Ian McHarg – Designer with nature, including human nature
Design with nature. Beginning with these three words, Ian McHarg laid out a complex, contradictory vision for conceiving the future of built environments. We now realize that designing with nature is a vexing, perhaps impossible–yet ultimately necessary–endeavor. McHarg’s fundamental, revolutionary concept was that knowledge derived from the best available information about the ecology of a place should be employed to plan and design its future.
McHarg pursued this vision in three ways. First, he was an academic and served a long tenure as chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). Second, he was a reflective practitioner who established and led the innovative firm Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd (now WRT). Third, he was a public intellectual. In addition to his popular book, Design with Nature, McHarg appeared often on television, gave many public presentations, and published influential essays and articles.
In all three pursuits, McHarg displayed an ever-expanding interest in ecology and in human ecology. At Penn in the late 1950s, he created a course, “Man and Environment,” where he brought in leading environmental scientists (Eugene and Howard Odum, Margaret Mead, Luna Leopold, for example) as well as theologians and religious thinkers (Paul Tillich and Swami Nikhilanda, for instance) to discuss our relationships with each other and our planet. In the early 1960s, this course led to the CBS television program “The House We Live In.” Interactions with ecologists and other scientists in the course and on television informed his practice and his studio teaching which, in turn, contributed to the ideas expressed in Design With Nature. Following the publication of the landmark book in 1969, McHarg increasingly recruited ecologists, soil scientists, geologists, and anthropologists to his faculty to teach landscape architecture and planning graduate students. These faculty members continued to challenge and refine McHarg’s ecological views, especially relating to human ecology.
In this paper, I will summarize McHarg’s life and work, then illustrate how his ideas remain timely.