Professor Ian L. McHarg – Distinguished Landscape Architect, Regional Planner and Educator

Born 20th November 1920 – Died 5th March 2001

Clydebank High School 1932-1936

Main body text from obituary, ‘The Independent’, 7th May 2001

Ian Lennox McHarg, landscape architect, regional planner and teacher: born Clydebank, Dunbartonshire 20 November 1920; Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania 1954-86 (Emeritus); married 1942 Pauline Crena DeJong (died 1974; two sons), secondly Carol Smyser (two sons); died West Chester, Pennsylvania 5 March 2001.

“The world is abundant, we require only a deference born of understanding to fulfil human promise,” wrote Ian McHarg in the introduction to the 1992 edition of his book Design with Nature (first published in 1969). McHarg was one of the first people to recognise and call attention to the abysmal lack of knowledge of the environment in planning, design and engineering.

This, he understood, was due not only to lack of interest, but also to the fact that the sciences were fragmented and communication was rare among separate disciplines. To solve these problems he created an “ecological planning method” to explore the physical, biological and social processes that shape each place. Working from a foundation of climate and geology, each layer of information was superimposed on top of the previous one. In this way the primary patterns of the landscape emerged to guide the form of development.

The goal of this “McHargian Method” was to determine what constitutes a balanced and self-renewing environment. In this respect he anticipated sustainable design and his early use of computers for his “layer cake” was the foundation of the Geographical Information Systems now widely used as planning tools.

McHarg was born and brought up outside Glasgow, a city he called “a sandstone excretion cemented with smoke and grime”. At the start of the Second World War, he joined the Army as a paratrooper; he served with distinction and rose to the rank of major.

After the war, although he had not attended university, he enrolled at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, earning graduate degrees in both Landscape Architecture and City Planning. He then returned to Scotland, where he worked for several years as a planner.

McHarg was brought to the United States again, to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, with other promising young men, by the new Dean, G. Holmes Perkins, to reorganise and revitalise the Graduate School of Fine Arts. He co-founded the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the university and served as its chairman from 1955 to 1986.

He brought together a unique faculty of geologists and hydrologists, ecologists, cultural anthropologists and even epidemiologists, to teach at the department with the design professionals. In 1959 he created a lecture series called “Man and Environment”. George Wald, Carleton Coon, Harlow Shapley, Hans Selye, Erich Fromm, Margaret Mead and Howard Nemerov were all repeat lecturers in this popular course, which once included 14 Nobel prizewinners in a single semester. The course led to a 12-part television series in 1960-61, called The House We Live In, which McHarg wrote, produced and presented.

In 1960 he became a naturalised American citizen and in that year co-founded the Philadelphia firm of Wallace, McHarg with David Wallace, a distinguished American city planner. The firm later became Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd and continues today as WRT. He remained with the firm until 1981, creating a succession of planning and design projects for urban, metropolitan and rural regions which are still highly regarded models for ecological planning and design. These projects include the Woodlands, a planned residential community outside Houston, Texas; Pardisan, a national cultural and environmental institution for Tehran; the Lower Manhattan Study; and a plan for Washington, DC.

In 1969 McHarg wrote Design with Nature, one of the books which in the early Seventies helped to create the unpredicted explosion of environmental consciousness. At that time, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had been published, but Earth Day was still three years in the future. McHarg, along with Rene Dubois, Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader were a small group of spokesmen for the environment.

Design with Nature presented the then radical concept of the ecological view as a moral and practical basis for planning and design. This view, and the McHargian Method to realise it, have since become standard components of regional planning and landscape design throughout the world. McHarg’s book, now considered a classic, was reprinted in 1992 and has been translated into Japanese, Spanish and German.

For the US Public Broadcasting Company McHarg wrote and presented a film of the book which he called Multiply and Subdue the Earth after the verse in Genesis. He later wrote two other books: To Heal the Earth (1999), a selection of his writings, and Quest for Life: an autobiography (1996).

Ian McHarg was a charismatic and powerful public figure who walked with presidents and Hopi elders, Lady Bird Johnson and Andy Warhol, developers, poets and Nobel prize-winning scientists. Brilliant, poetic, funny, irrepressible and sometimes abrasive, McHarg was able to go right to the heart of the matter telling the Japanese in a speech some years ago, “Everything we (the West) have done badly you have done faster and worse”, or announcing to a gathering of Fortune 500 executives that “the time has come for American industry to be toilet-trained”.

The recipient of innumerable prizes, he recently won the prestigious Japan Prize in City Planning, and was the only landscape architect to win the US National Medal of Art.

Professor McHarg wrote to the school in 1998, during the 125th anniversary celebrations. He enclosed his CV which makes for impressive reading, you can read it here. (Opens a PDF document in a new window).

Read his obituary in the New York Times by clicking here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *