Courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation
What do Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, Biscayne Boulevard in Miami and the sculpture “Spiral Jetty” by Robert Smithson near Rozel Point, Utah, have in common? Each is an outdoor heritage site recognized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation in its online database What’s Out There (tclf.org).
Now newly optimized for smartphones and other handheld devices, the website includes a GPS-enabled What’s Nearby function that signals which of the more than 1,300 cultural landscapes identified in What’s Out There thus far—including public parks, scenic highways, historic cemeteries, industrial campuses and landmark malls—are within a 25-mile radius and worth a visit.
Charles Birnbaum, the visionary landscape proponent who founded TCLF in 1998 to raise awareness of the value of designed landscapes and outdoor spaces, spoke with us about his vision and what is next on his agenda.
Q: Let’s start with the basics: What is a cultural landscape?
A: It’s a broad category that covers designed landscapes, like New York’s Central Park, and vernacular landscapes, like Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon. As opposed to a natural landscape, a cultural landscape demonstrates some sort of cultural overlay or human involvement and can be ancient or modern.
Q: Why did you create What’s Out There?
A: There are lots of architectural guides about designed structures, but there is nothing comprehensive for designed landscapes. The U.S. has an outstanding landscape legacy and What’s Out There, which is free, online and loaded with images and information, makes this fascinating American heritage readily available to millions of people.
Q: Have you visited every site in the database?
A: No [with a laugh], not all the sites. But at least 75 percent.
Q: You live in Washington, D.C. Do you have a favorite landscape there?
A: In my top five is Meridian Hill Park, a glorious 12-acre park just a mile north of the White House. It’s an elegantly terraced, early-20th-century park by George Burnap and Horace Peaslee that features a spectacular cascading fountain inspired by the one at Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, Italy. There is also the stunningly beautiful Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown by Beatrix Farrand, the only female founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899.
Q: Last year you added 150 sites in the state of Maine alone. What’s next
A: Virginia and Texas are our target states this year, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. We’re also planning an international cultural landscape conference for 2015 in Toronto, which has some of the most exciting new parks in North America. And readers should check out "Landslide" on our website, a watch list for at-risk cultural landscapes.