New Yorkers have a variety of sayings about how they want nothing to do with nature, just as nature wants nothing to do with them. As a counterpoint, one might adduce Central Park, whose 843 acres of trees, grass, and water have occupied the middle of Manhattan for a century and a half now. Yet that “most famous city park in the world,” as veteran New York architect Michael Wyetzner puts it in the Architectural Digest video above, is both nature and not. Though Central Park may feel as if it has existed since time immemorial, organically thriving in its space long before the towers that surround it, few large urban spaces had ever been so deliberately conceived.
In the video, Wyetzner (previously featured here on Open Culture for his explanations of New York apartments, subway stations, and bridges, as well as individual works of architecture like Penn Station and the Chrysler Building) shows us several spots in Central Park that reveal the choices that went into its design and construction.
Many were already present in landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original plan, which they submitted to an open design competition in 1857. Of all the entries, only theirs refused to let the park be cut apart by transverse roads, opting instead to round automobile traffic underground and preserve a continuous experience of “nature” for visitors. (If only more recent urban parks could have kept its example in mind.)
Central Park would be welcome even if it were just a big of expanse of trees, grass, and water. But it also contains many distinctive built structures, such as the much-photographed mall leading to Bethesda Terrace, the “second-oldest cast-iron bridge in the United States,” the dairy that once provided fresh milk to New York’s children, and Belvedere Castle. That last is built at three-quarters scale, “which makes it appear further away than it actually is, and gives it this sort of magical fairy-tale quality,” the same trick that the builders of Disneyland would employ intensively about a century later. But the priorities of Walt Disney and his collaborators differed from the designers of Central Park, who, as Vaux once said, put “nature first, second, and third — architecture after a while.” If a mutually beneficial deal could be struck between those two phenomena anywhere, surely that place is New York City.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.