The people of Cornish Road weren’t impressed by the apple tree. It was the 1980s in Toronto’s leafy Moore Park neighbourhood, and the Houghs – the landscape architect Michael Hough and his wife, Bridget – had planted one in their front yard. Even more uncouth were the tomatoes, green beans and lettuce. To Mr. Hough, this was just good sense: Why pour water and energy into a lawn, when you could put the soil to better use?
“Michael lived by his principles,” says his old friend, Simon Miles. “This upset many of the neighbours, but Michael felt it was the right use of the south sunlight.”
Mr. Hough, who died in January at 84, spent his career in pursuit of this ideal – the integration of cities with natural systems. As a young landscape architect in the 1960s, he helped lead that profession to combine urbanism and ecology, to think of human activity and nature as complementary and connected.
His own design work included Ontario Place and the University of Toronto’s new Scarborough campus, as well as advocacy that helped clean up the polluted Don River and preserve the historic Don Valley Brick Works.
But it was his teaching at University of Toronto and York University, and his books – including Out of Place (1990) and Cities and Natural Process (1995) – that helped cement his thinking. The ideas were deep and prescient. Today, cities across North America are working to repair their ecologies and make room for urban agriculture. “Landscape urbanism” is a powerful movement, and Mr. Hough’s legacy is very much alive.
He was always at home in nature and in the city. Urbanity was bred into him: the son of a British diplomat, William, and a Frenchwoman, Hortense, he grew up as his father’s career took them to Istanbul in the early 1930s, then Madrid and Prague, with winters skiing in Switzerland with his mother’s family.
It was a cosmopolitan life. His parents were both amateur musicians, and when composer Béla Bartók came to Istanbul, he stayed with them – leaving a signed copy of one of his pieces for young Michael.
Yet despite the glamour, he was “largely raised by servants,” says his widow, Bridget. When the Second World War broke out, he had just arrived at boarding school in England. He was 10. His parents were posted to Palestine in 1939, and he would not see them again until he was 16.
This experience, Ms. Hough says, fed a solitary and unconventional streak in his personality – and also a love of the natural world. “The family really felt he took refuge in nature and art when he was lonely,” she says. “And I think he was quite a lonely child.”
However, he came out of that solitude as a compelling, charismatic and driven character. After two years as an officer in the British Army in Malaysia and Singapore, he returned to Britain to study at the University of Edinburgh. Here he showed prodigious skill with a paintbrush, talent as a designer and much charisma.
Back in Edinburgh, he was drafted into a production of Romeo and Juliet as Lord Montague. Playing Lady Montague was Bridget, then 17, and the two soon fell in love. “He seemed very exotic,” she recalls, with his French heritage and his experience of the world.
Back in Britain, Michael found himself unfulfilled as he worked in the London office of prominent architect Basil Spence. The answer came from an iconoclastic architect named Ian McHarg, who had strong ideas about “ecological planning.” Mr. McHarg, who had taught Mr. Hough at Edinburgh, was starting a landscape architecture master’s program at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania. “For all the people hoping to go to America, this was an opportunity,” Ms. Hough recalls.
Mr. McHarg was a seminal figure. His book Design With Nature helped nudge city planning and landscape architecture toward paying attention to ecological facts: climate, soil conditions, plant life. Mr. Hough later had differences with Mr. McHarg, but those studies helped shape Mr. Hough’s approach.
First, though, he and Bridget toured America in their “tomato-soup-coloured 1957 Volkswagen Beetle,” she recalls. They wound up in San Francisco, where their son Tim was born.
Soon they were forced, as Mr. Hough’s visa expired, to return to Britain. “Nobody in England seemed to know what landscape architecture was,” his wife recalls. So they set out for another land of opportunity: Canada.