An Interview with Charles Birnbaum
As the Founder and President of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Charles Birnbaum is changing the way we think about landscape architecture and it's practitioners
Charles Birnbaum grew up in New York City but some of his favorite memories were of visiting his grandparents in New London, CT where he spent time in their garden watching his Grandmother create sweeps of black-eyed susans. One of his favorite memories from this period was unearthing an old Moxie pop bottle while working with his Grandfather in the vegetable garden. It would be his first brush with landscape archeology and a moment that helped him view landscapes as a text or narrative with amazing stories and cultural fabric buried inside of them. The contrast of his time spent in the City and in his Grandparents garden would shape the way he looked at land and, in many ways, would shape his future.
After receiving his Bachelor's Degree in Landscape Architecture, Charles spent a decade in the private sector before moving into what would be a 15 year career working for the federal government at the National Park Service. It was during this time that Charles worked on a documentary called "Connections: Preserving America's Landscape Legacy." After screening the documentary at various film festivals, Charles noticed audiences getting very emotional about the landscapes and stories on screen. Seeing these reactions confirmed for him that people connect to landscapes on a personal level. He also knew that these storied landscapes should be recognized along with the practitioners who built them - much in the same way that people had come to look at traditional architecture and architects.
It was from this notion that The Cultural Landscape Foundation was born in 1998. Today, Charles and his colleagues at the Cultural Landscape Foundation act as stewards for cultural landscapes that cover a broad spectrum from parks and golf courses to cemeteries and highways. Their "What's Out There" database is a trusted resource for both students of landscape architecture and the general public who have an interest in these properties. If it has beauty, history or a story, it fits the criteria and is documented along with photos and interesting bits of information. The database can be easily searched on a number of criteria and is the perfect place to increase knowledge of landscape heritage or to plan an adventure. A mobile version of the database, available spring of 2013, will allow users to search based on location to see what landscapes are nearby and available to explore.
Many of the cultural landscapes identified by TCLF (www.tclf.org) feature trees whose role in the design cannot be fully appreciated until they reach maturity. Charles acknowledges the important role played by mature trees, which articulate the designer's intent and enable the site to speak with a clear voice. A perfect example can be seen in photos of the Dan Kiley-designed South Garden at the Art Institute of Chicago, where branches of individual cockspur hawthorn trees blend and intertwine to form one, stunning canopy.