Observations and Reflections on Karl Linn and His Work

During the 1950s Linn conducted a prestigious private practice in landscape architecture in New York and Philadelphia, but designing landscapes for an increasingly affluent clientele gradually undermined his sense of the social relevance of his work. In 1959 he joined the faculty of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania where he developed a program that engaged his students in providing community design-and-build service to economically disenfranchised communities in the inner city. Developing a participatory process he called "barnraising," Linn brought inner city residents together with the students, volunteer professionals, youth teams, artists, and other volunteer groups to envision, design, and construct whaat he called "neighborhood commons” -- a combination of park, playground, and community gathering place. These reflections by his colleagues, university department heads, public officials, mentors, and others shed light on the scope and value of his work.


Text from a 1975 U.S. Department of State exhibition on Participatory Architecture in Paris, France:

Linn is considered "Father of American Participatory Architecture" by many academic colleagues and architectural and environmental experts of the National Endowment for the Arts. Emphasizing [an] Urban Barnraising approach, Linn applies expertise in environmental psychology and landscape architecture to participatory architecture. During the past fifteen years he has involved the public across the U.S. and students in staging a broad range of community-based projects designed to strengthen citizen's competence in molding their own habitat.


Reflections from Karl’s Mentors:

"His realizations of creative outlets, which Land, Structure, and People together inspire, have impressed me as unique in giving constructive direction to the works of society. He is not merely a theorist, but a maker bent on expressing environmental validity through his natural adjustability and resourcefulness. His design tendencies are noble. He is often forced to use frugal means, but always rejects what is done through design only for design's sake."
--Louis I. Kahn, architect, 1967


"If Karl Linn can get his ideas recognized and applied, I believe we can have a profound improvement in city living and a reduction in the present untoward consequences of urban development which so completely overlooks children and youth and forgets about providing [spaces] for people to live and enjoy living."
--Lawrence K. Frank, social psychologist, Belmont, Mass., 1962 (Letter to Editor, published in Landscape Architecture)


"I am delighted with the vigorous ways you are challenging current clichés, not only in theory but in practice. I can plainly see, in the work you are doing, the fresh shoots that will flower in a new age."
--Lewis Mumford, social philosopher and urban planner, 1961


Reflections from Colleagues:

"Karl Linn has shown us something we can do together to change what is happening on Earth, to eliminate the economic and social inequities which are major causes of disturbances and of war."
--David Brower, founder, Earth Island Institute, San Francisco, California, 1990


"Karl Linn has stalwartly avoided the almost inevitable over-specialization which seems to dog most professions today. He is especially imaginative in sensing the larger ethical and spiritual dimensions of architecture, design and planning. He has an amazing intuition for the relationship between the ritual and festive use of spaces and buildings and their physical design. Mr. Linn possesses a truly unusual capacity to listen carefully to other people, to enter into their world of feeling and imagination, and to work deftly with divergent groups of people to bring something beautiful into existence."
--Harvey G. Cox, theologian, Harvard School of Divinity, 1977


"I am convinced that a vast new upsurge in our county is underway, focused on the betterment of our environment through active participation and involvement of citizens whose lives are vitally affected -- in ghetto areas, city cores, and areas ripe for renewal. We have the opportunity to catalyze and lead these citizen groups through actions of the kind which Karl Linn advocates."
--Lawrence Halprin, landscape architect, San Francisco, CA, 1969


“I have known and worked with Karl for approximately fifteen years and he continues to amaze me with his creativity and enthusiasm, which he uses so effectively to motivate people. Karl and I met in 1962 in a program called "Neighborhood Commons." I was a young architect who experienced what I choose to call total-motivation. But, I was only one of many who was infected with this wonderful, deliberate process of urban revitalization. It worked for the professionals, the community, the city officials and everyone it touched. Karl is a leader and a doer. I know of no one who can instill the quality of making someone want to do his best, like Karl can. "
--Robert J. Nash, President, National Organization of Minority Architects, Washington, D.C., 1974


"Karl and I first worked together in Chicago, [in 1964], on a Neighborhood Commons community project. That cooperation made me aware of his genius with respect to relating the physical landscape and environment of community to human aspiration and political organization. Among those of us involved in new forms of neighborhood government and citizen participation, Karl Linn holds a unique position relating to these environmental goals and these political goals."
--Milton Kotler, Founder and Executive Director, National Association of Neighborhoods, Washington, DC, 1974


"I first met Karl [in 1962] while serving as a Unitarian minister in Washington, D.C. He was responsible for much of my earliest enthusiasm for the possibilities of urban community development. Let me say with emphasis that his ideas were -- and remain still today -- particularly exciting to those of us who are concerned with realizing the potential for cooperative action among diverse populations, and for reaching the most profound communal bases of feeling and motivation of a constructive nature available to conscious artistic articulation. The relation of the architectural and other arts to community remains an unmet challenge of American civilization. Karl remains one of the most original, visionary, experienced, and articulate spokesmen for its possibilities."
--Rev. Ronald Engels, Meadville Theological Seminary, Chicago, 1974


"Karl is a true leader who expresses his ideas as much in action as in words and it is necessary to understand the history of his community participation projects to clearly see the role of his great spirit and energy as a vehicle for his ideas. It is very rare in my experience to encounter a person whose ideas are unique, profound, and appropriate to a time when humanitarian purpose and ethical insight are in such a great need. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but Karl is a very unusual man.... He has been a mentor and professional advisor to many of his colleagues. That early work was unique in its time because Karl was one of the first planners of any kind to invite the neighbors in. His work is open, participatory, non-dogmatic, and therefore rich with the input of those who will use it."
--Mayer Spivak, Director, Environmental Analysis and Design, Laboratory of Community Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974


"I find Karl one of the most exciting, imaginative and creative thinkers who has applied himself to urban problems. His approach is fresh and one that to my knowledge has no peer in this field. He is extremely energetic and enthusiastic and applies himself voraciously to whatever he undertakes."
--George A. Wiley, Executive Director Poverty/Rights Action Center, 1967


"I believe your neighborhood renewal projects have two primary values for our program. First, they represent for youth a concrete way in which they can act upon their environment, a way in which they can both release frustrations and channel creative energies into constructive work. The flexibility which your approach allows for individual freedom of expression and corporate decisions concerning form are important here. Secondly, the completed commons area provides the physical surroundings necessary to the development of community life in the depressed area. It is only when such life exists that youth will learn and experience what it means to be stable participants in the larger society."
--Peter J. Countryman, Executive Director, Northern Student Movement Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights (SNCC), New Haven, Connecticut, 1963


"It is the simplicity of your work that strikes me most. Social problems are usually dissected for analysis, and the remedies recommended are thus inevitably partial. You have seen the problems as whole, complex situations and found basic cures with manifold repercussions and more, with the positive joys of achievement. By simple, direct acts you have cleared trails through the social delinquency which we allowed to grow around us, and which blights our neighbors' lives and our own towns and properties. Within those plain, encouraging acts may lie more than alleviation. They may carry the germ of a new realism in our views of social behavior. The roles of art and action in leisure may seem less self indulgences and more, constructive mutual opportunities."
--Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Curator, Museum of Modern Art, NYC, 1962


"Karl's career-long dedication to his ideals of shared environment building, namely building community through environment, and his demonstration of their practical application in his own work has been a source of strength to others. He has given enormously of himself -- his time, his energy, his emotional support and his ideas -- and has asked little in return in the way of conventional professional rewards of institutional status or salary. His primary gratifications have come, I think, in the ways that he has been able to help others develop their own insights and abilities, and to express these through the shared construction of institutions and places. Karl has overcome the "normal" designer's fixation on monument building, if he ever had it. His great contribution has been as a catalyst to environmental awareness and constructive action."
--Stephen Carr, Architect, Carr & Lynch Associates, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974


Reflections from Academic Department Heads:

"It is enough to say that Karl Linn is at once an inspiring teacher, an instinctive leader, a man passionately involved in improvement of the human condition, who never spares himself and whose leadership role has never stopped him from direct physical labor, however menial. He is a driving power for good."
--Ian McHarg, Chair, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania, 1967

[In 1959 McHarg invited Linn to set aside his career as a prominent landscape architect and join the Landscape Architecture faculty at the School of Fine Arts of the University of Pennsylvania.]

"Karl Linn might well be the most stimulating and original of all the teachers of landscape architecture during the history of Penn's Landscape Architecture program."
--Ian McHarg in his autobiography, Quest for Life (1996).


"I feel his work has made a significant contribution in broadening the scope of architecture, landscape architecture and planning and has improved their ability to deliver services to many of those who could not otherwise afford professional services. Linn's pioneering attitude has won him the respect of many of the community leaders throughout the United States, particularly in the Black and Hispanic communities. Professor Linn is very well known and highly respected in the profession of landscape architecture and among people from all related disciplines. He enjoys a strong national as well as international reputation in his field."
--William Rock, Jr., Chairman, Dept. of Landscape Architecture, University of Toronto, 1980


"Karl is well known and respected nationally for his ability to stimulate the important questions, the most potentially integrative questions, and the most human questions. It takes a special person like Karl Linn, who is first a thinker and a dedicated humanist and then a landscape architect, to help our professions better understand and relate to one another. Students instinctively understand and respect this sense of priority and naturally gravitate to Karl. Always unsettling, ever helpful and supportive, never satisfied, he is the quintessential teacher, an accomplished gadfly in the best Socratic sense. It is to his credit that he is revered as a central force in landscape architecture's intellectual and moral conscience."
--Jerome Diethelm, Chairman, Dept. of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon, 1980


"Karl makes the value and services the design professions can offer relevant and meaningful to all of society. He is among the first to connect education with the real world. He phrased it, "action teaching," and I applaud him. He helped make environmental advocacy a legitimate pursuit. I am greatly impressed with his ability to empower those he teaches; student, professional, citizen, the educator with the desire and ability to excel. He sanctions their rightful and gentle control over their human condition and the environment that supports them. The common shared matrix of our existence, in a sense, is our physical world. Karl uses this physical world as a generator of self and group awareness, as a source for creative efforts and a neutral facilitator of communication among people. He, in my view, is designing with and for life. Natural living elements of our physical world, and living, breathing people, are both fully considered in his clearly articulated approach."
--Walter Cudnohufsky, Director, Conway School of Landscape Design, Massachusetts, 1980.


"Karl, whom I have known over the last 15 years, had in the 1960s as a practicing Landscape Architect in New York City and Philadelphia, demonstrated a high level of creative ability in landscape design. His uniqueness -- perhaps approaching genius -- is not, however, the exercise of his art exclusively in that domain; it is in his ability to unlock individual creativity in others while they are working toward communally derived goals during the process of designing and manipulating the landscape. I have seen him, through his love and concern for people, as well as for nature, teach through the occasion of designing a neighborhood park to draw out from the group important and previously unarticulated needs and aspirations."
--William Porter, Dean, School of Architecture and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 1974


"Karl Linn's teaching at MIT was an inspiration to great numbers of our students, and he drew many enthusiastic listeners from the community roundabout. His great skill lies in leading people to work together for common ends, while showing them the relevance of environment to the community, and how designers may securely connect their personal lives to their professional ones."
--Kevin Lynch, Chair, Dept. of City Planning, MIT, 1974


"He opened up new attitudes not only toward art forms but about a moral relationship between the artist and his work; between the artist and his society. The meaning of new artworks close to life systems wasn't clear to the art school. Insistent social problems sharpened the question of the relationship of the artist's personal vision to the rest of society. Mr. Linn presented an approach to art-making that widened the traditional creative process. He sought mutual instead of individual inspiration. He fostered the imagination of the community. I can't think of any faculty during my eight-year tenure at the College who has had a greater impact."
--Jeremy Foss, Chairman of Fine Arts, Massachusetts College of Art, 1974


"What is unique about Karl is his instinctual fusion of the aesthetic and the psychiatric pertaining to the ecology of a place. Seemingly unscholastic, he produces his own kind of scholarly distillate and uses it intuitively as the situation requires rather than with stubborn inflexibility. He is an artist in the way he approaches what we might call the canvas of his problems, improvising until he gets a feel of the possible solutions, and then gradually giving more apparent order to the situation. He has great faith in the capacity of people to regenerate themselves and their communities by learning to work together on creative concepts."
-- E. M. Benson, Dean, Philadelphia College of Art, 1967


"Linn has a passionate and total commitment to his work and a personal genius for enlisting the enthusiasm of slum residents and young people in the improvement of their environment. In addition, he has marvelous ingenuity in designing with the use of local available materials on the most unpromising sites. The result is almost invariably a creative surge of energy, a new spirit of community in a blighted area and an ingenious space which serves some real community need."
--William L. C. Wheaton, Dean, College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley, 1967


"Karl Linn is an outstanding psychologist as well as a landscape architect. His unique integration of these two fields is producing a whole new science that might perhaps be called the Social Psychology of Urban Space. His ideas about how to reorganize the urban setting in order to produce increased cohesion and positive mental health are particularly pertinent in these times."
--Frank Riessman, Director, Paraprofessional Training Center, NYC, 1967


"Yes, I think what Mr. Linn has done, is doing, is very important for those small sane areas of life which hopefully will multiply till they all touch and we will have a saner world which values and appreciates and passes on so that the young may be helped instead of blocked."
--Sister Mary Corita, Chairperson, Dept. of Fine Arts, Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, California, 1967


"I believe that Karl is one of the most creative and sensitive men working in the field of community development. His experience in developing the Neighborhood Commons movement has inspired many in the urban field. He has much to tell us."
--Paul Davidoff, Chairman, Urban Planning Program, Hunter College, NYC, 1967


Reflections from Public Officials:

"I want to tell you how much we in the city government appreciate the splendid leadership provided by you in the creation of the Melon Play Park. I was tremendously impressed with what I saw at the dedication ceremonies, and I know you will be interested to learn that, due to the success of the Melon Play Park project, I am recommending funds in next year's budget which will place the tax-property acquisition program on a permanent basis, and expand it to other neighborhoods."
--Richardson Dilworth, Mayor, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1961


"I know Karl Linn very well and have followed his work for almost fifteen years. He has a rare ability to use both materials and unskilled people to change their communities by the creation of an improved environment. I first met him when he was working in Philadelphia. I saw his amazing re-use of historic building materials that were heretofore wasted, to create places in which neighborhood people could assemble. I also saw his work in Washington, D.C. in the sixties. There he used out-of-school, unemployed youth as the workers who recreated slum areas into recreational spaces of great beauty. He developed designs of such ingenuity that even recycled materials could turn into something that enhanced the neighborhood and converted these slum areas into places with a very special aesthetic quality. He understands people whether they be of great influence or residents of the worst slum. Further, he knows how to get them interested in working together to change the environment of their communities."
--former judge Mary Conway Kohler, Director, National Commission on Resources for Youth, Inc., NYC, 1974



"In these times of inflation and other economic woes, programs that stress recycling of materials, self-help and emergency employment are especially needed. I see the "Barnraising" concept as a practical guide to reversing a dehumanizing trend in modern life. As neighbors come together to recreate their surroundings, they also will be recreating themselves -- building a human as well as a physical community."
--Harvey Sloane, Mayor, Louisville, Kentucky, 1975

"Building Commons and Community"

New Village Press