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.
In the era of the coronavirus, public spaces enable us to socialize and connect, across the masks. And public art is a powerful way to bring more people together safely, spark new connections, and add even more value to our public spaces. Illuminate, a free public art exhibition, brought world-class light and interactive art to Coral Gables, Florida, a community of nearly 50,000 southwest of downtown Miami over this past winter. One of the country’s first planned communities, the Mediterranean Revival-style development features a two-mile-long downtown strip that hosted eight new interior and exterior art installations. Working with the Coral Gables Community Foundation, the city, and other partners, a team of curators led by Fung Collaboratives sought to “produce a proper museum-quality group exhibition rather than a ‘light festival.’”
Blue Night by contemporary artist Kiki Smith featured 42 suspended art works inspired by late 17th century drawings of constellations of the zodiac by Johannes Hevelius and others. Smith said: “In ancient times it was believed that the sky was somewhere between heaven and Earth. It’s great to be able to present light, hope, and joy for so many to experience.”
A companion augmented reality (AR) app enabled visitors to interact with the aerial astrological signs. Visitors who aimed their phone cameras at the artworks saw ghosted images of the animals, along with the stars and asterism that make up each constellation. There’s also a fantastic free coloring book for kids (and adults).
On the facade of the Coral Gables Museum, the video art projection You Are Here was the result of a course artist and professor Jonathan Perez taught at Florida International University (FIU) Art & Art History Department that took “an inclusive and historical look” at the city. Perez states that the installation is “heartfelt, relevant, and another time capsule for the city to treasure.” Students that participated in the course were also credited on the final artwork.
Echoes of Souls and Echoes of My Skin by David Gumbs are a dynamic diptych video installation. Visitors passing below triggered “random computer-generated animations and patterns inspired by David Gumbs’ Caribbean cultural, fauna, and flora heritage,” the curators write. His work is also a “token to lost souls due to the COVID pandemic and social injustice.”
At Coral Gables City Hall, Cuban-born and Miami-raised artist Carlos Estévez worked with animators Mai Shirai and Johnny Sim and projection mapping artist Clifford Walker to create the mesmerizing Urban Universes. Estévez transformed his paintings and sculptures into animations that move across the surface of the historic building.
And on street corners throughout downtown Coral Gables was Yes/No by Antonia Wright and Ruben Millares. The artists state that metal barricades were once viewed as providing safety for events, but because of waves of protests have become ubiquitous in downtowns. They can now symbolize repression and control. By lighting them up, they hope to focus our attention on their complex role in the built environment.
Illuminate, founded by Venny Torre and Patrick O’Connell, is a project of the Coral Gables Community Foundation and includes partners such as The City of Coral Gables, The Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement District (BID), and the Coral Gables Museum, along with numerous public and private sponsors.
After this challenging year, Marina Abramović, perhaps the world’s most famous performance artist, recommends everyone vent their frustrations to a favorite tree in a public park. She tells you to hug one tightly for no less than 15 minutes and pour out your woes to it. Your angst will be “absorbed in the bark,” and you will feel “rejuvenated.” This is tree-hugging on a whole other level.
Abramović believes there is a degree of energy flow between us and our arboreal friends. “Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you.”
This participatory performance work — Complain to a Tree — is part of series of exercises called the “Abramović Method,” which was developed by the artist to “practice being present.” In Abramović’s most well-known art work, The Artist Is Present, she sat nearly immobile at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City for 736 hours, facing 1,545 visitors over the span of weeks. Being present became a form of “endurance art.”
In the video, Abramović states that “trees are like human beings. They have intelligence. They have feelings. They communicate with each other. And also, they are perfectly silent listeners. You can complain to them.” And she notes that many cultures worship and commune with trees.
For those inclined to try this out in public, Abramović offers guidance:
“One important thing is that you really choose a tree that you like. It can be small and even not that beautiful a tree. But you have some relation to this tree, emotionally. Don’t pick the tree because of the beauty of the tree. Pick the tree because of its smell, the bark, the leaves. Whatever triggers your affection. So look around, and take the tree you like.
Don’t immediately hug the tree. Just feel the energy of the tree. Even not touching it but just holding your hands a little bit above.
And then complain your heart into it. This is the whole idea. Have any of you ever complained to a tree before? No. So this is something that you will be doing for the first time. This is like a journey into the unknown. So get out of your security box and do something that is different.
I hope we can create some kind of trend, that actually people are going to run to the parks and start complaining to the trees. This is one way of healing at this moment of our history.
Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you. So the tree is actually healing the complaint. You’re opening your heart. You’re just telling all your negativity and what bothers you in your life. And the tree is a silent listener. And everything is absorbed into the bark of the tree. And you feel rejuvenated. You feel happy after that.
This is the message for the public. Please—go to the park near you. Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.”
The performance was part of a 5-hour public program Abramović produced for the Sky Arts TV channel in the United Kingdom in early December.
Photographers have taken to the air en masse. With drones loaded with high-resolution cameras, aerial photographers are capturing surprising and beautiful scenes from both nature and cities, giving us a fresh perspective on the planet’s complexity. After receiving submissions from 126 countries, the Siena Awards Festival selected their latest Drone Photography Awards. The grand prize winner took home €500,000 (US$586,000) of aerial photography equipment.
Photograph of the year went to Love Heart of Nature by Australian photographer Jim Picôt (see above), who captured an amazing scene in which a shark chases a fish within a heart-shaped school of salmon.
In the urban category, aerial photographer Tomasz Kowalski describes the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as an alien landscape.
Dmitrii Viliunov, the winner of the wildlife category, explains that “many think herons make nests in reeds or in a swamp. In fact, they nest in the tops of huge trees.” With a drone, it’s possible to get a sense of their home life.
In the sports category, photographer Roberto Corinaldesi captures swimmers “taking refuge between the blue carpet and the white foam of the waves.”
And in a wonderful photograph by Joseph Cheires, winner of the nature category, we see a gray whale who seems to enjoy interacting with whale watchers. Cheires writes: “at the end of the gray whale season, I was told about a whale that for the last three years played with the boats, pushing them gently. So we went back the year after, and incredibly the gray whale appeared.”
Lastly, in the abstract category, we get a glimpse of the incredible resilience of nature. Aerial photographer Paul Hoelen captures the results of the transformation of a toxic industrial mining site at Lake Owens in California into a shorebird reserve. Hoelen writes: “after a destructive past and the creation of the most toxic dust bowl in America, migratory birds are returning, and life is beginning anew.”
The photographs are now on display in an exhibition entitled “Above Us Only Sky” in Siena, Italy, through the end of November.
As people have retreated to their homes, fish have recolonized Venice’s canals, coyote have been spotted in downtown San Francisco, wild sheep occupied a Welsh town, and deer have started using crosswalks in Japan. And now nature is at least temporarily taking over arts institutions.
The closures of opera houses and museums have offered an opportunity for artists and arts institutions to create charming conceptual works that recognize nature’s new privileges.
Earlier this summer, conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia partnered with the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, to stage a performance of Puccini’s Crisantemi — The Chrysanthemums. But this time, instead of thousands of Barcelonan opera lovers enjoying Puccini’s melodies, the audience was nearly 2,300 ficus trees, palms, and Swiss cheese plants from a local nursery.
Perhaps the flora-themed music performed by the UceLi Quartet appealed to the plants on some vegetal level.
Ampudia told The Guardian: “At a time when humankind has shut itself up in enclosed spaces and been obliged to relinquish movement, nature has crept forward to occupy the spaces we have ceded. And it has done so at its own rhythm, according to its patient biological cycle. Can we broaden our empathy and bring it to bear on other species? Let’s start by using art and music and inviting nature into a great concert hall.”
Victor Garcia de Gomar, Liceu’s artistic director, called the piece “a visual poem, both a subtle metaphor but one which makes us smile.”
After the concert, all the house plant attendees were donated to Spain’s frontline healthcare workers so they can provide some much needed stress reduction benefits at home.
With both the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Missouri, closed due to COVID-19, administrators at the museum had an idea: Why not invite Humboldt penguins from the zoo to visit?
In the video, Randy Wisthoff, the zoo’s executive director, said: “we’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and stimulate their days. During this shutdown period, our animals really miss visitors coming up to see them.”
According to Julián Zugazagoitia, the museum’s director, Humboldt penguins, which are native to Chile and Peru, seemed to “really appreciate” when he spoke to them in Spanish. As they waddled from room to room, they are seen pausing at some paintings but not others. “They seemed, definitely, to react much better to Caravaggio than to Monet,” Zugazagoitia said.
Along 2nd Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida, an old pier launch built on landfill didn’t offer much beyond lots of parking and a long hot walk 3,000 feet out to a restaurant jutting into Tampa Bay. After a $92 million redesign, a new 26-acre walkable pier district now unites city and pier through a walkable green landscape that features Bending Arc, a sculpture with a social justice message by net artist Janet Echelman, gardens, a playground, and hundreds of newly-planted native Floridian trees.
The pier district project was planned and designed by multiple interdisciplinary teams. Barbara Wilks, FASLA, and her team at W-Architecture led the design of the 23-acre approach that brings visitors from downtown through the park space that features Echelman’s piece, her largest permanent installation to date. Architects at Rogers Partners and ASD/SKY Architect and landscape architects at Ken Smith Workshop designed a 3-acre plaza and pier found at the outer edge further into the bay.
W-Architecture started with a master plan devised by AECOM, which the team then revised by “moving things around,” including roads, bus stops, and parking lots, and then layering in multiple transportation systems. There is now a tram line, bicycle paths, and new circulatory system for pedestrians. Wilks said: “if you use Google Earth, you can clearly see we transformed the space from a car dominated place to a pedestrian park.”
As visitors meander through the new landscape, there’s a gateway lined with palm trees, a marketplace with stalls for local artisans, the striking artwork, gardens with a playground and constructed pond, and a beach. The pier district was “designed as a series of events that draw you in. We choreographed how the experience will unfold.”
Conceptual landscape design was already moving forward when city leaders alerted Wilks that Echelman has been commissioned to bring one of her giant pieces to the park. On the phone over a weekend, they reached agreement on the location for the piece, which is called Bending Arc, in reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Echelman named the piece Bending Arc and incorporated multiple arcing forms because the site played an important role in the movement for civil rights. The place was “where local citizens began peacefully challenging racial barriers, leading to the 1957 U.S. Supreme Court case ruling, which upheld the rights of all citizens to enjoy use of the municipal beach and swimming pool without discrimination.” St. Petersburg was also later known for the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, one of the largest in the country in the wake of the assassination of King.
Echelman’s works are crafted for their specific locations and shaped by their surroundings. Raised in the Tampa Bay area, she was inspired by the colonies of barnacles that grow on the underside of piers and the blue and white parasols that can be found on St. Pete’s beaches. Her studio writes: “The sculpture’s design in aerial view can also be read as three barnacle-like parasols nestled together.”
On the ground, Wilks worked with Echelman to fine tune the position of the artwork so it avoided existing trees. Wilks then created circular landscape forms below Bending Arc‘s three apertures where visitors can look up.
Circles are prevalent in the new pier district’s design because the local limestone landscape naturally forms round pools of water, which also result in trees forming circles around the pools’ edges.
Under one aperture, a concrete lined circle is filled with oyster shells and forms an outdoor event space.
Below the two others, there are rounded grass-covered berms so visitors can more easily lie back and gaze at the pleasingly engulfing, undulating nets, which become even more dramatic at night. According to Echelman, the piece is “composed of 1,662,528 knots and 180 miles of twine, spans 424 feet, and measures 72 feet at its tallest point.”
Wilks purposefully designed the perimeter of the space with native oaks and pine trees to focus attention on Bending Arc. Diagonal pathways from the gardens direct visitors to the artwork. At some surrounding edges, bioswales with native plants, which are green infrastructure systems for managing stormwater, can be crossed by low wooden bridges.
Once visitors move past Echelman’s sculpture, they encounter gardens that contain a play space overlooking a new pond. Because W-Architecture planted native trees and plants, the site has become a mecca for wildlife, something its earlier incarnation as a parking lot could never have achieved.
From there, visitors can either veer towards spa beach or walk further out on the pier designed by Rob Rogers, Ken Smith, FASLA, and team. Pathways at the perimeters enable visitors to loop back to the central spine on bike or foot.
Wilks added that the park itself echoes the social justice message of Echelman’s artwork. “The new pier district is very much for everyone. It was designed to be free and open.”
Walter Hood, ASLA, is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and lectures on professional and theoretical projects nationally and internationally. He is a recipient of the 2017 Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award, 2019 Knight Public Spaces Fellowship, 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, and 2019 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.
What change do you think can result from the killing of George Floyd by the police and the Black Lives Matter protest movement against racial injustice and police violence? The movement has become global and supported by millions of people.
That’s a hard question. My first response is that we’ve been here before. In light of the pandemic and other things, I’m really hesitant to say there’s going to be some major changes in the way black people are regarded and accepted in our society. We’ve had these moments before.
What makes it really hard, as a person of color, is understanding our history. In my short life — I’m in my early 60s — I grew up in a segregated neighborhood. My school was integrated when I was in junior high. For the first time, at age 13 or 14, I started living with other people who didn’t look like me.
That’s the hardest and most difficult thing we’re not talking about: the racial construction of this country. We’ve only had 50 plus years where we’ve actually lived together in an integrated way. We have close to 300 plus years of living separately. So the idea that we can just all of a sudden flip the switch and people will change and accommodate the “other,” it’s a really tough one.
I don’t think we’re asking the right questions. You’ve listed these facts and metrics. Why are these numbers so high? When one looks back, why are we still policed in similar ways? Why are people of color harmed at a greater frequency?
In a country that was “separate but equal,” there had to be an institution to keep that separation and keep people in their place. We have had close to 100 years of the Jim Crow institution, keeping us in a subservient place. This is U.S. culture. Even post integration, we still have to look at these institutions, which go back to the founding and the development of the country. You can’t separate the two. We would like to, but they’re inextricably tied together.
It’s important to allow these issues and histories to come to a greater light and clarity, because now more people are interested in trying to understand this predicament than I’ve ever seen in any point in my life. The pandemic has a lot to do with it. People are thinking about the future. Everything is unsettled at this moment, and all the pieces have come together. It’s the perfect storm.
Black Landscapes Matter, a book you co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, which will be published November, came out of a lecture series you initiated in 2016 following police killings. In your book, TED Talk, and other writings, you have called for planning and designing landscapes that allow for a diversity of narratives and perspectives, instead of homogenized landscapes that just say one thing to one group of people. How do you bring out these different memories and histories in a landscape?
After the spree of police killings in 2016, we wanted to bring together people who could articulate different voices in the black community. I wanted the book to articulate what’s missing in how we design for other narratives, which is about difference. I say difference, not diversity — it’s about different ways of interpreting the world. When one puts out multiple narratives, they challenge the singular and its maintenance.
I’m thinking a lot these days about difference and sameness. Colonialism is about sameness. It takes difference and makes it into sameness. It does that to promote and maintain its construction. W.J.T. Mitchell talks about a double reading of landscape, a double semiotic.
Colonization is happening inside the colony, as ideologies are projected outside the colony. Our projection — America, home of the free, and the brave, diversity for all, “all men are created equal” — is sent out to the world. The Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired…” — all of these things. But inside, we’re being re-colonized to keep that narrative intact.
But that narrative is being torn. People are looking for other ways to see themselves and others around them. So in Black Landscapes Matter, we talk about different story lines.
If more people are aware of what is part of their environment, not just today but yesterday, and possibly even tomorrow, we’d have a different way of thinking about the world. In so many spaces in this country, something happened! It has not always been vacant and desolate, places exist! Placemaking is re-colonizing. Something is always there if you are interested in it.
Many of your projects are specifically focused on unearthing hidden layers, creating spaces for multiple consciousness. The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, tells the story of slaves arriving in the port of Charleston and their descendants. A master plan for the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, explores the history of the movement for racial equality. Double Sights, a public art piece at Princeton University, expands the interpretation of the many sides of former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Navigating through all these layers of history, how do you get to the essentials and make planning and design decisions that really resonate?
For me, it’s the willingness to want to unearth. Your previous question had to do with memory and history, which is a little different than unearthing.
Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.
Privilege at times only produces singular narratives, which is what happened with the Woodrow Wilson project. The students at Princeton still want his name off the building, so the piece has not resolved the issue. But what I hope the piece does is allow that issue to always be there. If someone at Princeton University said “remove the name of Wilson,” then the piece wouldn’t exist.
With the International African American Museum, there are clear, bold design statements. How do you really focus in on certain aspects of history and tell a broader story through design?
The design decisions for the landscape are very personal and I am consciously having conversations with those before me. I approached the Woodrow Wilson project through the narrative of W.E.B. DuBois, who has always been part of my thinking as a black man, and his idea of double consciousness. That gave me a point of view to criticize Wilson.
As for the International African American Museum in Charleston, the final was not the boldest design. We developed 29 different designs and worked through each one with the community. From my personal point of view, I wanted to put out imagery that had never been put out before. I took it upon myself to push the community. The Black Body in Space is something that really intrigued me conceptually.
For the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, I approached the project, again through history and identity. I’ve spent years with my peoples’ history. My research and design work has lived with these histories — not just American history but the history of black America.
Returning back to your larger question: I could have gone through practice with no interest in black history. I could have just accepted the privileged position of the designer. I could just work in the very homogeneous/standardized manner in which the profession trained me.
In my early years, that was really all I had to rely on, until I got to a point where it felt like something was missing. What was missing was myself. I did not see myself anywhere in landscape architecture, architecture, or planning. At the offices I worked, these ideas just didn’t exist. I had to create a context for my ideas to bear fruit, so I situated myself in the rigorous, intellectual world of academia and developed an art practice. This is what I’ve been doing the last 30 years.
Do you think because you’ve found yourself in your work, people can find themselves in it, too? Is that what creates a sense of resonance, when someone sees your work and connects with it?
No, they actually hear a different voice, which again, is playing off the homogeneous. Early on, I noticed the design decisions I was making were different than the decisions other people were making. I didn’t acquaint them because I’m black. It’s because of my advocacy for and interest in people and the particular places that they live, which comes from my experience of being black.
Very early, one of my projects in a disinvested neighborhood involved planting an allee of a hundred and fifty flowering trees at one time along a decomposed granite walkway. This was 30 years ago, and people weren’t doing stuff like that. To me, I wanted color to manifest in a bold way in a place that didn’t have color.
Those design choices came out of me seeing a black community in need of something. As a person making landscapes, that is what I could give them. I always go back that very simple act — that purity of impulse one has in a place where you’re engaged but also giving of yourself. And this relates to the questions: what are you feeding yourself? Where’s the inspiration coming from?
I try to bring in as much culture as I can to the work, which can offer multiple narratives and layers. I’m really not interested in singular gestures, but multiplicities.
People are yearning for difference. I just recently stopped using diversity and started using difference, because diversity is not really about difference. Difference is about opposition. Opposition is good. Double negatives are good. They exist in our world.
The doubles begin to tell stories we don’t tell. We see it in the language that is manifest over time by culture. You’ll see spaces given double negative terms, like Plaza Park. I was in San Jose, California, when Hargreaves was working on Plaza Park. I was like, “Plaza Park? Oh, this is interesting. Why does it have both?” If you go and look at the history, you know why it has two. These are the kinds of things people create over time through naming, adopting. Landscapes have a language.
If we’re critical enough, we can begin to read the landscape in different ways. Once you do, it changes you forever. There’s no way to go back.
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city government have painted “Black Lives Matter” in street-bounding yellow letters down 16th Street, NW in front of Lafayette Square and the White House. This was widely viewed as a response to President Trump’s order to teargas protesters and close off Lafayette Square — a key protest space and site of a former slave market — from public access. How do you unpack everything going on in that space? What is the role of public space in the protest movement?
In the history of this country, streets have been that number one space for protests. We can go back to women’s suffrage and civil rights. The streets are the public domain. In D.C., what’s public and what’s federal? That’s the interesting dichotomy in D.C. Lafayette Square, which is federal, gets acted upon differently than the city public. When I heard that, I was like, wow, I didn’t know the President had dominion over that particular space.
Protesting has always taken place in the public realm. You can go back to Kelly Ingram Park and the Edmond Pettus bridge. These are my first memories: people protesting in the streets. This is nothing new. The marking, particularly with the branding, might be something new, a kind of guerilla tactic. I applaud the mayor for doing it, because she was able to demark a space. People are calling it the plaza, but again, this it is about nomenclature. I applaud her for marking a space that was taken away from her.
Lafayette Square, like a lot of public squares, was among the first public parks in our country. They were also places where atrocious things happened in our country like slavery auctions, so they’re on hallowed ground to a degree. If we’re interested in changing how we think of ourselves, we can also be critical of the places where we’re actually protesting. To me, that could give credence to, or help articulate, issues we’re facing, particularly with the pandemic.
We know most low-income areas have higher cases of COVID, which you could also probably correlate to redlining policies and expulsive zoning, which was an institutional pre- and post-war planning practice. Redlined landscapes are still the same today if we are still in them.
Public safety is important. People should be allowed to use the spaces we have seen over the past few weeks, whether it’s the I-5 in L.A. or bridges in Minneapolis. These are spaces the public pays for.
You have equated the value of environmental diversity with that of social and racial diversity. Just as land comprised of diverse ecosystems are more sustainable and resilient, racially diverse or different communities also increase social sustainability and resilience. How can the fight for racial equality and justice support efforts to combat climate change and vice-versa? What are the connections?
The first connection one might think about is duplication. There really are two Americas, and we’re actually trying to support both of them, not equally though. There’s one America for one group of people and another for the other. It’s just not sustainable, because we’re having to spend more money on communities that are different, which is a result of the after-effect of not investing in these places in the first place. How to make communities more racially diverse is our next challenge.
We’ve been talking recently about a few new mixed-income housing projects in Oakland, California. When we think of mixed incomes, we think race, right? We can think of brown people, low-income; non-brown people, higher incomes. What might allow them to share the same space? That’s the question we’re beginning to ask. It comes back to public space, right?
We can develop parks and other types of landscapes that are more integrated into peoples’ patterns and practices, so they can begin to share space. The architectural question is a bit more difficult, because a lot of that is driven through the market.
As for environmental diversity, I’ve lately returned to reading Olmsted and early Central Park history. In Go Tell It On the Mountain, written by James Baldwin, he describes an experience in Central Park one day. He goes to this hill. It’s his favorite hill. When he gets to the top of that hill, having walked from Harlem to Central Park, with all the white eyes upon him, he’s king of the world. He could do anything. He’s standing there looking out to Manhattan. He’s on this hill in the middle of nature, and he could do anything, and then slowly reality comes back to him. He descends the hill and runs into an older white guy. Immediately, he’s about to apologize, but instead the man smiles. That moment is how I think about what landscape can do. In a certain way, how do we put ourselves together in a place where there is no label or stereotype of the other? That’s really tough to do, as we recently saw with that woman in the Ramble.
Gentrification of urban Black and brown communities most often results in their displacement. Some communities have viewed efforts to add new green space and trees to their communities as a gentrifying agent. So one response has been the “just green enough” design movement, which calls for adding green amenities but not to the extent that they would raise property values. What is your take? What approaches work best to stop displacement? And how do you think the protest movement can change conversations in communities where gentrification is happening?
All communities should be healthy. If we have the opportunity to increase biomass and improve the public-realm facilities in any community, we should do it. The fear of making something better particularly for those most vulnerable — really.
We should look at the issues that create the vulnerability. In many places, you have a high percentage of renters and low ownership. Some places you have little to no tax base. You have these institutional issue that don’t help. The first steps in some places are to figure out new and diverse housing types, increase ownership, and stabilize communities.
When communities were most healthy, successful, richest — whatever word you want to use to characterize them– they were diverse places. West Oakland has the moniker of having always been an African-American neighborhood. If you review its early formation, people came here because it was the western terminus of the railroad. Different communities of people worked and lived here: Latinos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Portuguese, Italians, etc. Post-war we see white flight, and then desegregation. First immigrant and then middle-class African Americans had opportunities to move into the places that whites had left. We then abandoned those redlined neighborhoods and left the most vulnerable.
That’s the dynamic of the city. We have to articulate these dynamics to communities in which we work and help them understand these processes.
I live in an area that was once redlined. There are single-family houses mixed with light industrial. It’s a pretty diverse, mixed neighborhood. Next to my building, there was no green space at all. People reacted to vacantness in various ways, which was to tag the walls, dump garbage or leave abandoned elements. I took it upon myself and started planting trees and shrubs adjacent the building. My little piece is the greenest part of the block.
What’s been refreshing and a reminder is watching how people reacted. Almost every day, the neighbor across the street tells me how great it is to see the green. People walk on my side of the street, and the behavior has changed. These are just little things that I just think we forget.
Part of our job is to help educate communities in which we’re working, based on shared knowledge. We can build an infrastructure to help with change, because change is going to happen. Cities are dynamic.
Very early in my career, I had a conversation with a black family here in the East Oakland neighborhood about moving out of the city. They wanted to move to the suburbs because the schools were better, and the crime was lower. I couldn’t change any of that from my position.
So the issues become more structural. We have to improve these basic infrastructures like public education and environmental factors. In many of the places where gentrification happens, they’re so easy to topple because all of the infrastructure is eroded.
In 2013, ASLA’s member leadership made diversifying the profession a top organizational priority. The number of diverse people entering the profession remains stubbornly low. The high cost of landscape architecture degree programs and lack of alternative degree programs are issues. So is the lack of diverse landscape architects who can advocate for the profession in diverse communities. What do you think are the most important steps that can be taken to bring more black and brown young people into the profession?
Landscape architects: just set the example. Make it interesting for people of color, so they want to come into the profession. This means you have to change the narrative. Reach out, do the work. Approach the way we make things through a cultural lens. Look for difference, so people might get excited by seeing and experiencing something that has them in mind.
Throw away the stereotypical and the feel good tropes — basketball, barbeques, community gardens. It would be attractive for people to say, “wow, this is how I can improve my neighborhood. Look at what they’re doing,” rather than settling. Really dig deep and contemplate these histories, the years of living separate.
How do we talk about living together? If enough of us are out making change and having a different conversation, the idea of attracting a diverse group becomes secondary.
Years ago, I was part of a landscape group that was pushing for diversity. You can’t expect to attract people if there is no interest in change.
I get excited when people of all persuasion get excited by the work we’re doing. It’s not about whether the project gets into a magazine and wins awards. To me, the best reward on any project is to get people excited, empowered, bringing them in, and making them part of the project.
I had recalled years ago as an undergraduate, I met a black landscape architect, Everett Fly, who had uncovered some of the histories of these towns that were built during Reconstruction. That experience stayed with me, and when I had the opportunity to have a conversation with that work, I immediately began to ponder the semiotics of this term used to describe black and brown people. What does it mean to be F-R-E-E-D!
It took a lot of nerve for me to start this conversation since it was something I had never entered into a conversation with a community about. I can’t describe the kind of excitement and conversation that began from there.
We can bring more voices to the table when we discuss, gender, race, and difference. Tell the truth about colonization and its impact not just on native and immigrant communities, but on the black and brown communities as well. If we don’t talk about it, we are reinforcing a post-colonial view.
This will bring difference into our profession, so it’s not simply just about making beautiful things. It can become about what those beautiful things mean. Once we can attach diverse meanings to the things we make, our profession could be much more inclusive.
For maybe two-thirds of my projects, race never comes up. To me, that’s where we should be heading. I don’t want the moniker of “black designer.” I can design for anyone, because I’ve had to learn how to. This skill came from being the “other,” and having to learn about white America and how to navigate, which is what we (others) don’t see happening from white America, right? I don’t see that kind of investment in me.
All I hear is, “Walter, help me. I’m working in a black community. I need you.” No, you don’t need me. You need to do the work for yourself. You need to learn about us. You need to get in there and roll up the sleeves. This is not my (our) problem. Until it changes, we’ll be back in the same position 20 years from now, asking why we’re not a diverse profession.
The Bicycle as a Vehicle of Protest — 06/15/20, The New Yorker
“A week ago, on Wednesday night, the third night of a citywide curfew in New York, police officers were seen confiscating bicycles.”
After COVID-19, What’s Next for Landscape Architecture? — 06/09/20, Metropolis
“Parks, plazas, and other outdoor urban assets are no longer being seen as superfluous, but instead finally being recognized as essential. And so are the masterminds behind them. Since the start of the pandemic, landscape architecture has become one of the few areas for cautious optimism within the wider architecture, engineering, and construction sector, which is poised for a downturn.”
The Mimetic Power of D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Mural — 06/09/20, The New Yorker
“The idea for the mural was conceived late on Wednesday, when Bowser asked her staff to find a way to reassure protesters that the space would be safe for them, in advance of the larger protests planned for the weekend.”
Racism Is Built into U.S. cities. Here’s How Architects Can Fight Back — 06/03/20, Fast Company
“In America today, we can predict that a person from a zip code in a black or Latino community will have a lower life expectancy than a person from a zip code that represents a primarily white community. How can we ensure that more communities extend their life expectancy?”
Christo’s Billowy Visions, Fleeting but Unforgettable — 06/01/2020, The New York Times
“I’m sorry I never got to ask Christo about Gabrovo, the Bulgarian city where he was born in 1935. He died this weekend, at 84, a dreamer with a cultish following to rival the Grateful Dead’s and a legacy that has always seemed a wry, humane retort to the cultural diktats of the Soviet bloc.”
The empty streets of our cities are a cause of anxiety but also wonder. With our ability to travel now limited, we can get a sense of the strange, melancholy state of the world’s urban centers from the constant stream of video uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo.
The New Yorker captures life during quarantine in New York City — the largely uninhabited streets, parks, and landmarks. One scene pans New Yorkers lined up down the block to get into a Whole Foods supermarket. Another features overflowing Amazon boxes sorted by delivery workers on a make-shift tarp on a street. One store’s sign reads: “Temporarily closed. Focus on the positive.”
The smooth, robotic pace of a drone adds to the otherworldly feel of San Francisco’s barren streets. Citing the Grateful Dead’s song, Touch of Grey, one store’s sign reads: “We Will Get By. We Will Survive.” Another shot pans a building-sized mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg. With a lack of people, birds become a focal point in many of the vistas.
Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a video by cinematographer and film maker Jean Counet, has gotten attention for capturing the strangeness and beauty of the Dutch city without street life. (Watch video). Street trams weave their way through the old city, but without passengers. A lone kayaker makes their way down a canal.
Counet told art blog This Is Colossal, “we walked through the old city center of Amsterdam between 8:30 (and) 13:30, which is normally teemed by walking people and bicycles. What we witnessed felt like a dream. Sometimes beautiful and mesmerizing, sometimes scary and worrying.”
As people stay home and noise and pollution have abated, wildlife have expanded their boundaries and started exploring the built environment with confidence. In this amazing compilation, sheep explore a Welsh town, a coyote strolls through San Francisco, deer use the crosswalks in Japan, and Nubian Ibexes walk down a promenade in Israel.
With the absence of people and maritime activity, shoals of fish can be seen in Venice’s canals and dolphins have reclaimed a port in Sardinia.
How Essential Is Construction During the Coronavirus Pandemic? — 3/30/20, Curbed
“While some cities and states are shutting construction down, others are granting exceptions, particularly where it relates to the nationwide housing shortage. Meanwhile, industry groups are pushing for federal-level designation of construction as an essential business.”