February 06, 1997
University Gazette


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  Landscape Alchemist

GSD's George Hargreaves transforms 'post-industrial wastelands' into aesthetic and functional spaces

By Ken Gewertz

Gazette Staff

When George Hargreaves was 18, he went on a summer trip that changed his life.

While trekking across the West with his friends, Hargreaves hiked to the top of Flat Top Mountain in the Rockies. The view was spectacular, but there was something else about the experience that moved him and that he kept struggling to define.

"It wasn't just the mountains or the trees or any of the individual elements. It was something about the sense of space itself. When I got back home I tried to explain this to my uncle who was dean of forestry at the University of Georgia, and he said, 'Have you ever thought about going into landscape architecture?' "

Hargreaves followed his uncle's suggestion, earning a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia in 1977 and a master's in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in 1979.

As a practitioner, Hargreaves has had notable success in transforming his visions of outdoor spaces into reality. His San Francisco and Cambridge firm of Hargreaves Associates has designed a variety of innovative parks, plazas, and riverfront areas that have garnered numerous awards and wide critical acclaim.

Hargreaves began teaching at the GSD as an adjunct professor of practice in 1991. In July 1996, he was simultaneously promoted to full professor and appointed chairman of the Landscape Architecture Department.

In announcing the appointment, GSD Dean Peter Rowe called Hargreaves "one of the foremost practitioners of his generation. Over the past five years he has been one of the outstanding teachers at the GSD and has consistently exhibited a strong commitment to teaching students at all levels. We are indeed fortunate to have a person of George's talent and dedication heading the Landscape Architecture Department."

When Hargreaves talks about what inspires him, he is more apt to mention the impact of natural phenomena rather than the design conventions established by his predecessors. Like the Romantic poets of the early 19th century, he continually refers back to certain critical experiences in Nature as touchstones of his aesthetic development. One of these was his experience at the summit of Flat Top Mountain. A second was witnessing the fury of Hurricane Gloria from a Honolulu hotel in 1982.

"I had studied geology and I always thought of change as a slow process," he said. "But in Hawaii I was reminded of the power of immediate change, brought on by a 30-foot wall of water. It made me wonder, how do we imbue a project with the notion that the environment is not static, but is always changing?"

This quest to take account of Nature's dynamic qualities has led Hargreaves to a unique and intuitive method for approaching the process of landscape design.

"Convention is easy to slip into, to keep making the same pictures. What I try to find are those magic moments of clarity when you hear what the site is whispering to you."

What makes Hargreaves' approach even more distinctive is that typically the whispers he listens for come not from sites that embody the undisturbed beauty of Nature, but rather from those ruined and degraded landscapes created as an unfortunate by-product of the industrial world's activities.

"Our firm specializes in difficult sites," he said.

Design critics have taken note of Hargreaves' talent for rescuing abused sites. Writing in Landscape Architecture, critic John Beardsley wrote that "Hargreaves performs a kind of alchemy in which the dross of post-industrial landscape is transformed into something approximating gold . . . combining a strong sculptural language with a sensitivity to both environmental process and social history . . . "

One of the difficult sites Hargreaves has transformed is Candlestick Point in San Francisco. Located at the edge of the city, on landfill facing San Francisco Bay, the site bears the brunt of strong winds and aggressive tides as well as the scars of its industrial heritage. Hargreaves collaborated with the firm of Mack Architects and artist Douglas Hollis to transform the site into an innovative cultural park.

Instead of trying to shut out the elements, Hargreaves decided to work with them. In some cases, this meant emphasizing the natural processes to which the site is exposed.

The main entrance, for example, is positioned on the axis of the prevailing winds so that visitors are literally blown into the park. The experience is intensified by the presence of wind-activated organ pipes that announce the visitors' arrival.

Once inside, views of open fields become visible, sloping downward to the expanse of San Francisco Bay. This long, inclined plain is bounded on each side by water channels that amplify the experience of the tides by allowing the rising waters to penetrate into the park.

But there is also refuge from the elements. A series of dunes create wind-sheltered areas where visitors may picnic or sit. One of the dunes provides sanctuary for an acoustically efficient performance shed for outdoor concerts.

Candlestick Point Cultural Park is not the only site on which Hargreaves and his colleagues have transformed desolate wasteland into a useful and aesthetically pleasing facility without obscuring or falsifying its ignominious history.

Other examples include Byxbee Park in Palo Alto, Calif.; Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, Calif.; Parque do Tejo e Trancao in Lisbon, Portugal; and many others, both in this country and abroad.

Recently, Hargreaves has undertaken two commissions which, because of their high visibility, have brought him attention beyond the design community. One is to produce a master design for Homebush Bay, the site of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The second is another master plan to tie together a group of new buildings on the University of Cincinnati campus, each of which has been designed by a prominent contemporary architect.

As a teacher, Hargreaves believes that the GSD's Landscape Architecture Department has been doing an excellent job of providing professional education, but he would like to see an increase in the amount of research in the field. He believes that in the post-industrial era issues such as environmental systems management, flood control, highway design, and bioengineering belong at the heart of landscape architecture. He said there is also much work to be done in adopting computer-aided design systems (CAD) to the needs of landscape architects.

Hargreaves agrees that so far the work of landscape architects has not drawn the attention and notoriety that often accrues to the efforts of architects. Part of this is due to the fact that buildings by their nature attract notice while landscapes are often taken for granted. But the problem, Hargreaves believes, is also that landscape architecture is a relatively young discipline and has not yet built up a significant body of work.

"The generation that's coming will realize that landscape and systems are intertwined and that they become an integral part of our lives. When this happens, I think we will begin to see works in landscape architecture that earn the same attention and care that we've given to great buildings."


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College