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Walter Hood is hopeful. In the nearly three decades since he launched his practice in 1992, the Oakland, California-based landscape architect has witnessed many progressive flashpoints, instances in which, as he puts it, “we collectively were willing to act.” He cites are the L.A. protests of the 1990s, the dawn of the Obama era in the 2000s, and now — perhaps most encouragingly — the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that began last year. “I don’t know what this moment is,” he says, “but we’ve got to be ready.” 

The notion of incremental change, of pushing against constant setbacks, also inspires Hood’s work, which draws from art, language and symbolism to re-centre marginalized people in public spaces. Hood defines his studio as a “cultural practice.” Among its completed works are Lafayette Square Park in his home city, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, the garden at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Museum, and the exterior setting for the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Its upcoming projects — palimpsests that foreground the often-hidden past of America — include the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina (the city where over half of the slave ships to the U.S. made port) and a park commemorating Freedman’s Village in Arlington, Virginia.

Azure spoke with Hood, who is currently the Senior Loeb Scholar at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, before the storming of the U.S. Capitol by far-right Trumpists in January, but the conversation began with that storied building’s site: the National Mall, for which Hood had proposed a new landscape as part of an ideas lab seeking to redesign the frequently flooded Tidal Basin. Like many of his upcoming works, the plan sought to “re-present” the perspectives of those whose experiences have been erased from the official story.

For the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab, your team created a series of narratives — about how groups of people will experience the redesigned landscape — inspired by graphic novels. Why did you choose this way to express your ideas? Is the envisioning of the experience for the end user the beginning of the design process?

Walter Hood

The D.C. landscape as an allegory for the country is, for me, a very powerful way to think about it: that we built our national capital in a lowland swamp and we’re basically maintaining it by holding the waters at bay. There’s a lot of tension there. The story then is an origin story – the shining city on the hill, right? Who’s excluded from the story? Then there is the notion that you’re creating this fictitious landscape and having to add new narratives, new memorials, new monuments. So, we took a step back and said, “What if we didn’t approach it through fixing it but through the experience of different Americans who weren’t part of it but are seeking different narratives about themselves?” That was a way for us to loosely talk about how the landscape can somewhat be a guide for us to talk about this notion of difference — if we’re willing to not keep making it the same. Which is a characteristic of colonialism: to make sameness.

Walter Hood’s proposal for the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab takes the shape of a graphic novel

During the recent U.S. election, a majority of white people, to the surprise of many, still voted for Donald Trump. In the landscapes you create, are you concerned with how white people can also see these historical and cultural layers? Or are you more about concerned with centering narratives of Black experiencing? 

A little of both. I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. In my class this year, we’re reading sociologist [Joe] Feagin’s The White Racial Frame. It posits that the settlers had to create their own identity in a place. And they created whiteness. Feagin writes that, for 82 per cent of our history on this continent, we’ve been separate, so this idea that whiteness has been the dominant frame makes sense. Again, we’ve only had 50 years where people have said let’s try to live together. Even in the late sixties, white people didn’t want to live with Blacks. We had to have federal law to come in and actually desegregate. A lot of the things we’re going through [as a result] make sense and it’s going to be a long, arduous route [to reconciliation]. We’re trying to find ways to create this conversation and not just make a pedagogical intervention in the landscape.

Made of interconnected slavetag replicas, a towering yellow sculpture called FREED holds pride of place on a new square in Arlington, Virginia. The space is being designed by Hood on the one-time site of Freedman’s Village, which was populated by emancipated slaves and is still home to some of their descendents.

We’re working on a project, in Arlington, Virginia, trying to commemorate Freedman’s Village. I suggested doing a piece that has the word “freed” — F-R-E-E-D — as the central iconic emblem. And there was a lot of discussion around why are we saying “free”? And I said, “You know, Blacks were freed. We didn’t come to this country to get freedom. We were actually freed; someone said, ‘You can go.’” So that’s the kind of conversation I would love to be at the surface, that it’s not just about fixing an ecological distant. It’s about thinking about ecological history and how cultures can begin to have conversations about how we can live together. And I don’t think we can live together until we know each other’s stories.

Word choice is very important to you. You speak about preferring the term “difference” to “diversity,” you have referred to “disinvested” communities and infrastructure (rather than, say, “underrepresented” or other euphemisms) and you’ve criticized the term “placemaking” as a form of erasure. Is changing the lexicon a core aspect of your work? 

It’s huge. Over the past five years or so, I’ve been really struggling to find a way to talk about the studio work. And I found a connection in linguistic hybridity: the notion that there is a formal hybridity and an informal hybridity in language. The formal is about creating double negatives. I’ve been working on projects like “Lafayette Square Park.” Okay…Lafayette…it’s a square and it’s a park. Where did that name come from? You go back in history and it was Lafayette Square, then very early in the 20th Century the citizens wanted the city to put more greenery in it. So over time people started referring to it as a park. I went, “Wow, it’s so interesting to see how culture informs these physical places over time.” And I thought, if I brought that into my design process, can I use it as a way to be more transgressive when I’m dealing with these typologies?

Informal hybridity is the future, because it’s departing from those typologies and it’s trying to develop new words, new associations for these places. And an example might be the Solar Strand we did in Buffalo. It’s a landscape but it’s based on these linear, quarter-mile-long walkways in between PV panels. Unbeknownst to us, three years after it was completed, it became a wildlife preserve. Because we didn’t use that language of “parkland” or “forest.”

At Solar Strand in Buffalo, New York, PV panels dot the “hybrid landscape,” which has unexpectedly become a refuge for wildlife as well as for people.

The cultural references you’re bringing in are also different from the typical language used by landscape architects. You cite writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin. Is this an important way of making landscape architecture tied more to the culture and the history?

Yes and no. I think a lot of it comes through maturation. Du Bois and Baldwin were part of my education very early; I just didn’t know how it fit within design. I went to an HBCU in North Carolina and had a very strong professional education in landscape architecture. By the time I came to California, I actually made my master’s degree a much more liberal arts education. But I still didn’t know how I could make manifest a lot of these ideas that existed in literature, in art, that had a very strong cultural connection to me.

For a while, I never wanted to talk about the double consciousness — this notion that when I walk into a room people look at me as a Black man, that that’s the first thing they see. I’ve had to almost keep the veil on and actually respond that way as opposed to taking the veil off and having people see me as an artist first. Working through a lot of these things has allowed me to try to be a little more emboldened to express this artistry, versus being afraid or acculturating into the profession to a certain degree and suggesting that that racial thing doesn’t exist. Once you get to a place where you’ve figured out a way to navigate, you can express yourself a little more freely. I think for me, literature and art has been that place.

Black Landscapes Matter, the book you co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, had been in the works for a while, but came out, last year, at the perfect time. In his essay for it, Kofi Boone expresses that Black Lives Matter, which is referenced in your title, should start to tie its aspirations to spatial reality, that the movement’s message is being conveyed in music, art and other cultural expressions but not yet through landscape architecture and, therefore, in public space. Do you see an opportunity for this through the dialogue that the book could instigate?

We started the book in 2016 as a lecture series. The Mike Brown murder [in Ferguson, Missouri] had such an impact on me. There was a photo of this young Black man lying in the street; someone had placed a blanket over him, but he lay on the street for hours. It struck me as a reoccurring narrative, and this goes back to the logic and semiotics of our neighbourhoods. There are two narratives: one is Trayvon Martin and one is Mike Brown. In the case of Trayvon Martin, here was a neighbourhood where a Black man in a hoodie didn’t seem to belong, an enclave of people who don’t look like me. Landscape architects design these places; we don’t discuss what it means to make a closed community. And then Mike Brown — he was at the liquor store. And as soon as you hear “liquor store” or “cheque-cashing store,” you immediately have an image: It’s a disinvested neighbourhood.

In both of them, it occurred to me, there is a kind of semiotics that gives policemen or people enforcing law the right to kill people. It’s just that simple. You don’t see people being killed in Beverly Hills. People are being killed in those spaces where the backdrop in a way reinforces those actions. So I thought, let’s get a group of people together…and have this discussion. In thinking about my intro, I was searching for clarity: Where did we go wrong? How could we do better? And if I wrote the book today, it would be completely different.

Double Sights, Hood’s installation addressing the complex legacy of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, sits on Princeton University’s Scudder Plaza. The soaring columnar work features quotes by Wilson on its outside panels; criticisms of his racial views cover the inside ones.

What would you include?

I would include more thinking about this idea of colonialism — really trying to be more articulate about that. I’m teaching a course this semester on post-colonialism with a hyphen, because I don’t think we’re in the post-colonial — we’re in the imperial actually — and we’ve still never dealt with the colonial. In landscape architecture, this is something we have to deal with.

Even post-1960s, from a design point of view we’ve done nothing that changed the semiotic, the logic of how we want to live together. I can’t think of any design thing we did collectively to say that we want to live together. We just changed the law, that’s all we did. We’re still probably the most segregated country in the world. I’ve been thinking, what would those mechanisms be that could afford us to actually think about how we could live together? I guess there’s two things: one is taking those red-lined areas of cities that were disinvested, polluted with industrial infrastructure and impacted by changing climate and invest in those places and the people who live there. And the other is to say these spaces are not right for anyone. And actually allow people to integrate those areas that were never integrated, which is more radical.

Outside the Broad Museum in downtown L.A., Hood offset the futuristic white facade with transplanted mature olive trees, expansive swathes of grass and, along one sidewalk, low mounds of greenery as idiosyncratic as the building.

I want to return to the idea of double consciousness but as it relates to public space. Many marginalized people don’t feel safe in public spaces. Can something as essential as safety be designed into a public space?

Oh yes, I do think it can be designed. I know I’m using this term, semiotic, a lot — it’s the backdrop. Twenty years ago, a colleague of mine said something that I’d never thought about before working on this project, the Lafayette Square Park plaza, which had a history of a lot of transients hanging out in the park. And most of them were Black men. After we designed it, we were at the park having lunch and he looked around and he said to me, “Walter, these people look good in this setting.” And he’s white. It struck me that what he was saying was we don’t normally design this kind of backdrop for this group of people. There’s no investment in creating a backdrop that could empower them or that could advocate for them.

For the landscape design at the International African American Museum in Charleston, you’ve envisioned this memorial garden where the fountain pavement reinterprets the body shapes of the Brookes Map, that horrific document depicting conditions on the notorious slave ship Brookes. Anybody who looks at that map has a very visceral reaction. As an artist, how do you interpret something like that?

I’ve been studying the Brookes Map for years. And now, how we have been able to talk about the past has changed: There’s a culture that has emerged around how to best exhume that history and re-present it in a way that we can gain strength from and also have conversations around. That was the courage that the context has given us to actually attempt to do projects like this. And from an artist’s point of view this is really risky. For IAAM, we had a committee where we spent two days touring the [South Carolina] Lowcountry and I presented a multitude of ideas that were probably even more audacious than the one that we’re doing. The conversations around how we should commemorate our ancestors was a wonderful process. And from that it imbued the making of the museum with a different ethics than any other institution I’ve worked on.

At the IAAM in Charleston, South Carolina, a reflecting pool’s paving, visible beneath the surface of the water, is patterned with the images of slave bodies as depicted in a notorious transport map. Hood’s landscape strategy for the IAAM also takes cues from the tradition of “hush harbours,” areas where enslaved Africans would assemble, often in secret, to socialize and share stories freely.

It’s almost revelatory to a certain degree. I can look at a lot of these images and things from that time period, and where I used to look at it and go “I don’t wanna touch that” there is now a need to somehow mine that experience and try to re-present it in a way so that people can find places for reconciliation. One of the elders in the committee commented, “I just don’t like the idea of people walking on it.” One thing I would love to do for the opening is to have a collection of Black men and women lying down on it.

(Re)Making History: A Conversation with Walter Hood

By honestly addressing the contentious past, Walter Hood’s landscape designs seek to welcome more users, from all walks of life, in the future.

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