Ian McHarg died this day in 2001 (NY Times obituary). He was a Scottish landscape architect who made his name in the University of Pennsylvania where he founded the world famous Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning in1955.

He was born in Clydebank in 1920 and (for those with an interest in the history of mountaineering in Scotland), was one of the Craigallian Fire men.

Arguably his most famous legacy is his 1969 book, Design with Nature. One of his pupils and collaborators in the project was the Scottish landscape architect, Mark Turnbull, who is still practising in Scotland today. His book sat on the shelves of my Dad’s study when I was growing up. He was an architect and, as a student, I thought it would make an interesting contribution to the forestry course I was doing at Aberdeen University. However, so dismal was the outlook of the staff there (there were a few honourable exceptions), that the notion of even reading such a book was regarded as too radical. I read it though and recommend it to anyone with an interest in environmental and spatial planning (McHarg invented the sieve mapping technique now standard in GIS – the European Geosciences Union awards a medal in his honour).

His vision of how to understand ecosystems and undertake regional planning was so advanced that, as this blog notes, he predicted the areas unsuitable for urbanisation on Staten Island (dark shading on right). He was ignored and those areas match almost exactly the evacuation zones (in yellow left) at the time of Hurricane Sandy (see below).

But my favourite story about Ian McHarg relates to his involvement in the scoping work for Scotland’s third new town. McHarg worked in the Scottish Home and Health Department between 1950 and 1954 and in his 1996 autobiography, A Quest for Life, he writes,

One day I was summoned by the chief of the new towns section, an architect named Alex Wylie. East Kilbride and Glenrothes new towns were underway. There was considerable interest in yet another; both the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh thought that a site near Cumbernauld, between these cities, should be investigated. However, it was likely that this new town would be a satellite of Glasgow and administered by her. Would I undertake the study?

I immediately visited Cumbernauld. It had the virtue of proximity to the major highway connecting Edinburgh and Glasgow. As at East Kilbride several years before, the wind howled, the rain drove horizontally, the whole site was awash. Morevoer, the farms were few and scattered. Anthropologists long ago had learned that sparse human settlement bespeaks adverse environments and impoverished resources. I spoke to several farmers whose opinions were united. It was a miserable place, wetter than most, with intractable mud, poor soil, a high water table, few trees, and those wind-pruned.

…….

The ideal site, in classical and Renaissance times, was a southeast-facing slope. That could not be found on the Glasgow-Edinburgh road nor on the south of the Clyde, but north of it were admirable classical sites, south and southeast-facing, at elevations above fog with beautiful views to the Firth of Clyde and, south, across the Clyde, to the Renfrewshire Hills. On the day I went there, the sun was shining; protected from the wind I lay in heather and exulted in the views. There was Dumbarton Rock, a volcanic cone with a ruined castle atop, ancient capital of Scotland, the gleaming Clyde, and , far out beyond the estuary, the Paps of Jura.

There was one problem; the site was steep. Now this had halted neither Rome, Siena, Frascati; nor San Francisco. This constraint must be transformed into an opportunity; we are not building for popes or cardinals. I recalled a project in Zurich, the Neubuhl, by Haeflie and Moser, where housing stepped down a steep slope and the flat roof of the lower house became terrace, balcony, and garden of the upper house. This would be the answer. Hanging gardens, stepped housing, each one having the merits of an attached single-family house, each with as much outdoor and indoor space, and the gardens entirely private. If the block was to be composed of four houses in depth, then the occupants at worst would walk down three flights or up one. In city where the commonest house form was a four-storey walk-up tenement, this was not a serious objection. So house plans developed, simple rectangles, L-shapes and T-shapes with different dimensions. They were all modular and could be fitted in various permutations, but all had uninterrupted views to south and east and all had private entrances and gardens. Open space equalled the building area. On the skyline, out of every view but overlooking the whole, were towers and slabs for older people, single households, and couples without children. The towers provided views of a landscape of gardens.

McHarg goes on to describe the detailed design, “extraordinary economies in construction costs” and the energy efficiency.

I submitted the plans to Alex Wylie, chief architect for new towns, who then arranged for me to present the material to the permanent undersecretary, Mr McGuiness, an Irishman with a Scottish accent. Wylie introduced the idea and gave his endorsment. I was asked to add my remarks. I spoke glowingly of the hanging gardens, the morning-golden windows, the beautiful views, access to workplaces on the Clyde, proximity to Glasgow, the beautiful landscape setting and, above all, of the greater economy of this scheme as compared with conventional bulding. There was a long silence.

“Well.” McGuiness said, “It is certainly revolutionary. There’s no doubt about that, and I am impressed by the arguments about its economy, but we can’t build this in Scotland. Why, they haven’t even built it in England yet.”

“Sir,” I said. “If the Scots have to wait for the bloody English to build something before we can, this is not the country for me. Good day, sir.”

That night, McHarg wrote to Dean Perkins of the University of Pennsylvania, and asked “Do you know of any opportunities which I might pursue in the United States? I find the professional life here is far from gratifying.”

He was immediately offered a position as an assistant professor to set up the Department of Landscape Architecture and the rest is history.

McHarg writes,

A small ceremony was held before my departure, at which time I was presented with a handsome briefcase. Kind words were said. I decided that this was not the occasion for criticism, thanked my colleagues, wished them well, and left.

——————-
PS McHarg’s Wikipedea entry is very good account of his life.

 

5 Comments

  1. That last little bit, so sad, so telling.

  2. Great to read of this Scots pioneer of building and designing with nature – to this day Scots and UK building regs and planners do so much to prevent this.

  3. Thanks Andy
    As an Englishman Capability Brown was quite good; of course on a much smaller scale

  4. This piece on Ian McHarg came as a very welcome surprise. I can suggest that his work and ahead of his time ideas haven’t entirely disappeared amongst those engaged in the design and delivery of houses and place-making in Scotland today. involved in such matters myself I can report that McHarg comes up often in discussions with planners, designers,foresters and others n a regular basis. His autobiography – A Quest for Life, is well worth a read, as too Design with Nature, in fact we have taken to give a copy to students leaving our organisation after year out training. McHarg’s vision and method born as it was from others such as Geddes, FF Darling and Mumford (he knew these men!), is particularly relevant to the future Scotland today. If many of these lives and theories were incompatible with a Scotland past, they are now leading to action in the present.

  5. Sad that as a reasonably contentious student studying town planning in the early 1990s I was never directed to this work. Sadder still that my contemporaries who enter the proffesion didn’t either, the results of which are viable in the bland sprawl that degrades our landscapes. I became an environmentalist which is sadly something very different from planning in its current form. Will do some belated research thanks Andy.
    P.S How did the Cumbernauld thing turn out!