everything else – getting architecture historians to move past buildings – oh God what a struggle. And then once they fell in love with gardens and started doing gardens, we have to get them to understand that, well, gardens are just a piece of the designed landscape and as fancy and special as they are, there’s this bigger milieu that is also historically and in contemporary terms deeply engaging and has to do with civilization and thought and all that and culture. It was a good thing that they did it, but people still don’t know what landscape architecture is. My parents are in their grave not knowing what I do.
VCM: Can you describe what you would consider the greatest accomplishment of the Board while you were a member?
LO: I think we gave some very important fellowships to people who would become leading scholars and educators. One example would be a guy like James Wescoat at MIT. James Wescoat first came to us as this young landscape architect who was interested in water and wanted to do some – had started to do some work independently in India. Well now he’s one of the leading authorities in the world on the Mughal water systems and hydrology and everything, and he’s a fabulous guy. And we gave him his first start. And we gave many fellowships like that, I’d say, to people who have actually helped to shape the field. I feel very proud of that. And I think some of the symposia were wonderful and produced publications that have stood the test of being major contributions.
VCM: Do you think that there were any failures while you were there?
LO: Well, our biggest one was that we were unable to overcome the Byzantinists control of all the money, and resources, and public relations, and the Harvard connections. They really had their hand on it. So we were kind of starved of resources, I felt, and basically treated like orphans or poor cousins. I don’t think we gave many bad fellowships. Once in a while you gave one to somebody who turned out to be a dud, but not very many. So failure in relationship building, I guess.
VCM: Is it all right for me to move on to –
LO: Yes that’s fine.
VCM: In some of the other interviews people have talked about the division between academics and professionals in Garden and Landscape Studies as a problem with the field, but also in particular at Dumbarton Oaks. You are practicing landscape architect, right?
LO: That’s right.
VCM: Do you have a perspective on how Dumbarton Oaks does address this?
LO: Let me think. The answer is, yes I’m practicing landscape architect. I’m also a person who teaches history, theory, and studio design, and drawing. So I’m kind of familiar with academia and have been teaching at Penn, and Harvard, and UVA, and Texas, and various places since I guess the ’70s and still am. So I kind of know the field in two ways, and in the course of that I ended up meeting, knowing, hiring, working with, being friends of many people involved in scholarship, not only at D.O. but at the Academy. I was on the board of the American Academy in Rome for twenty years, and friends at I Tatti and I hung out at various places. And one of the things I’ll say is, yes, it’s true there is an awkward and sometimes unpleasant and sometimes very real and sometimes for good reasons gap between scholars and academics and historians and those who practice. It’s real. And it’s unfortunate, but it’s hard to figure out what to do about it. And I will tell you that having read applications for the Guggenheim, and having sat on innumerable juries giving fellowships both at the Academy and at D.O., putting together juries, being on juries, doing all kinds of stuff – one of the things is that it’s the rare practitioner who applies for such a grant or fellowship or a study period who makes the cut with the academics because they don’t have a track record, they don’t publish anything, and they quite often don’t write quite as well. And they have not been trained to do research and scholarship usually. I mean, John and I spend a long time trying to get a sense if people can write because we are getting students coming through high schools and colleges and into graduate school and they still couldn’t even write a proper paper and put together a beginning, middle, and end, that had a thesis and had grammar that worked, and all that. I mean, this is a problem. For you, as a product of Classics, you have spent many years reading and writing and are comfortable in a world of scholarship, I presume. For a lot of people who have what it takes to be a good designer, they are quite often extremely intelligent, but their intelligence is organized around thinking and solving problems and being perceptive about things in ways that are not necessarily verbal. And they haven’t been trained to organize their thoughts around verbal structures very well. So, do you mind me going on like this?
VCM: Oh no. It’s really interesting because you know people talk about, you know, “Oh it’s a problem,” but they don’t say why.
LO: So here’s the scoop, what happens is – I’ve had some of the best and most talented graduate students in design at Harvard and Penn over the last thirty years who now are leaders in the field, that are department chairs, won all these prizes, and built all this stuff; they are famous nationally and internationally. They are really intelligent and they read, but they are kind of like me, they are autodidacts. They are self-taught in what they’ve read, and they wander around and they have huge gaps and quite often they – some of my best students – they don’t read a lot, they don’t read enough. We’re trying to help them know something about the history of their own medium because most of the great performers in most media – whether it’s in music or literature or medicine, or, you know, whatever – they actually know a lot about their own predecessors. Picasso for instance knew more about the history of art, you know, he ransacked, he knew Velázquez, he knew Degas, and he knew the Pompeian stuff. The really great people know their field cold, but they are not scholars. When some of these people apply to us, they’ll have an instinct they want to learn about something or go somewhere or do something, and sometimes they – because they are so clearly smart – they have a great portfolio, and they have a project that seems, well yeah, let’s let them do that. So occasionally you’ll get a designer who makes the cut with the academics. But the academics will basically be pretty harsh towards proposals that aren’t well written. They’ll say, “Well, this is a great project, but can this person do it? I don’t think this person can do it. Too bad we don’t have a somebody who wants to do this project.” Or you’ll have somebody who’s a good person, but the project is stupid because, well, they don’t know that this has been covered in the literature, you know, twelve books on that came across my desk last year. This guy is a great designer, but it’s already been done. So, that’s part of what happens, you see, in these reviews. I can tell you that, oh, the meetings in the Guggenheim over a period of about ten years, probably two or three designers got a fellowship in what goes under the rubric of architecture and all the rest went to superbly qualified post-doctoral folks or people who are working on the book that was going to summarize their career or do something. And so the difference between a really hot designer who wants to go off and spend a few months doing something, or, you know, a year, rooting around in some area because he’s curious and wants to find out or wants to do a study or something, when they compete with someone who’s coming from – was s student of someone at the Fogg or something, they don’t stand a chance. Does that help you? And it makes sense, but it also means that it should also be made clear that, oh well, this is a scholarly institution and that those designers who are interested in being in this scholarly institution have to find something that would actually be a success for them and the institution while they are there. One has to find a way to explain that to them.
VCM: Do you think that the –
LO: But let me – one more thing. There are – in the past thirty years, in my experience, there have a been a series of people who started out as designers, were trained in it, may or may not have practiced a little, may or may not have taught a little, but who really ended up going and becoming academics and scholars. One would be Kathy Gleason, for instance, who I mentioned, who’s done a lot of work in – what is it – gardens in Palestine or in Lebanon or Syria – it’s in Syria. So she’s worked with classical archeologists on sites and done a lot of stuff, written, teaches. But she started out as a student of mine in landscape design at Harvard in the Landscape Architecture Department, but started taking courses up at the Fogg. And James Ackerman, now Emeritus from Harvard and one of the great Renaissance definitive studies of Michelangelo, James and I basically helped train her so that she ended up becoming a real scholar. James Wescoat, who I mentioned, who’s now at MIT, also started as a designer and has become, you know, a foremost historian, archeologist, teacher, etc. of others in a particular areas of the Indus Valley – is one of the leading figures. Designers can do it, it’s not that they can’t do it, but it’s only a few and they are rare and they are on their way to being a hybrid person anyway. That’s probably more than enough on that topic.
VCM: Do you think that while you were a Dumbarton Oaks people thought about that issue?
LO: I think we talked about it occasionally, everybody sort of understood it. I mean Mark Treib began as an architect and ended up being involved with landscape architecture even while on the faculty at Berkley as an architect. He ended up running all these conferences and symposia and everything that’s been written on landscape. He’s a person that started and then became something else. Hank Millon was trained as an architect and then became interested in history and then went and studied with Wittkower, so he’s a person that came over from the design side. And I was there. So, we had people who actually knew both and understood it. So, we didn’t have to talk a lot about it among ourselves. It wasn’t a group only of people trained in academia.
LO: But I don’t know who some of the Fellows have been lately. I know – Is Beardsley now the head of the –?
LO: John, yeah. He’s a person who has taught in design schools and comes out of design and has written about art, site art, and a lot of other things. John’s an interesting hybrid himself and so he should be sympathetic to the dilemma. I think when Michel Conan was there – he’s a real European intellectual, French scholar of the old school, and yet knows a lot of designers, but I think he could keep it sort of straight. But it’s hard when you don’t get enough – if you get a series of applications from one side that is so strong and then dribs and drabs from the other that’s weak, you know. I don’t know what they are doing about it now. We didn’t talk about it a lot because it was something we knew about. We tried to help when we could.
VCM: What do you think were some of the major changes in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks during your time there?
LO: Changes – well, I think we helped broadened the scope of the field of study, from simply bounded gardens as classically understood and defined to larger landscape issues as more broadly defined. Some of which I mentioned here, things like the infrastructure of hydraulic systems in agriculture for instance. I think we helped widen the field by the fellowships we gave and also by encouraging people to apply and how we were interpreting things.
VCM: Are you aware of any important collaborations with other institutions in Garden and Landscape Studies with Dumbarton Oaks?
LO: I’m not. I mean I personally have – I think most of the Senior Fellows usually have other institutional relationships, so Dumbarton Oaks de facto has some contact with their parent institutions, if you follow me. But, official collaborations – I don’t know of any, and, in fact, very little with, say, the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, the one that would be the easiest you’d think for it to have.
VCM: You’d think and yet –
LO: Where did you do your study, by the way, in Classics?
VCM: Yeah, at Harvard.
LO: Where were your classes?
VCM: Boylston Hall.
LO: Boylston? Okay. Just curious.
VCM: It’s a really pretty building. How would you view the place of Dumbarton Oaks in the larger context of the Garden and Landscape Studies field?
LO: Oh, I think it’s like one of the flagships: because of all the people who’ve come and gone there, because of their symposia, because of their publications, because of the Fellows which they send off into the world. I think it has quite a major role in the evolution and development of garden and landscape studies in the twentieth century and now the twenty-first. There’s no question about it. Other places have come and gone and folded. One thinks of – I can’t even think of its name now, up the Hudson River from New York – Wave Hill came and went. It foundered financially. It was a repository for landscape records and library and study. It’s collapsed. There are various universities that have PhD programs that are producing people, like Illinois, Berkeley, and Yale, and Penn occasionally, and Harvard occasionally. But you turn to Europe and you say, “Well, what is there comparable?” And I defy you to think of something. There are universities where there are faculty members, or there will be a conference or symposium, but there is nothing quite like it. The only thing that I could compare it to are the American Academy in Rome or I Tatti, which are centers for advanced study, or CASVA or something like that. Right? Can you think of anything else by the way? Has anyone else told you anything else?
VCM: Peter Jacobs said that there are places in Asia that are similar, but you know not in the English-speaking world.
LO: I’m not sure – well, I know Peter and I’m not sure what he’s thinking of. There’s a center in Hong Kong in a University there, but I just think of it as mostly like a University with some Fellows and things. And the department that’s set up at Tsinghua in Beijing, there is nothing in Beijing like it. There’s tons of universities and centers and this and that, but – Shengming Ma is trying to set up an academy in Shanghai right now like the American Academy in Rome that would have some of the features of Rome, I Tatti, and D.O., that I don’t think it’s fully fledged yet. So that’s interesting.
VCM: You’d have to ask him.
LO: So I think in the larger context, Betty and John and Michel – basically I think they have helped invent and develop a huge field internationally that now may run off in all directions and leave them sort of as a funny island. But I think its role has been enormous.
VCM: Do you think that Dumbarton Oaks has a reputation that is consistent with that role that it’s played?
LO: I don’t know. I think it should. I guess de facto the old guard knows. I don’t know what the younger scholars might think. They probably think that the action is somewhere else these days. I don’t know.
VCM: Did you continue to interact with Dumbarton Oaks when you finished your term on the Board of Senior Fellows?
LO: I did off and on. I was invited and I still am invited frequently to come do things and rarely can I. I attended several – how can I say – I went to some symposia. I actually gave a paper that was in one of the publications, and that was great fun, on regionalism. It’s a paper that I’m actually quite proud of.
VCM: Do you mind if I ask about that? Because there’s an entire folder, like a file-folder about liable issues with that paper…
LO: Really? Interesting. No one told me about it.
VCM: I don’t know, there was some issue.
LO: I must have made some rude remarks. I wonder what they would be?
VCM: I think you named a client, and they were afraid that the client would sue or something like that.
LO: Well, they never did. Actually, I’m still working for him, that client. That’s all right. I’ve been working for him for over twenty years. I was out with him out West last week. I’ve actually ripped up part of the garden and re-done part of it. They can relax. He would like somebody to write about him, he would like a whole book on him. I can tell you that. I usually think those things through before I do those things. I guess they didn’t have any release and that’s what made them nervous. Oh well. The paper was a little bit too long, but anyway – What else was I going to say? I also went back for, who was it? Oh, it was when Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, I can never say – anyway, when Joachim – we didn’t mention him in our discussion – when he was Director, he published some interesting stuff himself. I liked him, he was a bright, I though – he was a quite young thing and interesting. But he invited a lot of people to come every so often and just come sit around and have conversations, that weren’t just Senior Fellows meetings but he would just call up people and get people from all universities and get to for a weekend to come down and spend a day just talking about a topic. And those were fun. And we talked about – I’m trying to remember what they were about, I can’t remember. That’s where I first met people like Bernard Lassus, for instance – I met in one of those chats, who then later John hired to teach at Penn. Bernard was never on the Board with us. I don’t know if you know him but he’s this very interesting French landscape architect. But various people would come from UVA or, you know, various schools and we would sit around and talk, and people like Peter Jacobs would make it and myself. We had some very interesting conversations about aspects of the field or aspects of scholarship in the field or theory in the field. And that was, I thought – those were very good. At one point, God, I was on this advisory group to the NEA Design Arts Program for many years also, and we had some relationships with some of the people who were at D.O. Well, I think that’s about it.
VCM: Do you have any memories, either positive or negative, that stick out in your mind about Dumbarton Oaks?
LO: Oh yeah, positive, several. I’d say memories of the meetings and the discussions and the debates are extraordinarily positive. The sense of helping shape the growth of scholarship in a field that one had discovered and was helping to invent, that was exciting and fun. That’s very positive. Great feelings towards many of the people I spent time with. That’s the only thing that I ever missed about Harvard after I left was some of the people and the conversations we’d have. You know, lunch with Nelson Goodman from the Philosophy Department. The great fun of talking to other people that were so smart; that was fun. I also – I personally learned an enormous amount from many of these people, in terms of my own growth. At one point, I wrote a – I panned a book by one of the other Fellows in a review, that was an interesting moment. I thought he was bright and sharp. I hated the book and I thought the publisher really screwed him with terrible reproductions. So that was an interesting – it wasn’t bad for me; I think it may have been for him. Negative, I don’t really have any negative feelings about it, about my time there or my efforts. I thought those of us who went and participated I think everyone appreciated our effort. It was its own reward; it was great. I loved the place. Physically, I just thought it was a fabulous place to be and hang out. I love the gardens.
VCM: It’s really beautiful here. Is there anything that I’ve left out that you would like to add?
LO: No, I wish it well. I hope John is a success. I haven’t seen him for a while. I’m fond of him. I feel out of touch, but given my practice and my life it’s reasonable, I guess, that it would be a bit.
VCM: I’ll tell him you said hi.
LO: Say “hey” for me and tell him I love him. And keep me on a mailing list or something, okay?
VCM: Okay. Well, thank you very much.
LO: Well, you’re welcome and good luck to you. What are you going to do with all of this? It makes me nervous saying all of this [laughs].
VCM: Well, it will be published and used to create an institutional history. It’s hoped to capture important moments in D.O.’s history.
LO: That reminds me of the huge controversy for a new building there for a gallery museum building. Oh my God, I was one of the people who opposed it and was vociferous and was public about my opposition. Along with many others, by the way – I can’t take all pride for having stopped the project, but what a terrible idea.
VCM: Where did they want to put it?
LO: First they were going to start with an above-ground thing, and then they ended up with a below-grade thing and they were going to put it, you know how you come out of those French doors unto that grass terrace and grass steps towards Rock Creek Park? Yeah, they were going to put it under that lawn, I think they were trying to get it under there.
VCM: I think that’s where they were thinking of building the library.
LO: It was a library, yeah – anyway, I was one of the people that helped stop it. It was a terrible idea.
VCM: They have a library now, like a new one.
LO: It’s above ground and across the street, right? Where is it?
VCM: No, it’s, like, behind the, I guess, what used to be the Fellows Building?
LO: It’s off to the side, what I would call, I guess, west. But it’s not in Farrand’s garden. I think it’s where the parking lot used to be.
VCM: It might well be.
LO: The guy who was the architect for that, Warren Cox of Hartman-Cox, is an old colleague and friend of mine, who I actually hired when I was doing the landscape for the Washington Monument after 9/11, when they asked me to solve the security problems. I did most of it – for one part it was unsolvable. But when I redid the grounds for the Washington Monument I hired Warren who was the architect for that Dumbarton Oaks project. So I absolutely thought what a terrible idea, they were going to wreck Farrand’s garden basically, and with all the exit stairs and ramps and smoke exhaust and cut down all these trees – anyways just a horrible idea. And so we stopped that, a bunch of us. So, for all my love of D.O., some administrations have gone off in funny directions. Anyways, that’s it.
LO: Okay? So my best wishes to everybody. To John and to the new Director, who – he’s probably been these for a bit, but I wish them all well. I think it’s a great institution that needs love and help. And I wish them well with their strange parents at Harvard.
VCM: Before I let you go, can I get a snail mail address so I can mail you the consent form?
LO: Sure it’s LaurieOlin@olin –
VCM: Oh no, like a –
LO: No, no, now I’m – It’s suite 1123, The Public Ledger Building, which is 150 South Independence Mall West, Philadelphia, PA 19106. I guess you taped it all, so whatever.
VCM: Taped it all.
LO: Okay, well, there’re a lot of people’s private lives that have gone up and down in institutions. This one is no different than the others. Everyone’s lived through it as far as I can tell. Okay?
LO: Bye-bye and good luck to you with the rest of your project.
VCM: Thank you very much.
LO: Okay. Bye.