Richard Haag

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"Richard Haag's series of gardens at the Bloedel Reserve near Seattle comprises an essay on ideas of nature and their expression in landscape form. This is a landmark of 20th-Century landscape architecture."

--Anne Whiston Spirn, Professor and Chair,
Department of Landscape Architecture and
Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania
footnote 1

The work of landscape architect Richard Haag is recognized for its creativity, sensitivity to the natural environment, and adaptive use of existing structures and landforms. Haag is the only person to twice receive the prestigious President's Award for Design Excellence given by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) for Seattle's Gas Works Park in 1981, and for the "Sequence of Gardens" at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1986.

Haag joined the UW faculty in 1958 to initiate a program in landscape architecture, which became a department in 1964. And as lead designer at Richard Haag Associates, he has created a body of professional work encompassing over 500 design and planning projects.

Gas Works Park is perhaps one of Haag's best-known and most controversial works. The history of the site stretches back to 1906, when the Seattle Gas Company constructed a plant on the shores of Lake Union to extract gas from coal. The plant was shut down in 1956; the old refinery towers stood silent for years. But in 1963, as Seattle was in the process of making payments to acquire the land for a park, Haag submitted the site as a design problem in a national competition in landscape architecture for undergraduate students. The fact that not one of the 130 proposed designs involved saving the plant's old towers reflects the prevailing mindset at that time: everyone assumed the structures would be demolished and the site restored to a conventional, "natural" state.

Haag was asked to develop a plan for the park in 1970. After spending hours of time roaming the site, he came to a radically different solution, one that literally came to him in a dream. He decided the structures should be saved--not for historical purposes, but rather, for purely aesthetic reasons, to provide an interesting visual anchor for the park design.

To implement this vision, Haag faced two major challenges. First, he had to convince the city government that the structures should be preserved. Secondly, he had to find a way to detoxify the soil, which remained contaminated with hydrocarbons from the old industrial process. Haag developed a bioremediation method for detoxifying the soil on-site rather than carting it away for treatment. By adding oil-degrading enzymes to the soil, as well as organic materials to fertilize the growth of soil microorganisms, Haag and colleagues stimulated the natural breakdown of toxic contaminants in the topsoil, although contaminants remain in layers deep below. While the environmental issues remain controversial, the park has become one of the most popular recreation facilities in the Seattle area today.

"Haag's landforms create rooms and experiences for human recreation ranging from the contemplative to the intensely social, habitat for nature wild and cultivated, and a topography ranging from hilltops to swales, forming streams, wetlands, and beaches."

--John Rozdilsky, Curatorial Associate, Burke Museum footnote 3

Haag's works range in style from the soft, natural effect of the Battelle Research Center campus near Laurelhurst in Seattle to the starkly urban design of Victor Steinbrueck Park in the city's historic Pike Place Market. At the Battelle campus, Haag created a pond from swampy ground, and used lush hills and mounds to separate spaces and to create visual interest. The effect is a feeling of a private "room" for quiet introspection. In contrast to that cool serenity, Steinbrueck Park is a "hardscaped urban design." footnote 3 Haag created a viewing platform (or "belvedere") atop three levels of parking space. The platform opens out to Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, giving pedestrians a place to pause and enjoy the view.

Gas Works Park had won Haag his first ASLA award; the second was for his "Series of Gardens" at the Bloedel Reserve. The gardens are contained within a 140-acre preserve on the north end of Bainbridge--an island in Puget Sound west of Seattle--near Port Madison. The property was deeded by lumber industry baron Prentice Bloedel and his wife Virginia Bloedel to the University of Washington in 1970; in 1986, the reserve was sold to the Arbor Fund, a non-profit corporation which is dedicated to developing, maintaining, and managing the reserve for public and educational purposes.

Haag's work comprises a series four gardens set against a backdrop of old forest. As originally implemented, the sequence begins with the most abstract: The Garden of Planes. Next is the Anteroom, with its luscious mosses, lichens, and ferns, which in turn opens onto the Reflection Garden, one of Haag's most widely-admired works. The Reflection Garden is a "simple, restrained, and carefully composed garden of free-standing walls of yew with a carpet of grass surrounding a shallow, rectangular pool that unites sky and earth in it reflections..." footnote 4 The series concludes with the Bird Sanctuary, a completely natural-looking, designed environment, constructed to attract wildlife.

"The gardens are extracted principles from our rich heritage of landscape form--providing living proof that man can be the steward of the land, and can design with nature. To arouse latent emotional and aesthetic instincts and feelings, and to reaffirm man's immutable and timeless bond with nature, is implicit in its primary purpose."

--Richard Haag footnote 2

The first and last of these gardens has since been modified. But in its original form, "the series may be seen as two pairs of couplets in A B A B sequence," writes Susan Frey in an article about the composition. "The Garden of Planes and the Reflection Garden are pure geometry.... The second pair teems with birth, life, and death: The Anteroom in glorious, somber decay with microscopic life digesting the woods into fertile humus; the Bird Sanctuary a vibrant release of dance and song played out over the dark still waters." footnote 2

Among Haag's many other completed works are the Port of Everett's Jordan Park; Merrill Court Townhomes, a luxury development in a historic district of Seattle; North Waterfront Park in Berkeley, California; U.S. Courthouse Plaza in Spokane, Washington; and the Washington Pass Overlook and Visitor Center, Okanogan National Forest, in Winthrop, Washington.

  1. "Perspectives," A. W. Spirn, Progressive Architecture, 8.91, p. 93.
  2. "A Series of Gardens," Susan Rademacher Frey, Landscape Architecture, Sept./Oct., 1986, p. 54.
  3. "Landscape of Dream, Warrior of Vision," J. William Thompson, Landscape Architecture, Sept. 1989, p. 81.
  4. "Profile: Richard Haag," John Rozdilsky, Cascadia Forum, 1(1) Oct. 1993, p. 43.

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