TCLF Mourns the Loss of Rich Haag
The Cultural Landscape Foundation
August 3, 2018
Photo courtesy Seattle Times
College of Environmental Design alumnus Richard Lewis Haag (B.L.A. ‘50), a teacher, mentor, advocate, and celebrated landscape architect, died on May 9, 2018. He will be remembered for several projects that remain as icons in the field of landscape architecture—including Seattle's Gas Works Park and the Bloedel Reserve—and for the personal generosity he showed as a teacher and mentor.
Haag was born on October 23, 1923, in Louisville, Kentucky. With two brothers and three sisters, he was the oldest of six children. Haag spent much of his youth outdoors. His father owned and operated R.L. Haag Nursery, opened in 1920, and the young Haag would often accompany crews to work sites. Even as a child, he gained renown for his deft ability to identify arcane species of plants and for his experiments in plant-grafting techniques.
Haag never graduated from high school, but he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 before the end of his senior year. He served in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a radar engineer, training stateside before traveling to Casablanca via troop ship, then making his way to Egypt, China, and India.
Honorably discharged in 1945, Haag studied landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, on the G.I. Bill. There he met two people who would influence the course of his life and work. The animated and inspirational professor Stanley White, whom Haag called “a genius that could get you to really think and feel and emote about the profession and how to approach it,” introduced him to the fundamentals of landscape architecture; and CED alumnus Hideo Sasaki, who graduated from the program in 1946 (and taught there through 1948), became a lifelong friend.
In 1949, with Sasaki’s help, Haag transferred to U.C. Berkeley, earning a B.L.A. in 1950. Haag entered Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, once again with Sasaki’s help, earning his M.L.A. in 1952. After graduation, he returned to Kentucky, devising site plans for United Mine Workers of America hospitals in Appalachia. A Fulbright scholarship took him to Kyoto, Japan, from 1953 to 1955, where he “developed a reverence for old things and old ways and old methods.” Although, like his father, Haag never claimed to belong to any religious group, the principles of Zen Buddhism and Taoism, which he learned while in Japan, would inform his future practice.
After returning to the United States, Haag settled in San Francisco, working briefly for the firm Osmundson and Staley and then for Lawrence Halprin in 1956-1957, when he also became licensed to practice independently. He then left Halprin’s office to form his own Bay Area firm, Rich Haag Associates, which produced several award-winning projects. Thomas Church sent work Haag’s way, helping to get him on his feet.
It was also Church who, in 1958, recommended Haag for a teaching post at the University of Washington in Seattle. The school’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning was then considering the formation of a landscape-architecture department and was in search of a capable practitioner to establish it. In the autumn of 1958, Haag moved with his family to Seattle and joined the faculty. He opened a small office to continue his practice and taught courses at the university to architecture students until the new department was officially established in 1964. Haag chaired the department for a decade, and under his leadership, the program would grow to prominence and gain a national reputation for excellence. Even after stepping down as chairman, he continued to teach and influence generations of students.
Haag’s practice also grew, and he eventually opened his own nursery to supply the plantings. From 1958 to 2000, the firm completed more than 500 built projects throughout the Pacific Northwest and farther afield. While many of his landscapes, such as Seattle’s Steinbreuck Park, have been universally lauded, his two most important projects, which have gained international acclaim, are Gas Works Park (1971-1988), also in Seattle, and the Bloedel Reserve (1979-1984) on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound.
For Gas Works Park, Haag’s first job was to convince local officials and the citizenry to leave in place the hulking remnants of a former industrial plant that converted coal to gas, rather than clear the nineteen-acre site for a pristine landscape. Haag insisted that the rusted structures, a collection of towers, stacks, pipes, and sheds recalling the site’s industrial past, should be embraced and retained as part of his design. To accomplish the task, Haag and his firm devised what was possibly the nation’s first scientific soil-remediation program for a public park. He used plants and natural, biological processes to, in essence, heal the soil—an endeavor that was then highly controversial but is now a standard practice. The prescient work at Gas Works Park proved groundbreaking, creating a public space of unusual beauty while changing the public’s perception of post-industrial landscapes. The park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
Haag was named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 1983. He is the only person ever to have received two Presidential Awards for Design Excellence from the ASLA, one for Gas Works Park and the other for the Bloedel Reserve. In 2003 he was awarded the ASLA Medal, the organization’s highest honor bestowed for lifetime achievements and contribution to the profession. He was an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects and a Resident of the American Academy in Rome. In 1996 the Harvard University Graduate School of Design honored Haag with a symposium and exhibition, which were followed by the publication of the book Richard Haag: Bloedel Reserve and Gas Works Park. Rich Haag Associates officially closed on June 30, 2016. Soon thereafter, Haag and his wife, Cheryl, moved from Seattle to a residence near Pasadena, California.
TCLF completed and published a video oral history of Haag in May 2014. The oral history features interviews with him at his home and at selected projects in and around Seattle in November 2004 and in May 2013.
Read Haag's obituary in full here.