News
04.29.2013
Obit> Grady Clay, 1916-2013
Groundbreaking urbanist and author spent a lifetime observing the changing American landscape.
Grady Clay looks out over the Ohio Riverfront in downtown Louisville.
Courtesy Estate of Grady Clay

Behind the wheel of an old dark green Porsche, in lace-up boots and tweed jackets, with a gentle drawl and impish smile, he hardly seemed radical, but neither did his look-alike, William Faulkner. Actually, like his friend Jane Jacobs, he was both radical and wise—and well stocked with ideas, because he always had a little reporter’s notebook or tape recorder in his pocket to jot down observations.

These later turned up in his articles for the Louisville Courier-Journal or in the numerous books and magazine articles he wrote, even while editing Landscape Architecture Magazine from his home base in Louisville, Kentucky, for 25 years (1959-85).

Under his leadership, the magazine published the work of Ian McHarg, A. E. Bye, Lawrence Halprin, Darrel Morrison, Martha Schwartz, and James van Sweden. It emphasized ecology and covered new earthwork sculpture by Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, native plantings, and adventure playgrounds. It ran articles by J. B. Jackson, Ada Louise Huxtable, Robert Moses, and William “Holly” Whyte. Unsurprisingly, its readership and influence increased exponentially during his tenure.

Grady Clay was the author of the influential books Closeup: How to Read the American City (1974), Water in the Landscape (1979), Right Before Your Eyes: Penetrating the Urban Environment and Landscapes for Living (both 1987). Between 1991 and 2005, he was also a weekly commentator on Louisville’s NPR affiliate.

He was also the chairman of the jury for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design competition in 1980 that selected Maya Lin’s radically abstract scheme. (Other jurors were Harry Weese, Richard Hunt, Garrett Eckbo, Constantino Nivola, James Rosati, Hideo Sasaki, and Pietro Belluschi.) Paul Spreiregen, who organized the competition, remembered that, “during the jurors’ deliberations, Grady noted any cogent comment. When the jury had come to a decision, after three-and-a-half days intensely reviewing some 1,432 designs, Grady and I sat down to write a brief report describing the jury’s recommendation to the sponsor, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. He had extracted the most cogent juror’s remarks. The next day, speaking for the jury, he presented the report along with the winning design. It took 25 minutes, and was followed by a short silence. But very soon the members of the sponsor group, about 30 in all, jumped to their feet, cheering and applauding in acceptance. They’d gotten it! Since the winning design was very simply presented graphically, its many subtle implications were unlikely to have been readily grasped. There is no doubt in my mind that Grady’s old note-taking habit, with his skill in extracting the essence of an idea, was the basis for earning the approval of the memorial sponsor.”

Grady Clay was born in Atlanta, the son of an eye surgeon on the Emory University faculty, and grew up at Walnut Grove, the family’s farm in Ashland. He graduated from Emory in 1938, earned a Master’s in Journalism at Columbia in 1939, and became a police beat reporter at the Louisville Times the next year.

During World War II, as a member of the Armed Forces, he served as assistant officer in charge of the European edition of YANK, the Army weekly in Italy and France. During this time, he developed an interest in geography.

After the War, he joined the staff of the well-regarded Louisville Courier-Journal where he covered national trends in urban renewal, suburban development, land use, and the growth of the interstate highway system.

In 1948, he received a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, where he studied urban geography and met Ian McHarg, David Wallace, and Jackie Tyrwhitt. In 1973, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Over the years, he served on various presidential task forces, taught at the University of Kentucky and Northwestern University, and received an honorary doctorate from Emory.

He was also a prescient proponent of what came to be called “the New Urbanism.” In 2009, the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) acknowledged as much, awarding him the Athena Medal and citing an article he had written for Horizon magazine in 1959, “Metropolis Regained.” The CNU explained, “In words described as ‘eerily similar’ to the Charter of the New Urbanism, which followed more than 35 years later, Clay defined the principles of a group he identified as New Urbanists.” Clay wrote: “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. We want that multiplicity of choice that the city has always offered, but is now in danger of losing.” He added, “I can only say that all great movements start in murmurs and that I can hear murmurs.”

Jayne Merkel

Jayne Merkel is a contributing editor to Architectural Design and the former architecture critic of the Cincinnati Enquirer.