Thinking about the architecture of web sites, and how carefully they can be constructed brought to mind a brush I once had with a landscape architect, and unknown to me at the time, a founder of Earth Day.
I was in my third year of law school, working with some other students to put together an Environmental Law Society. I helped write a set of bylaws for the organization, and co-edited a newsletter that we wrote together. We earned money with a few bake sales, talked a number of speakers into coming to the school, and took a canoe trip down part of the Christina River.
Our presentors included people from businesses and environmental organizations. They were interesting, and I think we all learned a little about how difficult it can be to try to impose change upon the world as part of an advocacy group, or from within a corporation.
One of our members recommended a neighbor of his from rural Chester County as a speaker. The neighbor was a landscape architect. I’m not sure that any of us were aware at the time that this neighbor was one of the most influential landscape architects of the 20th century. Or one of the most gifted speakers to grace a university’s lecture halls. We found that out, when Ian McHarg’s thick Scottish accent began to fill our presentation hall.
According to a Metropolis Magazine article, he created ecological planning and environmental design:
Yet McHarg has earned prominence for his method, rather than for any single project. The McHarg method dictates that a broad selection of environmental and human factors be charted on a series of overlay maps, and that an attentive analysis of these interdependent systems will reveal whether a site is suitable for development, and what form that development should take. It is like taking the vital signs of the earth, an earth of which man is part, but not master. His method, achieved with mylar transparencies and magic markers, anticipated computer-based geographic information systems (GIS), perhaps the single most important tool in urban planning today.
Our speaker’s words were poetry, and his voice was filled with passion. He told us about a development that he was asked to design. He informed his clients that they shouldn’t build in the spot they were looking at, because it was on a flood plain. They insisted, and he created plans for them. The houses were built, the waters came and destroyed them, and bulldozers were used to remove their last vestages from the location. Intelligent and responsible growth, looking at the world and our place in it, became his passion.
To many of us, our speaker was still just our classmate’s neighbor. But his eloquence, passion and wisdom had an impact. It wasn’t until the day after the presentation that I found out that we weren’t the only ones affected by his words. I took a look in our law library for books on landscape architecture. I only found one volume, and none for architecture at all. There were very few books in the library that weren’t related to the law. The book I found was Design with Nature, which had been written by our visitor.
While looking for more information for this post, I came across a column in which an Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Environmental Commission Member tells us that Design with Nature is still important:
As you might guess, I strongly encourage you to read a copy of Ian L. McHarg’s Design with Nature. I believe that you will find the book as fresh and relevant as it was in 1969. Once you have read it, I think you will never look at another road, city, or even your home in the same manner and perhaps you will be motivated enough to go out and design your own community with nature.
In 2000, McHarg was awarded the Japan Prize for “substantial contributions to the advancement of science and technology as well as to the peace and prosperity of mankind.” He comments on this and his role in landscape architecture and planning in a Question and Answer session with the University of Pennsylvania News.
Ian McHarg passed away in 2001, at the age of 80. He didn’t have a chance to perform what would have been his most ambitious project:
Even as Mr. McHarg’s lungs failed him over the past year, he continued to think big. “The last thing he said to me, last April or so, was, `I want to do this big study, a geophysical inventory for the whole globe, the world,’ ” Mr. Kirkwood said. “He was still dreaming far beyond his circumstances.”
The presentation that I heard in that classroom was possibly the most important one I heard in my last year of law school (or ever). It taught me that you can dream big dreams, and if you build with compassion and care, some of those dreams can come true.