Chicago’s landscape legacy: An interview with Julia Bachrach
From April 19 to May 13, CAC is running a four-part program on Chicago’s landscape legacy. We sat down with Julia Bachrach, the host and lecturer for this series, to get a preview.
by Michael Wood, Senior Director of Program Strategy
Julia S. Bachrach’s work is difficult to summarize in just one paragraph. She served as the historian and preservationist for the Chicago Park District for more than 28 years. Before that, she was the preservation planner for the City of Highland Park. She has written and published extensively on the historic landscapes, artworks and architecture within Chicago’s public sphere. Julia has produced dozens of nominations for the National Register of Historic Places, written several books, led tours and workshops, curated exhibits and produced digital media projects. She holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Cultural Resource Management from the Landscape Architecture Department.
We live in a city famed for its architecture and architects. Why is landscape architecture less discussed, and how do you try to change that?
I think there are several answers to that question. Landscapes are ephemeral, and they are constantly changing. Landscape generally must provide a broader array of functions and programs than buildings. In Chicago, landscape architects have largely been overshadowed by architects. But we do have an amazing legacy of landscape architecture in Chicago and I think many people are interested in learning more about these “natural” historic resources. I am excited about the Dan Kiley exhibit and the related public programs that I’ll be involved with at CAC!
What is it about Dan Kiley’s work that deserves such critical admiration and respect?
In many ways, the 1960s marked a low point in American urban planning and design, especially in Chicago. Urban renewal practices, highway construction and the heavy-handed design ethos of Modernism often resulted in unattractive, brutal and inhumane spaces. Dan Kiley’s exquisite work of the period showed that landscape could express Modernism while still conveying warmth, beauty and livability. His 1960s designs for the Art Institute’s South Garden and Milton Lee Olive Park fit into Chicago’s great tradition of landscape architecture. Fortunately, by the 1990s and 2000s, other beautifully designed landscapes were created in Chicago and the suburbs. Among them was Kiley’s 2004 Esplanade at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
What does it mean to “read a landscape”?
I hope to help the audience [for this program] develop “landscape literacy.” In many ways, “reading a landscape” is similar to “reading a building.” Landscapes often reflect styles or cultural preferences of their time. The layout of a composition may be formal or informal, or have combinations of both. Like architects, landscape architects rely on a series of elements. Landscape designers also manipulate views and viewsheds [and] the use of light and shadow. They often know how to enhance the season experiences of the place. I plan to focus on the vocabulary of elements used by the different designers so that CAC audience members can interpret landscapes as well as they interpret buildings.
If you had unlimited funds and the approval of the City of Chicago, where would you invest more heavily in landscape architecture?
If I had unlimited funds, I would restore and upgrade Chicago’s dozens of significant historic landscapes. These include original neighborhood parks designed by the Olmsted Brothers such as Sherman Park, Palmer Park and Davis Square; Alfred Caldwell’s work in Riis Park; and Jens Jensen’s formal gardens in Douglas, Garfield and Humboldt Parks. Fortunately, the Chicago Parks Foundation, Chicago Park District and Garden Conservancy have teamed up to revitalize Jensen’s formal garden in Humboldt Park.
What’s your favorite park in Chicago?
I have a lot of favorites. My top five are: Humboldt Park (I often call this park Jens Jensen’s living laboratory), Jackson Park (Frederick Law Olmsted prepared full plans for the park on three separate occasions!), Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool in Lincoln Park (So gorgeous, and volunteers give free tours there on weekends May through October), Columbus Park (Jens Jensen’s masterpiece), and Jackson Park Perennial Garden (designed by May E. McAdams in the 1930s).