AUSTIN, TEXAS—The Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture conference began on Wednesday with a rousing and hilarious rant by Richard Haag, the 89-year-old landscape architect from Seattle best known for his design of Gas Works Park and his early advocacy for edible plants. The speech veered in numerous directions. At one point Haag polled the audience to see what topics they wanted him to focus on, and, to his surprise, they chose trees. Some of the most memorable lines and moments:
“I have known for 50 years that landscape architecture is the fine art of visual swindles.” [Arguing that no rendering can truly capture the landscape in all its complexity.]
“Landscape architecture is the only profession that embraces nature as a lover. Biophilic, we were biophilic before they started combining words like that.”
On the landscape architecture profession: “Right now we’re on the top. We have what I call the power of procreation. But it can be threatened by other technologies moving in, and we damn well better take control of it.”
“Every idea you have, give it away, because you get a better one in return.”
On death: “The university’s going to get me…. There ain’t going to be no funeral. There ain’t going to be no obituary.”
On Antarctica: “The most overrated landscape in the world.” [It has no trees.]
Given a choice of about six subjects, the audience chose to hear Haag talk about trees, which Haag had called “a weak spot in our profession.”
“Here’s a problem: Trees do not have legal standing. I predict trees will soon have legal standing. I mean, wetlands do. Endangered species do.”
“I probably owe my life to a tree. Black walnut.” Whenever he had problems—teenage problems, God problems—he’d go up into that tree’s swaying branches.
“Every city should have a tree czar…or a tree czarina…. That person’s obligation is the welfare of the trees.”
In response to a LAM article that ran last June, “The Trouble with Brick,” on Boston’s efforts to move away from brick sidewalks, Haag argued for developing “wheelchairs with suspension systems.”
Haag said he once asssigned a problem to architecture students to design a tree. “The joke was on them…. That was one way to bring those boys down to earth.”
On an article he published in LAM many years ago, laying out his idea for more productive landscapes that produce food. “I wanted to call it nutrimental horticulture, but LAM thought that was too out there so they called it edible landscapes.”
His preferred way of ending conversations with native plant nazis: “You’re not going to grow many native vegetables or fruit trees.”
On arborists and why they aren’t always the best advocates for trees: They’re “usually more interested in pruning.”
He put in a kind word for phytopathologists, though: “These guys can take the pulse of trees.” But unfortunately there are few of them out in the field, he says.
On his general dislike of answering questions from a podium: “This is not good. We should be sitting in a circle. I should be sitting on a log.”
“Can design be taught? I think it can be professed. I doubt if it can be taught.”
“The term plant materials should be banished from our vocabulary. Plants are not materials. They are living organisms.”
Responding to someone’s concern that plants are not being taught in some landscape architecture programs anymore: “That’s a shame. This really does worry me. The plants are one of the things that separate us.”
“Trees and lawn are antagonistic. They work on different regimes.”
Asked what technologies we ignore at our peril, Haag said: “G–I–S! It’s a tool, but here’s the problem with these tools. The wrong people get ahold of them. The capitalists. The corporations.” He told the audience about a man who was working on a railroad in China without field surveys, hydrologists, or cultural anthropologists, only GIS. That is “dangerous as hell,” Haag said.
He described his idea for “Bio-Olmsteding” with an effort to measure how someone could survive on the bounty of five acres of land.
One thing Haag forgot to explain during his lecture was the title of his talk, “The Sooner the Better.” Later in the evening, he shared the story. A woman who attended one of his talks said to him, “Mr. Richy, you have strange ideas. Are you writing?” He replied that he was. “Oh, when will you publish it?” the woman asked. “I said, ‘Oh, posthumously,’” Haag says, ”and she said, ‘Wonderful! The sooner the better!’”