Ian L. McHarg: an illustrated chronology of his life
An illustrated chronology follows Ian McHarg’s life from Clydebank, Scotland, UK to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Key personal, professional, and academic events are noted.
KeywordsIan McHarg Design With Nature University of Pennsylvania Ecological design Ecological planning
When preparing his autobiography A Quest for Life in the 1990s, Ian McHarg asked Frederick Steiner for assistance. One of Steiner’s tasks was to compile a chronology of McHarg’s life. This was done by abstracting key events from McHarg’s curriculum vitae and through discussion. As this special issue was being undertaken, Socio-Ecological Practice Research editor Wei-Ning Xiang suggested an updated and illustrated chronology. This recommendation was timely as the Stuart Weitzman School of Design and the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania were preparing a series of events and exhibitions to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Design With Nature (see https://mcharg.upenn.edu). One of the “Design With Nature Now” exhibitions focused on McHarg’s life. “The House We Live In” was curated by William Whitaker and yielded a rich array of images, a couple of which are published for the first time here. The planning for “Design With Nature Now” (undertaken also with Richard Weller, Karen M’Closkey, and Billy Fleming, all of whom are with the Stuart Weitzman School of Design) helped Whitaker and Steiner prepare this chronology.
2 An illustrated chronology of Ian L. McHarg
The grim effects of the Great Depression hit Clydebank hard. Although his father remained employed, the impact on the community was much deeper than economic, “it tested the human spirit,” McHarg recalled (1996, p. 13). It was in this context that his parents first allowed Ian the freedom to explore the countryside alone and on foot, journeys that formed an enduring touchstone for his future development.
Following his 16th birthday, McHarg withdraws from high school to apprentice as a landscape architect with Donald Alderson Wintersgill (1891–1954) of Austin and McAslan Ltd. in Glasgow, leading seedsmen and nurserymen in Scotland. As he learns his trade, McHarg assists in the design and construction of the firm’s displays at the annual Highland Shows, first in Alloa (1937) and later in Dumfries (1938) and Edinburgh (1939); the latter realized to his design.
January—enrolls at The Glasgow School of Art to study drawing and painting. Takes evening classes, 4 days a week, through June 1938. Studies botany and soils at the West of Scotland Agricultural College.
Spring—In what McHarg recalls as, “the culminating experience of my prewar career,” (1996, pp. 28–29. See also The Glasgow Herald1938), he assists Wintersgill in the design of significant planting areas for the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, a major project of the Scottish Development Council. Landscape elements are contracted to Austin & McAslan Ltd. (McHarg’s employer) and Dobbie & Company of Edinburgh, while overall master planning and design is overseen by architect Thomas S. Tait.
May—following the opening of the Empire Exhibition, McHarg volunteers for the Territorial Army (Army Reserves) and serves part-time as a sapper assigned to 243d Field Park Company, Royal Engineers, 52nd Scottish (Lowland) Division. Continues full-time employment at Austin & McAslan until mobilization into the regular army at onset of World War II in September 1939. Training includes courses in civil engineering.
June 7—Lands at St. Malo, France, as a member of Second British Expeditionary Force. Returns to Portsmouth within 2 weeks without seeing any combat. Returns to Scotland, training there for amphibious assault actions into 1943.
March 13 to 14—Clydebank Blitz, among the worst of the war in Scotland. McHarg’s parents and family dislocated, although they are eventually able to return.
September—Allied Invasion of Italy. McHarg is aboard the HMS Abdiel when it struck a mine and sank in the port of Taranto, Italy. Oversees repairs to the vital l‘Acquedotto Pugliese in the country’s Apulia region. During the next 10 months, participates in action in Italy and Southern France. Promoted to Captain following the Battle of Monte Cassino in April 1944. Returns to Taranto to await further orders.
October 12—Invasion of Greece. McHarg’s unit parachutes into Megara with orders to secure a strategic airstrip, exacting repairs in support of operations. Occupation of Athens. Returns to Italy in March.
Begins study of planning principles through correspondence courses offered by the School for Planning and Research for Regional Development (founded as a postgraduate extension of the Architectural Association in London, and independent after April 1940). The trio of courses, created by Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt (1905–1983), emphasizes the value of interdisciplinary teams and anticipates the massive need for qualified planners in the postwar era. Class readings include writings by Patrick Abercrombie, Patrick Geddes, Edwin Gutkind, and Lewis Mumford, as well as case studies of regional integration drawn from American examples.
December—Wins competition for design of the Kalamaki British Military Cemetery in Athens (later renamed Phaleron).
May 8—Victory in Europe Day. Billeted in the village of Ramsbury, Wiltshire upon return to the UK and then at the nearby Bulford Barracks through August 1946.
Promoted to the rank of Major in charge of a contingent of 1500 troops. Contemplates next steps in professional education.
September 1—Arrives at the Port of Montreal, Canada aboard the SS Manchester Shipper from Liverpool. Enrolls at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design (GSD) with a focus on landscape architecture and planning. Under Dean Joseph Hudnut, the GSD’s curriculum emphasizes a “unity of process” that encourages designers—architects, city planners, and landscape architects—to consider the broad range of physical, political, and socioeconomic factors that give form to environments (Pearlman 2007, p. 202). G. Holmes Perkins, chair of the Planning department and McHarg’s advisor, is an important contributor to this curriculum. Rents a room in a boarding house on Harvard Street.
August 30—Marries Pauline Crena de Iongh (1922–1974) at North Community Church in Marshfield Hills, Massachusetts. Native of Rotterdam, Netherlands, Pauline serves in the Dutch underground during World War II and completes an undergraduate degree at Radcliff College and a master’s in English from Tufts University. She and Ian have two sons, Alistair Craig (b. 1950) and Malcolm Lennox (b. 1956) born in the USA.
Receives bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture.
June 16—Embarks on a ten-thousand-mile cross-country driving trip with Pauline in their 1942 Studebaker Commander. Itinerary, focused on National Parks, passes through: Washington, DC; Skyline Drive, Virginia; Black Mountain College, North Carolina; Tennessee Valley Authority sites; strip mines in the region of Terre Haute, Indiana; St. Louis; and on to the Four Corner States. Attends 1st Aspen Music Festival before visiting National Parks in Utah and Arizona. In Los Angeles, meets Garrett Eckbo, and in San Francisco, Tommy Church and Lawrence Halprin. Visits contemporary housing and landscape work. Continues north to the Columbia River and west into Idaho and Montana with an eye toward current forestry practices. Camps at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons before fast tracking back to Cambridge via Mount Rushmore and Chicago. Son Alistair born the following May.
Completes the first collaborative thesis at the GSD, a redevelopment plan for downtown Providence, Rhode Island, with architects Robert Geddes, William Conklin, and Marvin Sevely, under the direction of G. Holmes Perkins. Perkins, soon to become the dean at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts (GSFA), would make this integrated approach a cornerstone of his tenure there and recruits many of his most talented students as young faculty.
June 22—graduates from Harvard University with a Master in Landscape Architecture. Awarded a Master in City Planning the following year. Looking back, McHarg notes with some irony that, despite his lifelong quest to design with nature, he had managed to avoid the benefit of instruction in the natural sciences while at Harvard (1996, p. 82).
August 20—Family returns to Scotland aboard the RMS Nova Scotia sailing from Boston. Takes up residence at 106 Riddle Street, Clydebank—the McHarg family home. He has numerous interviews for work in the planning field. Within weeks of his return, however, McHarg is diagnosed with tuberculosis: “A fearful blow.” Enters Southfield Colony for Consumptives near Edinburgh, a place with “no cheer, little care, and much indifference.” Transfers to a facility in Leysin, Switzerland where the “prognosis and treatment were optimistic.” (McHarg 1996, pp. 95–98). Recovers and reunites—after nearly a year of separation—with his family in Scotland.
September—Returns to Edinburgh and takes up residence at 17b, Abercromby Place. Designs a small garden for the forecourt. Works as a Planning Officer, Department of Heath for Scotland preparing reports on mine reclamation and rehabilitation, traffic and transportation, as well as open space in housing. Publishes numerous articles on the subject in periodicals following two fiery public lectures; his urge to confront the indifference in the creation of quality open space in cities becomes less restrained.
Over the course of 3 years, gives lecture courses on landscape architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art and at The Glasgow School of Architecture. Purported to be the first course on landscape architecture given in Scotland. In the concluding lecture, McHarg provides a scathing assessment of the current state of the profession: “[the] present practice of landscape architecture derives from baseless conventions, it is superficial, undisciplined, a watered [down] and corrupt version of the English landscape tradition, its origins now unrecognizable.” (McHarg Collections). McHarg asserts that landscape architects must expand their vision beyond convention and the fringes of buildings if they desire to get to “the core of the problem of the environment” (McHarg Collections). Choosing to do so, he suggests, would be the foundation for a renewal of the field.
Across the Atlantic, G. Holmes Perkins, newly positioned as dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Fine Arts (Penn), is working to revitalize Penn’s department of landscape architecture. The school’s undergraduate program, established in 1924, was shuttered in 1941. Perkins recognizes that it “would be an uphill battle for landscape architecture, to raise the profession to the level it originally had,” and that, “It needed somebody who would fight for it.” McHarg, disillusioned by the slow progress of the Scottish civil service, has been actively seeing opportunities “anywhere in the USA” and Perkins seizes upon the opportunity to recruit him for the position of assistant professor of city planning charged with the responsibility of developing a department of landscape architecture at Penn starting in September.
McHarg takes up residence at the Cherokee Apartments at 712 Wolcott Drive in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. This location is a short walk away from the city’s bucolic Wissahickon Valley. The valley, part of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, will become a favored location for McHarg to explore and enjoy nature with family and friends. Pauline and Alistair, having spent a year living in Holland due to visa problems, arrive in Philadelphia the following May.
McHarg focuses his initial efforts on raising the profile of Penn’s fledgling landscape architecture program among architects. Advertisements placed in periodicals like Britain’s Architectural Review builds excitement by touting Penn’s “experimental curriculum.” McHarg shrewdly aims for students with a background in architecture as they would enter with established skills. The first class includes students from Scotland, England, Australia, Holland, and the USA with subsequent classes maintaining international diversity.
November—Recruits the celebrated architect Philip Johnson to lead a studio focused on the design of the plaza landscape for the Seagram’s Building, then under construction in New York. Pursues collaboration in Philadelphia with Johnson and developer Robert Wylie to develop his courthouse concept.
January—Program receives accreditation from American Society of Landscape Architects. Department of Landscape Architecture formally established in July and McHarg appointed Chairman. Promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. Initial faculties include: botanist John M. Fogg, historian George B. Tatum, and landscape architects George Patton and Markley Stephenson. Over the next 5 years, McHarg brings an exciting group of visiting critics to lecture and teach design, including: Douglas Baylis, Garrett Eckbo, Lawrence Halprin, Dan Kiley and Robert Royston; and appoints others, including Gordon Cullen, Ian Nairn, and Aldo Van Eyck, as research staff. In the fall of 1959, Karl Linn joins the faculty becoming the department’s second, full-time faculty member. Lewis Clark, a visiting critic from the University of Newcastle and protégé of Brian Hackett, introduces McHarg to the potential of ecology as the underlying science for landscape architecture.
June—Organizes conference on the “Religious, Social, and Scientific Attitudes to Environment” for National Conference of Instructors in Landscape Architecture held at University of Pennsylvania drawing most speakers from the school’s faculty.
Spring—Sir Peter Shepheard invited as visiting professor and becomes a mainstay of the faculty in the decades to come. Takes over as Dean upon Perkins’ retirement in 1971.
Undertakes a year-long study of open space in the Delaware River Basin with 13 students. The study attempts to establish the “real values” for rural land classified according to “distinct functions” including those of water, agricultural land, fish and wildlife, recreation and historical importance. Hails the water resources survey of the US Army Corps of Engineers as a “giant step” toward planning land use with a consideration of natural systems at the regional scale.
August 31—McHarg becomes a US citizen. Family moves into a rented house at 7208 Charelton Street in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia.
April—profile of the so-called Philadelphia School, published in Progressive Architecture. The article, written by Jan Rowan, recognizes Penn’s energetic environment and commitment to the city. Although their approaches and emphasis differ, the dynamic faculty in both architecture and city planning embraced the notion that a building, in its design, should be understood as an element integral with a larger context and that the role of the designer is, in part, to interpret how a building should relate to and grow the patterns around it. McHarg’s colleagues include: Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, David Crane, and Paul Davidoff, among others.
March—The Ash Wednesday Storm, an extreme Nor’easter, devastates the mid-Atlantic coast of the USA. In New Jersey, the high tides and waves destroy over 4000 houses and severely damage another 40,000. Half of the structures in the coastal community of Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, are lost in the storm. Just days after the storm subsides, McHarg and his students, along with ecologist William Martin, visit the area and make it the focus of a design studio. Their objective is to apply ecological principles as a means to understand where to build and where not to build; how the community might rebuild with an understanding of natural processes. The critical linkages between beach, dune, trough, back dune, and bay, and the implications of these for the health and wellbeing of the inhabitants come to the fore. The studio is a turning point for McHarg, providing him a clear and convincing demonstration of the significance of ecology to design.
Establishes a professional partnership with David Wallace, and later, William Roberts and Tomas Todd (WMRT). Wallace, an urban designer and planner, leads the firm’s projects for the Baltimore Inner Harbor and Lower Manhattan—two groundbreaking urban redevelopment projects. McHarg energizes the practice through projects that furthered the application of ecological principles in landscape architecture. WMRT’s Plan of the Valleys near Baltimore (1962–1964; implemented), as well as studies for highway alignment in New Jersey (1965) and for the Richmond Parkway on Staten Island (1968) are important early examples.
June—Receives research grant from the Urban Renewal Administration to develop a method for the selection and distribution of open space in metropolitan region based on a “presumption for nature—that is, that development should proceed where it least disrupts nature and vital natural processes” (Wallace 1970, p. vi). Publishes study under the title, Metropolitan Open Space and Natural Process, by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1970, with contributions by McHarg, along with David A. Wallace, Ann Louise Strong, William Grigsby, Nohad Toulan, and William Roberts.
Fall—Hires Nicholas Muhlenberg, a resource economist with a keen understanding of forest management and ecology, as well as botanist Jack McCormick; both have a lasting impact at the school and demonstrate McHarg’s commitment to an ecology focus. At the same time, McHarg continues to bring in leading designers as visiting critics: Roberto Burle Marx, Jacques Simon, Sven Hansen, Wolfgang Oehme, and later Robert Zion. Tony Walmsley and Bill Roberts hired as assistant professors in design.
February 8—President Johnson’s address to the US Congress focused on Natural Beauty. Johnson directs Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to prepare and present a conservation plan for the Potomac as a “model of scenic and recreation values for the entire country.” In April, Udall appoints McHarg to the Potomac River Task Force. McHarg uses this opportunity to bring the ecological approach to the national stage. He presses his students into action producing a comprehensive study of the Potomac River Basin which will become a central element in the Task Force’s final report.
Purchases his first house at 725 Davidson Road, Philadelphia. Proceeds to design and build extensive gardens for the property—including a pool—over the next decade.
Fall—McHarg takes a sabbatical leave from teaching to write a book-length study of the ecological approach to design. Receives a $20,000 grant from The Conservation Foundation to support this effort. Titles his initial draft, “A Place for Nature in Man’s World,” but finalizes it, “Design With Nature.” The Natural History Press agrees to publish the book.
Undertakes an ambitious program to further advance the ecological approach through his teaching at Penn. Commits the department to a series of in-depth, multi-year research studios focused on the Delaware River Basin. Over the course of a decade, each iteration of this study allows McHarg to evolve and improve his method and to develop and explore the associated tools and techniques. Secures funding to establish three faculty positions in the natural sciences within the Department of Landscape Architecture—now including a Regional Planning program—and presses to expand that interdisciplinary reach into ethnography, anthropology, computation, and law, among other fields. By the mid-1970 s, faculty positions in physical, biological, and social sciences are established with graduate enrollment in the department reaching 120 students.
McHarg’s professional commissions for Staten Island (1966–1967), Washington, DC (1967), the Twin Cities (1968–1969), and later Denver (1970–1974), provide opportunities to apply these new methods in practice; the back-and-forth between the ideal and real contributes to his critical perspective.
May—McHarg begins sending out copies of Design With Nature to friends and close associates and officially released on July 1st. The book sells out its first printing of 10,000 copies within months and becomes an inspirational book in the emerging environmental movement, as well as a finalist for a National Book Award. In 1972 a paperback edition is published by Doubleday.
July 20—Apollo 11 moon landing. McHarg, along with Howard K. Smith, Marshall McLuhan and Bill Moyers, discusses the motives for sending man to the moon on the live ABC News broadcast viewed by millions. In the segment, aired shortly before the lunar module Eagle begins its descent to the moon’s surface, McHarg reflects on the benefits of the [space race], particularly the “enormous utility” of the satellites orbiting the Earth and the ability to “monitor the Earth continuously and…to observe things as delicate as the amount of carbon dioxide[, the] health of crops, sedimentation in rivers, the whole dynamism of natural processes may be continually monitored and digitized into computers immediately and that material can be used by people like me to make regional planning decisions” (Apollo 11: “As it happened LIVE on ABC,” Launch to TLI, July 16–19, 1969, PART.1, Youtube video, 1 h 58 m. Posted February 2015: URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT2sN7Oe7JA).
Serves as faculty advisor for the student organizers in the Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia, providing support and guidance in programming lectures and events. McHarg takes an active role reading the Committee’s “Declaration of Interdependence” at an event billed as “Earth Day Eve” held in front of Philadelphia’s historic Independence Hall. And on Earth Day itself, addressed a crowd of over 300,000 on the city’s bucolic Belmont Plateau.
August 30—McHarg profiled in the Wall Street Journal, a front-page article entitled “Father Nature.” The author notes, “What drives [McHarg] is the conviction that the formless urban growth now obliterating the American landscape must give way to something better. What obsesses him is the idea that he can make it happen.”
Leads groundbreaking ecological studies of Medford, New Jersey (1972–1974) and The Woodlands in Texas (WMRT; 1970–1974).
While much progress is made toward advancing the ecological approach to design through the direct utilization of the physical and natural sciences, McHarg recognizes that aspects of how to better understand how people affect and are affected by these natural systems, and furthermore, how decisions concerning the environment impact people, require serious study. With funding from the National Institutes of Mental Health, undertakes the Hazelton Study to investigate the interrelationships between a mountainous region of rural Pennsylvania that had historically depended on coal as an economic base, and its people, who were adapting to the decline of the coal industry. This approach was taken further in the Kennett Study, completed in 1976, in which a full-fledged human ecological approach was undertaken.
May 10—Awarded American Institute of Architects’ Allied Professions Medal in Houston.
November 18—wife Pauline dies from leukemia.
Commissioned by the Shah of Iran to prepare a comprehensive plan for “Pardisan,” an ecological park to be located in Tehran with a budget of 1.8 billion US dollars. While McHarg is partner in charge of the Pardisan project, he also contributes to the site selection for the new Nigerian capital city of Abuja (1974–1979) and to the environmental plan for Toronto’s Central Waterfront (1976).
May 28—Marries landscape architect Carol Ann Smyser (b. 1948) at her family’s farm in York, Pennsylvania. Together they have two sons, Ian William (b. 1982) and Andrew Maxwell (b. 1987). Settle in a small, but celebrated 1680 house with barn, tenant houses, and ancillary buildings on 55 acres in rural Marshalton, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Carol’s close experience growing up on a farm—and their relocation to a truly rural setting—brings Ian the firsthand engagement with agricultural pursuits. The couple makes an attempt at self-sufficiency, planting an extensive vegetable garden and orchard, and even considering ways to go off the grid.
McHarg is awarded the Medal of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the organization’s highest honor for achievement.
July—retires as chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning. Appointed Professor Emeritus. Continues teaching at Penn until spring 1999 and as a visiting professor at University of Auckland, New Zealand (1986); University of California, Berkeley (1986–1987); Harvard University, GSD (1994); University of Oklahoma (1994); and Ball State University (1995).
Ian and Carol design and build a home on a large property in Unionville on the former King Ranch, about 40 miles west of Philadelphia, in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania. The structure is composed of an old barn structure salvaged and reassembled by Amish carpenters. Carol plans the landscape.
Creates EMAP-A Prototype Database for a National Ecological inventory with John Radke, Johnathan Berger, and Kathleen Wallace. The project, funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency under their Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program pilot project, draws upon a 1974 proposal that McHarg prepared at the request of Russell Train, then EPA administrator but was not acted upon.
September 10—Receives National Medal of Art—the first given to a landscape architect—in a ceremony at the White House.
25th anniversary edition of Design With Nature released with a new introduction by McHarg. Translated into: French (1980), Italian (1989 and 2007), Japanese (1994), Chinese (1992, 2001, and 2008), and Spanish (1994 and 2000).
McHarg is awarded the Japan Prize. The award citation notes: “Ian L. McHarg contributed, in the city planning field, to the establishment of a theoretical method of ecological planning, making the most of the abundant potential capabilities of nature, and proposed a practical method for evaluating proper land use and for establishing clear restrictions, based on the profound ecological idea that, ‘man and nature are indivisible, and survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes’.”
March 5—dies at home in Unionville, Pennsylvania.
All the images used in this Chronology are from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA.
- Apollo 11 (2015) ‘As it happened LIVE on ABC’, Launch to TLI, 16–19 July 1969, PART.1,” Youtube video, 1 h 58 m. Posted Feb 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT2sN7Oe7JA
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