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Parkitecture

Picnic Shelter, Letchworth State Park

Picnic shelter at Letchworth State Park, NY

The Goldfish Globe

Ben Delman, The Goldfish Globe (1937)

The Acacia Plant

Meyer Bernstein, The Acacia Plant (ca. 1935-1940)

The term parkitecture, also known as “National Park Service rustic,” refers to a style of architecture that occurs mostly in the national parks of the United States, in which built structures attempt to harmonize and blend in with the natural environment that surrounds them. The exact origins of the term are unclear, but it is generally thought to have emerged around the same time the architectural style did, in the early to mid-twentieth century. This style was a fusion of many landscape design styles, namely picturesque, prairie, and arts and crafts. In the parkitecture style, horizontal lines are generally dominant and buildings that surround each other should look similar enough as to not draw attention. Most importantly, the built structures should not divert attention from the natural beauty of the park itself. Because many of these original Parkitecture structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and early 1940s, the Parkitecture style is not limited exclusively to national parks, but can also be seen in some state parks and national forests where the CCC was active.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was especially active in Letchworth State Park, restoring a previously deforested area into the natural landscape we admire today. As in other parks across the nation, the CCC’s presence brought with it built structures and architectural design that over time have almost melded into the aesthetic of the landscape. The CCC built bridges, footpaths, cabins, roads, and guard rails. Even structures that may have been built after the CCC’s work at Letchworth seem to retain the same style and feeling as the one’s built by the CCC. The picnic area, featured in the photo on the left, though obviously not 'built by nature' and designed for human interaction, does not disrupt the 'naturalness' of the surrounding area. Perhaps structures such as those built by the CCC within nature help us to break the binary people establish between humans and the natural environment. The structures, though built by people for people, do not make us feel separate from the earth. Tapping into the idea of the myth of untouched nature, Yale historian and former National Parks Advisory Board chairman Robin W. Winks speaking on the deterioration of CCC-era structures stated, "Visitors need to carry away the understanding that human beings are part of the natural landscape, too."

Incorporating built-structures into natural landscapes sometimes creates feelings of dissonance. We see goldfish in a bowl in an apartment, as in Ben Delman’s painting to the left, and something about it feels off. However, other incorporations, like a shed in a rural landscape, do not incite this out-of-place feeling. This idea of an increasingly technological society versus an 'untouched' nature is one that is explored somewhat frequently within the New Deal Gallery paintings. What at first may appear to be a simple still life of a vase of flowers begs certain questions that are remarkably similar to the questions one may ask themselves when viewing parkitecture. Why are those flowers inside in a vase, rather than outside growing? Do we consider uprooting flowers from the ground to display them indoors sustainable and worthwhile? Why do we do it? Is it merely aesthetically pleasing to look at? If it is aesthetically pleasing, does it harmonize with the environment that surrounds it? Meyer Bernstein’s painting depicts a tree growing within a pot, which immediately presents a sort of discord. This discord is strengthened by the placement of the pot inside of a room, on top of a table, with a man-made bottle next to it. However, the blue walls give an allusion to the outdoor sky. Though on a much different scale than the CCC does with park structures, the NDG paintings grapple with the interaction between man and nature.

The Great Depression was one of the first major periods in American history in which citizens came face-to-face with the idea of a natural environment that can be shaped and changed solely by human interaction. The CCC can be credited for practically bringing Letchworth State Park to life in the way that it is experienced today. Letchworth is known for some of its stonework and bridges, yet for many visitors, the question of who put them there does not seem paramount. Like Parkitecture structures in the national parks, the man-made structures in Letchworth may blend in to the park’s 'aesthetic' in such a way that they do not stand out as incongruous with the natural environment surrounding them. Perhaps, like the structures of the national parks, the structures of Letchworth again challenge the binary of man versus nature, making humans feel as much a part of the park as the trees and the canyon. In the same way, many of the NDG paintings encourage and challenge onlookers to ponder these same ideas.

Works Consulted

—Brown, Patricia Leigh. “America's Crumbling 'Parkitecture'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Aug. 1995.Web permalink here.

—“Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Website link here.