Semiotics involves the study of signs and symbols. In a virtual lecture organized by the National Building Museum, landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, kept returning to the idea of re-evaluating existing signs and symbols in American landscapes and creating meaningful new ones that speak to diverse audiences.
Designed landscapes use symbols to tell stories about places and communities. But for Hood, it’s clear that landscapes too often use symbols to create “fictions,” narratives told by someone else. This presents communities that have not expressed themselves before with opportunities to tell new stories that resonate with an increasingly diverse public.
Hood began his lecture by sharing a few recent projects, including Saint Monica’s Tears in Santa Monica, California (see above).
When the Spaniards arrived, there were sacred springs named Kuruvungna by the local Tongva tribe. When Father Juan Crespi saw the springs, he thought of Saint Monica’s eyes. Saint Monica (Santa Monica in Spanish) is known as the “weeping saint,” as she shed tears over her son Augustine’s “hedonistic lifestyle.”
Speaking to a Tongva elder, Hood learned about the lost landscape that existed before the Spanish colonialists arrived. He wanted to design a reminder of this landscape in the midst of today’s busy commercial and tourist mecca. “I wanted to create a duality — a conversation between the present and past — and explore materials that can help us remember the past,” he said. At a metro station, he designed large sand stones in Indian trapezoidal forms to make up a wall, with hand-made glass tears that form streaks running down the wall’s face.
A public art piece Hood designed more than a decade ago in Oakland, California, 7th Street Dancing Lights + Gateway, includes light poles that honor the community’s jazz and blues history. The artwork culminates in a gateway above a four-lane street with etched portraits of leading Black American figures — Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like Saint Monica’s Tears, the projects brings to light a little known aspect of history — the Black history that defines 7th street in West Oakland. One West Oakland resident told him that each morning, seeing “the signs gave him confidence to go into the city every day. Seeing them ablaze gave him peace.”
Hood’s recent book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA, came out of efforts, like the two projects just mentioned, to “change the semiotic,” and therefore change mindsets.
Hood had watched footage of the scene where Michael Brown was killed by police and wondered why these killings were always happening in the same places — liquor stores, the middle of empty streets. He initiated a series of lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, which then provided the foundation for the book. In the book and lecture, he returned to the ideas of signs and symbols in the landscape — and how they reflect different narratives for different communities.
One place for Hood to explore these ideas was the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab, an initiative to re-imagine the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., which is increasingly threatened by rising sea levels brought on by climate change.
Here, his team imagined a “speculative future” and decided to “do something different.” “I didn’t want to fix Washington, D.C.; D.C. is a fiction anyway.” Instead, Hood Design Studio proposed an elevated ringed pathway above a Tidal Basin returned to its natural wetlands. He imagined Black tourists and locals visiting D.C. to discover the untold Black history of the landscape.
In Nauck, Arlington, Virginia, his studio is re-imagining a space dedicated to John Robinson, Jr., a beloved figure who passed away in 2010, as a true town square. Prior to emancipation, a community of freed slaves created Freedman’s Village, a space now taken up by Arlington National Cemetery. As the cemetery was created, the community was forced to move to this area of Virginia.
Hood said the community’s real name isn’t Nauck, but Green Valley, as this is the name used by the Freedman’s Village diaspora who moved there. As such, he wanted to make sure the new Nauck Town Square is very green and feels like a place of refuge.
He also designed a gilded sentinel that spells out “FREED” and then turned it so it stands vertically. “It’s a celebration of early freed people. Nauck now has a different name and symbols — 40-feet-tall, gilded, and lit.” The sentinel itself is comprised of a pattern made up of slave badges.
In the historic downtown LaVilla, Florida, Hood designed the Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, which honors the brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson who composed the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in LaVilla and lived in a home on the park site in the early 1900s.
The community was once known as a Black commercial street, lined by flophouses and shotgun homes. “It was the Great Black Way, and there are ghosts of that neighborhood still there.” Hood is designing a new park that has gardens and an amphitheater. A shotgun house will be stenciled with lyrics from the Johnson brothers and form the foundation of a new stage. There’s also a “poet’s walk,” with inspirational quotes.
For the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, Hood Design Studio is imagining a new landscape that can speak to the vast African diaspora in the U.S. who were brought to the country against their will. “Some 40 percent of the slave diaspora landed in Charleston.” The museum is near now buried landing places where “people were bought, sold, and perished.” It’s also near the aquarium, harbor, and the Black church where nearly a dozen people were killed by a white supremacist.
The old landing place where slaves disembarked in the U.S. for the first time has been “erased, built upon, forgotten.” Hood thinks its critical to exhume the history of the IAAM site, which is almost a burial ground, given so many perished there.
In her books, Toni Morrison has relayed the sentiment — there is no place for me to go and sit and hear my ancestors, Hood said. This idea inspired him to design a “landscape of memorial” at the museum site. He added that too often for Black Americans, “there is no tree, park, square — no place to think of who came before” — and the IAAM can provide this for the African diaspora.
The IAAM, designed in partnership with architecture firms Pei, Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan, will be raised up 13 feet off the ground in order to protect against flooding and sea level rise. The elevated structure created the opportunity for a plaza below the building where Hood is designing a landscape of crushed shells that refer to the sea floor.
Within this plane, Hood has etched forms of slaves who were chained head to toe together in galley ships that crossed the Atlantic. The corpses are marked with shells, in reference to the unknown many who perished on the journey and rest at the bottom of the ocean.
Surrounding the building are a series of gardens that include sweetgrass, which has been used by the Gullah community of the low country of the Carolinas to make artful baskets for centuries; rice fields, which highlight the role of Carolina Gold rice farming in the history of the region; and African ethno-botanical gardens, which will include a rotating display of plants with medicinal and other healing benefits.
Two walls will provide frames for sculptures of “rice negroes” who worked in the fields of the Carolinas. “They are reflective figures, who appear trapped,” Hood said.
During a Q&A session, moderator Maisie Hughes, ASLA, a co-founder of The Urban Studio, argued that emancipation isn’t often viewed as worthy of memorializing. She wondered why some events are memorialized and not others.
Hood said that W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, argues that “landscapes are fictions.” Institutions and communities design landscapes to create certain narratives, and this has occurred throughout history.
In ancient Egypt, one side of the Nile River represented death while the other bank represented life. In the Taos pueblo community, children lived on side of a river until they were old enough to cross over to the other side. Landscape use symbols to tell stories and create identities.
“The problem is that we are too often subjected to someone else’s narratives. Colonialism created its own fictions that were told to us. It’s fine if you want to have that story, but don’t subject me to that.” Too many communities have “never had an opportunity to own space, create their own narratives, and articulate differences.” Hood has set out to change that.