The Fearless Grady Clay

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Few journalists have had a greater impact on the field of landscape architecture than Grady Clay, Honorary ASLA, who died on Sunday at the age of 96. He was the editor of this magazine for nearly a quarter century—from 1960 to 1984. He chaired the commission that selected Maya Lin’s solemn design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was intimately involved with one of the first ecological planning studies in the United States, and apparently coined the term “New Urbanist.”

Clay grew up in Atlanta, the son of an ophthalmologist, but he spent much of his childhood on a family farm nearby. There he learned about erosion and the joys of playing in ditches. He attended Emory University and then Columbia University’s School of Journalism, graduating in 1939. During World War II, he served in Europe and was wounded while working for the army’s weekly magazine.

Clay first made a name for himself in Kentucky as the real estate editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal. His critical reports on urban renewal and highways drew the attention of William H. Whyte, who included an essay by Clay in The Exploding Metropolis, his 1958 classic on struggling cities and suburban sprawl.As it happened, Campbell Miller, a prominent landscape architect from Louisville, was a member of this magazine’s publication board around that time, and was unsatisfied with its direction. He showed Clay an issue and asked: “What in the hell can we do to improve this?” Clay recalled in 1984. After Clay offered some suggestions, he was brought on as an associate editor.

Clay’s folksy editorials in Landscape Architecture brought a new energy to the magazine and lifted the profile of the profession, remembers E. Lynn Miller, FASLA, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and a friend of Clay’s. But of his essays from the 1950s, it is one from Horizon magazine that probably draws the most attention these days. In a 1959 article called “Metropolis Regained,” Clay laid out the values of a new movement, which he called the New Urbanists: “We believe in the city, they would say, not in tearing it down. We like open space, but hold that too much of it is just as bad as too little.” Many of the beliefs of Clay’s New Urbanists are strikingly similar to those laid out by the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993.

When the editor of Landscape Architecture, Bradford Williams, died unexpectedly in 1960, Clay took the reins and moved the magazine from Boston to Louisville. During the next few years, it transformed from a snazzy vehicle for sharing information between ASLA members to a hybrid of correspondence, academic writing, and journalism aimed at a broad audience interested in environmental design and planning. Clay also increased its publication from quarterly to bimonthly in 1976.

Two later editors of LAM, Susan Rademacher and J. William Thompson, say they admired Clay’s willingness to publish controversial articles. “He was very clear that editorial was independent, investigative, not afraid to rub people the wrong way,” says Rademacher. Clay began the transition away from landscape architects writing about their own work, and decried an ASLA policy that kept members from criticizing other members publicly.

Many longtime readers of LAM still remark upon Clay’s decision to put Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden on the magazine’s cover in 1980, which generated a barrage of angry letters. Publishing the work of artists like Robert Smithson, who were not trained as landscape architects, was also contentious, as was the amount of attention LAM gave to Ian McHarg in the mid-1960s, Miller says.

Clay had met McHarg when he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard from 1948–1949, and LAM was the first to publish the landscape architect’s ideas about ecological planning. At the time, both men were serving on a task force for the Potomac River Basin. “It was a very groundbreaking study,” Fritz Steiner of the University of Texas at Austin says. If you’ve read McHarg’s Design with Nature, you’ve probably seen parts of it.

Clay’s familiarity with controversy would come in handy when he led the commission on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I think we forget the reaction the competition elicited and the sort of firestorm of controversy,” says Steiner. “He was one of the people who literally stood by [Lin’s] side, and, as a veteran himself, spoke with great authority.”

Clay was never a full-time editor of LAM. With only four to six issues per year, he had time to teach, lecture, and write a number of books, including Close-up: How to Read the American City. During his early years as editor, he continued to write for the Courier-Journal.

Even after Clay left LAM, he never really retired. He kept writing. He recorded public radio segments called Crossing the American Grain.

Grady is survived by his wife, the architect and planner Judith McCandless, and three sons. A memorial service will be held at 11:00 a.m. this Saturday at St. Matthews Episcopal Church, 330 N. Hubbards Lane, Louisville, Kentucky. A reception will follow.

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