How Central Park Was Created Entirely By Design & Not By Nature: An Architect Breaks Down America’s Greatest Urban Park

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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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Lost Neigh­bor­hood Buried Under New York City’s Cen­tral Park

An Archi­tect Breaks Down the Design of New York City Sub­way Sta­tions, from the Old­est to Newest

An Immer­sive Archi­tec­tur­al Tour of New York City’s Icon­ic Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal

Behold the New York City Street Tree Map: An Inter­ac­tive Map That Cat­a­logues the 700,000 Trees Shad­ing the Streets of New York City

Archi­tect Breaks Down Five of the Most Icon­ic New York City Apart­ments

A Whirl­wind Archi­tec­tur­al Tour of the New York Pub­lic Library — “Hid­den Details” and All

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.

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