Seattle-based landscape architect Richard Haag has reshaped his city and his profession as a designer, teacher, and activist. In the new book, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design, Thaisa Way deftly guides readers through Haag’s major influences, design philosophy, and his numerous works, both public and private. The photos and text excerpted below provide a brief history of one of Haag’s best know public works, the rehabilitation of Gas Works Park in Seattle.
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[A] significant event in Haag’s career was the 1956 closing of the gasification plant that lay on the northern shore of Lake Union. Sitting on a small promontory once known as Browns Point, the plant had manufactured the gas that supplied the city for fifty years. It had also been the source of immense pollution in the soil, water, and, most visibly, air. When it closed due to new sources of gas and energy, it was a toxic wasteland, and yet, because of its central position in the city, many considered it potential park space. Money was available for such a transformation, but the question was how to address such a disturbed and toxic site. From these conditions, Gas Works Park evolved as one of the first postindustrial landscapes to be transformed into public place. …
Ever since his arrival in Seattle, Haag had been dreaming of what to do with the abandoned site. It would take until 1975 to open the park to the public. Today it includes 20.5 acres of land projecting 400 feet into Lake Union with 1,900 feet of shoreline. It features the 45-foot-high Kite Hill, preserved gasification towers called “cracking” towers, a boiler house converted to a picnic shelter complete with tables and grills,and a former exhauster-compressor building transformed into the open-air Play Barn housing a maze of brightly painted machinery for children. It inspired projects across the nation and around the globe, from the work of Julie Bargman in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, to the work of Peter and Annelise Latz at Duisburg Nord, Germany.
Haag saw the dramatic site for the first time by rowboat on an autumn night and was immediately drawn to the somber black towers of the gas plant, set on the promontory surrounded by water on three sides and the Olympic Mountains visible in the far distance. He continued to explore the place and over time developed an attitude toward the remains of the gas plant. As he described it:
“When I get a new site, I always want to know, figure out, what is the most sacred thing about this site? Well, this site, without the buildings, there was nothing sacred about it. It did have a shoreline, but it would have a shoreline with or without the buildings. So I decided that this big tower, the one right behind me, was the most sacred, the most iconic thing on this site, and that I would go down to the wire to save that structure. Then as I got into it more, I thought, that’s kind of silly. Why wouldn’t you save the one behind it? You know, husband and wife? And then you start thinking, wait a minute, there’s four more: those are the kids. So it would break up a family. So I began to think bigger and bigger about saving more of these structures.”
As Haag explored the site, he would become increasingly enamored of its character and its potential as a new type of public park, specifically, a new kind of historic preservation effort, this one focused on an industrial past. As he later recalled:
“I haunted the buildings and let the spirit of the place enjoin me. I began seeing what I liked, then I liked what I saw—new eyes for old. Permanent oil slicks became plain without croppings of concrete, industrial middens were drumlins, the towers were ferro-forests and the brooding presence became the most sacred of symbols. I accepted these gifts, and decided to absolve the community’s vindictive feel towards the gas plant.”
Thaisa Way is associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. She is the author of Unbounded Practices: Women, Landscape Architecture, and Early Twentieth Century Design.
See more images and learn about Haag and the making of this iconic Seattle landmark in The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design. Watch a trailer for the book here.
Meet Richard and Thaisa and pick up a signed copy of the book at these upcoming events: