21 November 2023
DocTalks x MoMA
Session 4

Olmsted’s Dividends

Princeton University

Respondent: Luke Harris, ETH Zurich

Chinese workers mining on Mariposa Creek, 1867. From Newell D. Chamberlain, The Call of Gold: True Tales on the Gold Road to Yosemite (Mariposa, Calif.: Gazette Press, 1936), 26.

Six years after overseeing the design and construction of Manhattan’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted was appointed “Superintendent” of the Mariposa Estate, a network of gold and silver mines situated on seventy square-miles in Central California. Mariposa’s New York shareholders understood the unique competencies Olmsted demonstrated at Central Park as an ideal skillset for mine management. While landscape and architectural historians have noted Olmsted’s engagement at Mariposa, his work in mineral extraction remains underexamined despite raising important theoretical and historical questions about the imbrications of land, race, and economic value in the context of 19th century continental imperialism. Referring to Olmsted’s correspondence and Mariposa Company financial records, and informed by theoretical formulations of racial capitalism, I argue that landscape architecture’s emergence as a distinct profession was inseparable from modes of capitalist value production rooted in racial difference. After taking charge of Mariposa, Olmsted confronted the enterprise’s poor financial performance by slashing mine workers’ pay by two-thirds. After laborers stopped working in protest, Olmsted hired Chinese workers at half the wages of the predominantly white miners on strike. Thus, Olmsted’s tenure at Mariposa Estate involved an adaptation of the American West’s racialized economic geography from a horizontal topographic axis to an equally vast if less readily pictured landscape extending vertically down through subterranean strata of mineral resources. In his remaining two years as a mining manager, Olmsted ingratiated himself with San Francisco bankers who were busy overseeing investments in infrastructure such as shipping and oil prospecting, industries that would prove crucial to settler expansionism throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Building on these relationships, Olmsted began advising wealthy New Yorkers on investments in the American West, translating his expertise managing large-scale earth-moving projects into personal financial confidence. Olmsted’s career in California reveals landscape as a vocation in postbellum America through which land became equivalent to monetary value – liquid and convertible – and race became immutable, tangible, and real.


Mass Timber
in Historical Perspective:
Remediating a Resource Economy


Respondent: Erin Putalik, University of Virginia

Log yard at a family-owned sawmill and cross-laminated timber plant in the state of Washington. Photo by Megan Wiessner.

The past decade has seen an explosion of architectural research and theory focused on the extractive material basis of conventional architecture and the cumulative effects of producing new built environments on other landscapes. Alongside academics and theorists, practicing architects and engineers have also become more aware of the wider costs of everyday construction materials, and begun to understand buildings as complex assemblages with tentacular entanglements around the world. As practices like whole building life cycle assessment and materials certification begin to shape decisions about materials, these ideas themselves take on historical significance.

Focusing on the growing mass timber industry in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada, this project offers a historical and ethnographic perspective on the intersection of anxiety over the material costs of buildings with legacy industries and supply chains. My research takes up the conundrum of how and why timber —a commodity product still associated by many here with environmental degradation, and at the heart of longstanding conflicts over land and labor—has also recently been recognized as a sustainable construction material by surprisingly diverse constituencies. The talk touches on some of the unique historical and cultural dynamics that have made mass timber popular here, but have also made its uptake here look different than in other regions: the ecological legacy of Indigenous dispossession and wildfire suppression in Western North America; the increasing scarcity and precarity of work in forests at the end of the twentieth century; a regional history of significant and successful anti-logging activism; and the recent growth of the tech industry here. Sustainability is always more than a function of objective material properties, and this work makes a case for historicizing the relationships and cultural contexts that understand and produce timber as a low-carbon construction material.

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