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Ian L. McHarg

Ian L. McHarg, the charismatic founder and emeritus professor of landscape architecture and regional planning at Penn, and the author of such books as Design with Nature and To Heal the Earth, died March 5 of pulmonary disease. He was 80 years old.
    McHarg began his teaching career at Penn in 1954, and was world-renowned for his philosophy of incorporating environmental concerns into designs. In his 1996 autobiography, A Quest for Life, McHarg noted that “the most powerful act I initiated was to offer a new course in the fall of 1957 entitled Man and Environment,” which was taken by “perhaps three or four thousand students” and led to the CBS television series The House We Live In as well as, ultimately, Design with Nature. Among his most important projects were the 1962 Plan for the Valleys in Baltimore County, Md.; the Inner Harbor in Baltimore; and The Woodlands in Houston.
    Below are some of the remarks delivered by James Corner, chair and associate professor of landscape architecture and regional planning, at the memorial service in London Grove, Pa., not far from McHarg’s home.

Ian McHarg was one of the great cultural figures in 20th-century planning and design. What was it about the man that made him so great, so memorable? Certainly his youth spent in the depressed areas near industrial, poverty-stricken Glasgow, on the one side, and the Celtic, rural countryside of the Firth Valley and the Western Highlands, on the other, left a strongly formative impression upon the young McHarg. As too did his term in the British Parachute Brigade, serving in war-stricken Italy during World War II, again exposing him to the polar opposites of horror and war on the one side and beauty, peace, and grace in the Mediterranean villages and bays on the other. Soon after, of course, he earned his professional degrees in both landscape architecture and city planning from Harvard, and then returned to Scotland with wife and child to then suffer horribly from pulmonary tuberculosis. Here again, he escaped the acrid gloom of the Scottish hospital to which he was originally confined, and to which he almost had to undergo life-debilitating surgery, to find solace and recovery in a Swiss Alpine hospice—another experience of almost transcendental dimension for him. These early experiences conditioned in the young McHarg an absolute will and determination to bring the benevolent, spiritual, and life-giving forces of nature into cities and metropolitan regions, where of course most people actually live. He did not turn away from the City or from Culture—as many environmentalists continue to do—but rather sought a new union between Man and Nature, a new union that would be forged through design with nature.
    Here, of course, his work is legendary —his teaching and leadership at Penn, his developing of a unique and world-changing curriculum and method that fully transformed the fields of landscape architecture and planning, and of course his writing of Design with Nature—perhaps singly the most seminal and important book in our field of the 20th century. He painted an incredibly rich and exuberant picture of the organic world and the various forms of life it continues to body forth, and from this he conjured up the vision for a more wholesome and productive world metropolis.
    His brilliance was recognized world-wide, and he went on to be rewarded with the Harvard Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Art, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, and 12 other international medals and awards, including the very prestigious Japan Prize in City and Regional Planning.
    But throughout all this time, was not the opposition of violence and decay on the one hand, and benevolence and life on the other still persistent in the man himself? For these two polarities conditioned not only his determination and mission but also his very character. McHarg was no soft, gentle, tree-hugging environmentalist —he was tough, resilient, cunning, strong, outspoken, argumentative. In this sense, he was urban, political, savvy, and intellectual. But at the same time, he was perhaps the most generous, gracious, caring man I ever knew. Inside, he was a soft, poetic soul—a wonderful conversationalist and friend, at once both indestructible and yielding.
    I will miss his presence in the world, his big lanky body, that unforgettable face, itself a rich topography of depth and insight, his quick mind and humor-filled wit, his gracious charm and originality, his constant activity and boundless zeal for life. But when I think of him now, I am reminded how nothing silenced him to the point of reverent awe other than the image (and the science) of the two extreme scales of life —the cellular, microscopic scale of organic growth and adaptation, and the cosmic scale of Planet Earth spinning in an endless galaxy. I feel that from his new vantage point in heaven, he will be silently smiling, gazing upon the marvels of life, marvels no longer seen from the perspective of an ever-anthropocentric textbook, but now from the spirit-matter of the cosmos itself … The earth will miss you, Ian McHarg.


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