UW News

May 8, 2015

New book celebrates work, legacy of UW landscape architect Richard Haag

UW News

Thaisa Way's book on landscape architect Richard Haag was published by University of Washington Press.

Thaisa Way’s book on landscape architect Richard Haag was published by University of Washington Press.

Thaisa Way is an associate professor of landscape architecture in the University of Washington College of Built Environments and author of “The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design.” She answered a few questions about the book and the work of Haag, whom she often fondly calls “Rich.”

Q: Here we have an affectionate and detailed biography of Richard Haag, well-known landscape architect and founder in 1964 of the UW’s landscape architecture department. How did you come to write this book?

TW: When I arrived in Seattle to teach at the UW in 2007, I needed a project that would ground me in my new place — so as a historian I looked for a good story, one that would allow me to discover this place and the community I had joined. Rich Haag was a terrific story as he had founded the department I was now teaching in and he was known for pushing the boundaries of design, something I wanted to do as a teacher and writer.

Way and Haag at Town Hall Seattle
A discussion titled “Modern Impacts of Pacific Northwest Landscape Design”
June 10, 7:30 p.m.,
tickets, information online.

Q: Haag spent 1953 to 1955 in Japan on a Fulbright Fellowship. How did his time there affect his later career? What influences from that time can be seen in his public work?

TW: There is a whole chapter on this so I will refrain here, except to say that Rich’s photographs of Japan inspired a whole generation of architecture students to become landscape architects — including Laurie Olin, Grant Jones, Bob Hanna, and Frank James among others. Rich’s view of the world is deeply embedded in a mix of his Kentucky youth and his Japan experience.

Q: Haag will always be associated with his award-winning work creating Seattle’s Gas Works Park on a ruined, toxic industrial site. Why, unlike so many other possible plans for the area, did he decide to keep the industrial buildings there?

Below: Gas Works Park seen soon after it opened in 1975.

Above, an aerial view of the future Gas Works Park site in 1969.
Below: Gas Works Park seen soon after it opened in 1975.Courtesy UW Press

TW: Re-seeing the industrial buildings and the toxic landscapes of Gas Works reveals the power and magic of a good designer — one who is an artist, a scientist and an activist. Rich re-imagined the post-industrial wasteland because he saw and continues to see the world through the lens of design, imagination and art. He preserved the character of the landscape because it was and remains a part of our urban history, our cultural legacy — it is a part of us — and thus not something we can simply throw away and make disappear.

By engaging our legacy instead of covering it over and throwing it out, he is suggesting through the design of a public place that we can learn from and with and of our places — from the simplest corner of overgrown meadow to the sweeping landforms of Gas Works to the towers and the barns.

As people and as communities we mark, transform and shape our landscapes. Re-seeing these places after we have damaged them should not require merely hiding them. For Gas Works Park Rich helped us re-imagine the landscape and make a place that we continue to learn with. It inspires us to think carefully about how we mark, transform and shape our future landscapes. It instigates activism and civic engagement. It gives pleasure and joy.

Q: You repeat landscape architect and writer Gary R. Hilderbrand’s comment that “for a group of idealistic, young people rebelling against architecture, Haag, with an almost religious zeal, delivered an epiphany: The landscape is the site for urgent and meaningful work.” What was his meaning, and why were these young idealists said to be rebelling against architecture?

Views outside and inside of the old blacksmith's shop Haag used as an office on the gasworks site.

Views outside (1970) and inside (1972) the old blacksmith’s shop Haag used as an office while working on the gasworks site. Below, Haag leads a planning meeting in the office. “Haag did not merely move his office onto the gasworks site,” wrote Way. “He moved from one derelict building to another with a sleeping bag, acquiring a deep familiarity with the landscape.”UW Press

TW: In the early 1960s many young people, college students, wanted to foster a different relationship with the world than what they saw around them — they wanted to steward the environment, to be a part of a larger community that questioned the authority of past generations, and they wanted to be fully engaged in the arts, in experience.

And for young architects, architecture as a traditional profession and practice appeared to have too many rules and boundaries and barriers. On the other hand, landscape was wide open, literally and figuratively. Rich made such work the place of difference — he demonstrated through his own work that designing the public realm of parks, plazas, streets and campuses could be critical contributions to society.

He inspired students to realize the potential of public space to foster democracy as they imagined it. Cities are knit together by their public landscapes, by the public realm. Rich opened the eyes of young designers to the potential of focusing on this amazing domain or space of design — essentially designing the urban landscape.

Q: Speaking of those students, what is Haag’s ongoing legacy among current and future students of the UW College of Built Environments?

TW: Rich’s legacy is in his places that continue to inspire and ignite — they inspire students to think beyond what they know, to push their own imagination beyond the places they have seen. They ignite civic engagement and public service, for Rich’s most important work was in the public realm.

Such work underscores the amazing contributions of designers to the public realm, and not just to the facades but to the very fabric that makes the city a place to live, work and dream.

Students continue to come to the UW and the College of Built Environments to follow in those footsteps. Today our focus on community participatory design is another extension of this focus on the public realm and the city. This is all part of Richard Haag’s legacy.

  • Video by University of Washington Press