Grady Clay, the Agitator

Former longtime editor Grady Clay, Honorary ASLA, looks back at a life spent with the landscape.

By Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA

Photo by Kenneth Hayden.

We were sad to receive word of the death Sunday of Grady Clay, Honorary ASLA, LAM’s longtime, influential, and much-loved editor, at the age of 96 in Louisville. More remembrance and details on observances will follow as we receive them. For now, we are posting a terrific interview that Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, did with Grady for the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue.

Grady Clay, Honorary ASLA, who worked as an associate editor and, ultimately, the executive editor of Landscape Architecture for 23 years, has a rich, extraordinary perspective on the profession and its practitioners. As an outsider with tremendous insight, Clay, now 94, helped shape decades of debate and discourse. He chronicled the origins of modernism, the first corporate office parks, The RSVP Cycles, Design with Nature, postmodernism, and both the New American Garden and the Bagel Garden. He plucked out new talent like a gifted curator and gave it a voice. Clay’s arrival came at a major hinge point in the profession, as it coincided with the centennial of Central Park and the onset of urban renewal. His incisive editorial vision marked a passing of the profession’s old guard and the rise of a new generation’s eclectic vision.

His run began in the fall of 1957, when, as associate editor, he published an editorial, “Landscape USA: Who did it?” as the first of a dozen pithy challenges penned under his editorial mentor, Bradford Williams. Williams had previously worked for the Olmsted Brothers and Fletcher Steele before going off on his own and had been involved in the quarterly since 1926. He had also worked with Henry Hubbard, who founded the magazine in 1910 with Charles Downing Lay and Robert Wheelwright.

In March 1960, Williams died unexpectedly. Between the time that Clay came on board and Williams’s death, the profession would also witness the deaths of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Beatrix Farrand, Martha Brookes Hutcheson, Bremer Pond, Arthur Shurcliff, Alling DeForest, A. F. Brinckerhoff, Alfred Geiffert, Charles Ramsdell, Ralph Stevens, Emerson Knight, and Herbert Hare: a clear, collective signal of the close of an era.

Clay became the magazine’s executive editor with the Summer 1960 issue. He was its third top editor (counting the founding committee as one), and the first not to be a member of the society. In the interview that follows, conducted at Clay’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, in mid-August, he reminisces about his 23 years as editor, how he came to the magazine, and how the publication evolved under his watch. Clay stepped down with the January 1984 issue, turning over the editorship to Susan Rademacher Frey, an associate editor since 1977. Clay’s departure also marked the end of the magazine’s Publication Board, which ASLA had setup as a semi-independent trust.

Under Clay, quarterly publication increased to six times a year, and its readership and influence surged. He was among the first to publish the work of A. E. Bye; Lawrence Halprin; Ian McHarg; Darrel Morrison, FASLA; Martha Schwartz, ASLA; and James van Sweden, FASLA. He also courted writers outside the profession including J. B. Jackson, Ada Louise Huxtable, David Lowenthal, Robert Moses, and William “Holly” Whyte.

It is fitting that Clay’s first editorial, “The Environment-Controllers: Water Runs Downhill in Cities Too,” ends with the recognition that “the gap between urban and rural thinking is indeed an old one.” Clay would return to this arbitrary divide between city and country time and again through such diverse topics as sprawl, historic preservation, watershed management, and ecological design. Clay took charge of the magazine during the year of its 50th anniversary. A few years later, in 1964, his magazine celebrated the centennial of landscape architecture as a profession in the United States. As this issue marks the centennial of the magazine he changed so much, we look back with Grady Clay to when he first began as Landscape Architecture’s editor 50 years ago and his experiences in the transformative decades that followed.

CHARLES BIRNBAUM: Tell me about your earliest memories of landscape architecture as a profession.

GRADY CLAY: I had been exposed early to landscape architecture through the work of Neel Reid of Atlanta, who had started his practice in Macon, Georgia, where he had several of my mother’s extended family as clients. She had 11 brothers and sisters in Macon, and some were quite prosperous and could afford Reid as an architect. I think he consulted on our house where we lived in Atlanta in Ansley Park. He was a damn handsome man. He did fine houses; they’re all quite traditional. But to live in a Neel Reid house when I was growing up was quite an accomplishment. And we lived in one—a two-story white Colonial.

You might say that I grew up with the idea that doing the landscape was an admirable, traditional, professional thing to accomplish. So I think that I was preconditioned to accept Landscape Architecture as a magazine that I should have something to do with.

CB: Knowing how important a balanced existence in both the city and the country are to you in your writings, tell me about your childhood experiences in the country.

GC: The family farm is still in the family. It was an old cotton farm, 40 miles from Atlanta, and I spent my summers there as a teenager. I learned to hunt, fish, shoot, and worked on the farm—filled in the ditches and gullies and brought in the hay. There were black field hands with picks and shovels. We would cut down small pine trees, haul them in through ditches, then shovel in dirt on top. That reclaimed the cotton fields and converted them to grass. Dad bought the first Polled Hereford into the county they ever had. When it was unloaded off a cattle car it created a sensation. They all lined up for stud. It created a lot of business and a lot of calves. That was a formative part of my life.

CB: How did you come to the magazine?

GC: Through Campbell Miller, who recommended me to Brad Williams. I was invited to Boston to be interviewed. Williams was a very imposing, a self-effacing man, but I say “imposing” because he was obviously well versed in the magazine and Boston. He represented the old, reliant Bostonian. He was very proper, rather formal. He always treated me a little formally, but not in an unfriendly way. It was just his way. He was not a shoulder grabber, so we got along very well. He respected the fact that I knew something about editorial work and layout. I had been involved with the introduction of the Sunday magazine in The Courier-Journal, so I was familiar with the entire production process. I had spent time with the photo editor and the printing plant. So I was not a stranger to any of the facets of production. Which I think was welcome to him, as he would have had a hard time with just an editorial specialist.

I think I was impressed that landscape architecture was a discipline about which I knew very little, and it had a deep background, of which Mr. Williams was exceedingly conscious. He kept yanking me backwards, so to speak, to alert me to the historical value of some of these things that I would not recognize. So it was a great experience because I knew I was in the presence of an older generation who had things to tell me that I did not know a damn thing about. So it was a good relationship.

CB: What was your assessment of the publication in the early days when it was being balanced with your work at The Courier-Journal?

GC: I was conscious of the fact that the magazine was much too oriented toward Boston, and I had enough contacts around the country that I wanted to exploit those and broaden the reach, the scope, and the touch of the magazine. It was easy to do since my position at the Courier gave me status that was separate from that of the magazine, so I could call people and get their attention. It was easy to exploit that advantage and find contributors or people who would help me with my travels. Ultimately, I could not handle both and had to make a choice, so I chose the magazine.

CB: What were you doing for the Courier-Journal at the same time?

GC: I did environmental reporting and also reported for Arts in Louisville [a section of The Courier-Journal], where I had a column called Townscape.

CB: Was this pre-Gordon Cullen’s seminal publication, The Concise Townscape?

GC: I think that I picked it up from Cullen.

CB: Where did you get ideas?

GC: We all read The Architectural Review and picked up plenty of ideas on how to present yourself and the subject. We needed any model we could find. We picked and chose pretty freely.

CB: Were there other columns or ideas that grew out of The Courier-Journal?

GC: The Roving Eye column [an occasional column that began in the 1970s] came from Arts in Louisville in the Journal. This was a one-page column that didn’t have to do with anything else in the paper—basically it was anything that I wanted to write about. Here I wrote about things like interstates going through parkland, downtown design, in other words, art in landscape that wasn’t being considered.

CB: Did you travel with a camera?

GC: I had a Leica and later a Kodak. Originally the Leica came from my dad, an ophthalmologist who used it for photographs of the eye. He changed cameras and turned it over to me. It was an extraordinary, early version of the Leica. I only had it for a short time until it was pickpocketed in Italy.

CB: Tell me about the design and photography of the magazine in these early days.

GC: I was involved in the entire design process. We also hired a graphic designer. Often photos were contributed by the designer, who would pay a photographer to photograph their work and they would pass the photos on to us, so we did not bear that expense.

CB: Were writers paid?

GC: We had to pay some people, but I don’t remember who or what the occasion was. Someone writing about their own work wasn’t paid.

CB: What about landscape architects who were writing for the magazine?

GC: It was a mixed bag. Some were good writers, and some were terrible. I would have to judge each case on its own merits. For example, McHarg was a born elocutionist. Sometimes he was too wordy, but that is all right. He would take editing, while others, no matter what they wrote, it would come out dull. You just had to encourage people to do better and to get help with their copy, if need be. [I would] try to do it tactfully so [I did] not ruin their ego.

CB: From the beginning you started writing multipage manifestos like “The Coming Struggle for Service” (January 1961). What was their purpose, and did you think they were successful?

GC: They were a part of a struggle of mine to broaden the scope of the magazine and to enlist a lot of people who were calling themselves something else, like “urban designers” and “land planners,” but were in fact doing landscape architectural work. To this end, I tried to keep abreast of the expanding definition of design. This meant getting in contact with a lot of people for the first time—in a sense I was both an editor and a promoter. So this went into expanding the reach, scope, and influence in what had been a small, limited, myopic magazine. Perhaps “myopic” is too harsh a word—it was just that the magazine was not designed to appeal to anyone outside this tiny, little profession.

CB: You published a number of geographic thematic issues on places like the Rocky Mountains and Pittsburgh. In April 1962 Halprin guest edited the first of several issues focused on Israel. What was the strategy?

GC: It reminded the totality of the readership that we were conscious of regional difference and that uniqueness and indigenousness were important. So those original theme issues served a useful purpose. We also hoped that these issues would get reprinted in an author’s hometown—this often resulted in double orders.

I do not specifically remember the Halprin issue [about Israel], but this was the one place in the world where this type of resettlement, new town building, was going on. And so we hopped on it as much as we could.

CB: During the late 1960s, you increased your reporting on social systems with contributors such as Randy Hester, FASLA, and Clare Cooper Marcus, Honorary ASLA. [Birnbaum shows Clay two representative cover designs from 1968.]

GC: I was determined to shock people as a way of getting attention, using colors like this. I knew a lot of people would say, “What the hell is that doing on the cover of Landscape Architecture?” Then, they would open the magazine to see. So it was a little deliberate discomfort, you might say—more ways to kill a cat than choking it with butter.

CB: What is deliberate discomfort? Was this employed often?

GC: No, just once in a while; I didn’t want to become predictable. I did not want people to pick us up and think, “Oh no, another pretty picture of a pedestrian mall.”

CB: Throughout your career, you summoned readers to take a stand on issues, even suggesting local “revolts” against road construction in parks. How important is this?

GC: Get in there and do it. There is always a need for some organization that carries local clout in which landscape architects can fit and contribute. I thought it almost went without saying, but I found I had to say it. I just didn’t see any way that you could call yourself a professional without taking a public position that called on professional expertise.

CB: You use the term uglification often. What does it mean?

GC: [Laughter] Disharmony, intrusion, awkward relation to the surroundings. I think that covers it.

CB: Did you make up that word?

GC: I think that I picked it up from The Architectural Review in England, which was the lone voice for architectural criticism, which brought about environmental criticism. The Review had some of the best writers in the world doing critiques. So we read it with great interest and picked up plenty of ideas—both in exposition and graphic presentation.

CB: You had Nelva Weber’s occasional horticulture column. What are your thoughts on covering plants?

GC: Plants were not my personal comfort zone, although I grew up with plants. My mother was a gardener, and the family farm was part of my life. I had no expertise at all. But I bent over backwards so that the magazine met the needs of those readers who were plantsmen.

CB: What about plants within the realm of ecological discourse?

GC: Well, yes, it was such a broad subject. Ecology was one of the broadest subfields in the whole range of environmental writing—it had no end to it. It was open-ended. That is what appealed to me about ecology as a basis of design.

CB: In addition to Weber you gave many women writers a voice. Was that strategic?

GC: It was just a way of broadening the scope, reach, and influence. If there had been a third sex, I would have gone after them.

CB: Are there particular issues of the magazine that still stand out for you today?

GC: I think that when we did a whole issue on ecology as a basis of design, I think this was significant at the time. I remember that after this came out I had a personal encounter with some old fart who said, “That’s not landscape architecture.” He was very adamant. I am sure that we had some letters about this too.

CB: What about Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden (January 1980)? That generated a lot of letters.

GC: I still hear about that. That was really an affront to a lot of people.

CB: That didn’t scare you off. You published [Schwartz’s] Necco Garden two years later (May 1982).

GC: I wouldn’t have had a bagel garden myself. But I thought, okay, so that is her version of what a garden can be and ought to be. And nobody else had thought of it. So I say, “Why not?” In retrospect, it may be considered pretty damn trivial, but it did set people to thinking about what really is a garden. What does a garden mean? And how can we expand the meaning and the practice and the concept so it served a useful purpose?

CB: What is your comfort zone?

GC: [Laughter] Well, that is a hell of a good question. I would have to say in places that are worthy of exploration. As I have gotten older I’m comfortable among people that I know, but that wasn’t always true.

I think I have a wide comfort zone—my family had been very generous in treating me to a variety of experiences. I had a constant challenge of city versus country every weekend—seeing the differences between the people, the customs, the income, the line of work, and the conditions between the city and the country. We lived in a very comfortable part of Atlanta, and the farm was in as poor a section of Georgia as you could find. There were cotton farms, a country store, a bank that occupied a bankrupt building. In the country I saw a broad range of humanity that I wouldn’t see in Atlanta.

CB: Was this relationship between city and country something that you focused on as editor?

GC: I am not sure that I was conscious of that, but I am sure that must have figured. It meant that I knew that there were two sides to this—and that the city could not survive without the country, nor the country without the city. They reinforced each other, and bad conditions in one reflected on the other. So I had this unconscious, subconscious realization of the interdependence of city and country. So I was very lucky that life had forced me into that realization.

CB: Do you still read Landscape Architecture?

GC: Well, I would say cursorily—I certainly don’t read it to try to pick at it. I read it chiefly just to see how the world has changed.

Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, is the founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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