Interview with Walter Hood: Black Landscapes Matter

Walter Hood, ASLA / Hood Design Studio

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.

An estimated 1,000 people are killed while being arrested by the police in the U.S. each year. According to studies, young black men are killed by the police between nine and 16 times the rate of other groups, and black people overall are killed at three times the rate of whites. Furthermore, the U.S. leads the world in killings by police. Canada, which also has high gun ownership rates, has less than one-seventh the rate of police killings of civilians. Many European countries count just a few deaths by police each year.

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.

Double Sights at Princeton University / Hood Design Studio

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.

International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio
International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

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.

Master plan for Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit / Hood Design Studio

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.

Black Lives Matter Plaza / Photo By Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP Images, Assisted by City of DC

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.

We are currently working for the town of Nauck, Virginia. It’s a town square. Working with the community very early on the discussion centered on the Freedmen’s Village of Arlington Cemetery and the black diaspora that emerged when they were removed. Many in Nauck are descendants.

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.

Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio
Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio
Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio

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.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 1-15)

Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, D.C. / Courtesy of Nadia N. Aziz via Twitter, via ArtNet.com

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.”

Black People Have Been Building a Better World. Who Will Join Them? — 06/04/20, Next City
“Black people are tired. They’re hurt. Frustrated. Mad. Embittered. They’re also brilliant and powerful.”

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.”

Videos: Glimpses of Life Amid Empty Streets

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.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam / Jean Counet

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.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16-31)

MARABAR by Elyn Zimmerman / Courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

National Geographic Headquarters Plaza Redesign Threatens Historically Significant Sculpture3/31/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“In 1984, the scientific and educational organization, the National Geographic Society commissioned Elyn Zimmerman—a then up-and-coming New York-based artist—to produce a sculpture within the modernist plaza of its Washington, D.C., headquarters.”

How COVID-19 Is Affecting Architecture Students and Educators on an Emotional Level — 3/31/20, Archinect
“Archinect asked for responses from its global community via the ongoing survey How is your school dealing with the coronavirus outbreak? to learn how students and educators in the architecture field were dealing with the transition.”

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.”

D.C. Planted Nearly 80 Trees a Day to Reach a Canopy Target. It’s Running out of Space —3/27/20, The Washington Post
“Midway through a years-long tree campaign, the same economic successes that ushered in new residents and transformed neighborhoods across Washington are threatening to stymie the city’s woodland progress.”

Here’s What Our Cities Will Look Like After the Coronavirus Epidemic — 3/26/20, Kinder Institute for Urban Research
“The threat of infectious disease is likely to ramp up urban design as a solution — perhaps, for example, by creating more separation in public spaces like restaurants and parks.”

Is COVID-19 Making You Stay at Home? Turn Your Home Into a Healing Space — 3/24/20, University of Arizona News
“’A few simple interventions can turn your home from a stressful space into a healing one,’ says Esther Sternberg, who holds the Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine.”

The Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks in 3D

Sophia McCrocklin’s Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks / Sophia McCrocklin

“Why ferns? Because some are 350 million years old.” The world’s oldest living plants show the incredible resilience of nature’s best designs. Looking closely at ferns under a microscope, Washington, D.C.-based artist Sophia McCrocklin found that their “spores are in fact little springs,” perfectly engineered for propagation over the megaannums.

McCrocklin grew up in Kentucky. Appalled by coal companies strip-mining the landscape, she decided to fight them and became an environmental attorney. At the same time, McCrocklin explored her interest in fiber art and began showing in galleries and Ky Guild of Artists.

Her interest in ferns started about six years ago by chance. “I have always loved trees and had never thought about ferns. But I was on a hike one day in Rock Creek Park and had to go around a tree that had fallen. As I was scrambling around the log, I came face to face with a fern. It was winter and the fern was the only thing green out, so it caught my attention.”

She had been out in the forest looking for something to make in 3D, so when she got home she cut off a branch of a Boston fern in her house. She ended up replicating a stalk that was 3-4 inches long and showed people, but they were “not impressed.” She realized she needed to make a fern much larger so that people would notice it as much as they do a tree.

Ebony Spleenwort Fern / Sophia McCrockin

Someone told her that there were many types of ferns at Dumbarton Oaks Park (DOP) in Washington, D.C. Landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who designed the space as the naturalistic companion to the formal gardens above at Dumbarton Oaks, had planted 8 types, but there were also 7 others native to the area.

After speaking with DOP Conservancy staff, including landscape designer Ann Aldrich, the park’s resident plant expert, McCrocklin started to catalogue and investigate the ferns. She then decided to undertake a series of large-scale art works, organizing them into categories: Farrand’s ferns, other native ferns, and inspired ferns, which include some of her early explorations. She later became the park’s first artist-in-residence.

McCrocklin essentially photocopies the ferns and blows them up to a very large scale. She also looks at ferns under a microscope at the Smithsonian’s US Herbarium to ensure the details of the plant scale up accurately.

In Annapolis, McCrocklin purchased junk Dacron boat sails, a durable polyster material, for around $1 a pound. She cuts ferns out of the Dacron, sews them, and inserts copper wire to support the stalks and leaflets. Color is added through acrylic paint or pencils. Spores are made of anything from mustard seeds to beads of glass. The fuzzy parts of the ferns’ stems crafted from shredded canvas fiber or sometimes cotton. “I try whatever works.”

Grape Frond fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Interrupted Fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Roots of a Cinnamon Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Each is then mounted on a heavy canvas board, or otherwise it would collapse. The canvas is painted with a cherry blossom pattern, reflecting how they can be seen in spring in Dumbarton Oaks Park.

Each fern takes about 6 months and is either 4.5 feet square or approximately 2.5 feet wide by nearly 7 feet tall.

Some are more challenging than others to engineer at large sizes. Sword ferns like the Boston or Christmas fern, which have one stalk with attached leaves, are relatively straightforward.

Christmas Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Tassel ferns, on the other hand, are like small trees, with many branches, each with leaves. “They are very time consuming. If I had tackled tassel ferns in the beginning, I’m not sure I would have done this project,” she said, only half-joking.

Tassel Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

After spending many years with them, McCrocklin has grown to love ferns. By enlarging them and making them such tactile works, she wants to convey how important they are.

“We easily look up at big trees because they are magnificent and awe-inspiring. We rarely look down at ferns, but the loss of these plants and the forest’s understory is the canary in the coal mine.”

Sensitive Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

She said some areas of Maryland fence out deer. The result is a “dense and lush” understory. But in D.C., where deer roam, “there is just bare ground, which is bizarre.”

“I want to make people aware that the understory is vital to the health of the forest. People need to pay more attention to the little things, as they signal the condition of our ecosystems. A forest may look healthy if it is filled with trees, but trees are really the last to go.”

McCrocklin’s exhibition, which was to be free and open to the public in early April, has been cancelled due to COVID-19 and will be rescheduled for next spring or fall. Explore her work at her website and on Instagram.

The Power of Drawing in a Digital Age

The “Power of the Pen” is a phrase borrowed from an oral history interview with landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA, on drawing by The Cultural Landscape Foundation. In a session at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, it was used by Michael Batts, ASLA, of Stewart, Kona A. Gray, FASLA, of EDSA, and David Malda, ASLA, of GGN, to convey the importance of drawing as a means to bridge cultures, forge connections, and draw out ideas throughout the design process.

Malda focused on three ways that GGN uses drawing in their practice: “drawing out, drawing in, and drawing together.” He was quick to question landscape architects’ proclivity to create drawings at a resolution that exceed the resolution of information, noting “we are putting more information in than we actually have.”

In contrast to the ubiquitous Google Earth photos, which are commonly used to quickly understand a place, Malda highlighted a drawing by Keith McPeters of GGN that pulls out the topography and road infrastructure as a means to understand what is important to the place. “It is as much about what is not drawn as what is drawn.”

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Rackspace Headquarters Concept Sketch / GGN

In a similar vein, Batts discussed integrating technology, namely tablets, into his drawing process as a way to quickly and iteratively test ideas over photographs taken on the device or downloaded from Google Earth.

The capabilities of drawing apps allowed him to subdue information and call forth and alter elements of the existing site with speed and ease. In many ways, the digital surface acts as a digital form of trace paper. He joked that this is the “Power of the Apple Pen.”

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Sketch done by Stewart Inc. / Stewart Inc.

All emphasized the variability of drawing styles and types. There is a place for exploratory or abstract drawings investigating materials, form, and ideas, as much as for representational and observational drawing. The trio emphasized that different types of drawings are necessary to think through different stages and processes during design development.

For Gray, drawing is a form of thinking. He realized early on in his life that “because I could draw, I could help solve problems.” Drawing is now a way of extracting an idea from his mind using the hand, a process that is instrumental to exploring thoughts quickly without being burdened by crafting the perfect drawing.

Drawing / Kona Gray

Malda noted that 40 quick sketches of different ideas can be produced in a fraction of the time it would take to produce a finished rendering.

Iterative drawing can also be taken into client meetings, a technique Olin highlights in the video interview, and all speakers highly encouraged during their talks. Gray and Batts emphasized the power of the pen to forge connections between clients, but also with people of different cultures.

Gray draws with clients in real-time, on-site if possible, allowing them to explore ideas together. This can help bring out local knowledge of the place. Real-time drawing in charette processes allow the community and the designers to inspire each other.

Batts echoed the power of drawing as inspiration through an anecdote about a trip to a small village in Mexico. Each evening they set up a craft table, which brought together villagers who didn’t have access to these materials, while Batts sketched the local landscape.

A local man named Joel was curious about Batts’ sketches, and finally asked, through a translator, if Batts could teach him to draw perspective, which was a new view of his familiar landscape. This moment reveals drawing’s potential: its ability to “transcend disciplines, language barriers, and cultures.”

Michael Heizer: From Archaeology to Land Art

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Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments / The Monacelli Press

As a pioneer of the land art movement, Michael Heizer is responsible for some of its most famous and impactful works, including Double Negative and City. And yet even by the standards of an artist, Heizer is seen as obsessive, reclusive, and contradictory. He has, throughout his life, fought attempts to frame or analyze his work by anyone other than himself. This underscores the significance of writer William L. Fox’s new book, Michael Heizer: Once and Future Monuments, which contextualizes Heizer’s work and investigates his influences.

Heizer has a unique relationship to his influences. He cops to some but not others, often insisting on his intellectual independence. “My work…comes directly out of myself.” Fox’s central argument is not only that archaeology (Heizer’s father Robert was a renowned archaeologist) and the work of peers such as Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria strongly informed Heizer’s work, but that exploring these influences is a worthwhile endeavor that adds interest to Heizer’s art.

Double Negative by Michael Heizer / Wikipedia

Fox, who is also director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, draws on significant primary source material to support this exploration: namely, the files of Heizer’s close friend and project manager Guido Robert Deiro, made available to Fox through a donation to the museum. These files, which include correspondence, drawings, and hundreds of photographs compiled over the course of three decades, unlock new insights into Heizer and his singular vision.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Heizer did not give this book his blessing. His lack of input in what could be the definite text on his life and work ends up leaving a Heizer-sized void in the book. One senses this absence most acutely when comparing the book to Dana Goodyear’s 2016 New Yorker feature on Heizer. That article, which follows the artist in New York and visits him in Nevada, is saturated with his charm and off-color humor.

Fox’s erudition and keen insight is the Future Monument‘s draw. Fox knew and collaborated with Heizer for a time between the late 80’s and early 2000’s. The questions that drive the book’s narrative seem to have first emerged during that period. For instance, what was the extent to which Robert Heizer influenced his son, beyond instilling an intellectual passion for archaeology? It turns out many of Heizer’s more pronounced traits, including his obsessiveness and surliness, could be found in both his father and grandfather.

Fox takes these and other insights, gathered from personal conversations, interviews, and additional sources, and weaves them seamlessly with archaeological research, history, and art journalism to craft a cohesive text. Pocketing the text are interview transcripts with Deiro, who provides fascinating anecdotes of time spent with Heizer as well as details some of the technical and political efforts that went in to Heizer’s works.

Through Future Monuments, those works can be seen in a larger context. Levitated Mass, situated on pedestals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is what Fox considers Heizer’s most recognizable work. And its success partially relies on an imposition of size and material one usually associates with ancient monuments. City, a massive installation out in the desert of Nevada, has a cultivated sophistication and theatricality to its layout, the origins of which one could trace to the built environment of the Incas.

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Levitated Mass / Flickr user Eden, Janine and Jim, CC
City by Michael Heizer / Google Earth

Through the exploration of Heizer’s influences and biography, we may find new meaning in his work. For what it’s worth, Fox, who is an admirer of Heizer, describes him as “stronger on method than theory.” You’re free to interpret Heizer’s work as you will, but it’s worth considering if the true significance of, say, City, lies in the sheer act of it.

Deep Insight into a Small Garden

Designing a Garden / Monacelli Press

Designing a Garden, the new book written by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is a lucid and candid examination of the process of designing and constructing a single project: the Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Van Valkenburgh intends the book as a sort of how-to guide to landscape design, not unlike a cookbook in terms of detail and clarity. Of course a garden is more than the sum of its ingredients, and a design brief is not a soluble equation. But the book’s generous number of sketches, photos, construction documents, and written correspondence help immeasurably to illustrate a general process “common to the making of nearly all built landscapes.”

Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Lexi Van Valkenburgh
Monk’s Garden / Michael van Valkenburgh Associates, Alex Maclean

This process of redesigning the existing Monk’s Garden at the museum in the early 2010s begins with a frenetic diagram sketched on a yellow file folder. Here, Van Valkenburgh faces his first challenge: how do you wander in a space so constrained? The space for the Monk’s garden, hemmed in by the museum, is a mere 52 feet by 150 feet. The wandering path becomes not only a central design element but also a device with which to engage the space.

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The initial concept sketch for Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Monacelli Press

It is also this story’s charismatic central character. Van Valkenburgh and his team get to work tailoring it to the site. Instinct and experience help generate the first ideas, but those must be refined through design inquiry. For the path’s material, the idea of pine needles is considered and quickly withdrawn, deemed impractical. Bricks, initially dismissed as too common, come back in to the fold. But what size and material? Samples are procured and configured into mock-ups. The design team scrutinizes them from every angle and in every quality of light. Van Valkenburgh remarks that he’ll even hold the materials to his nose, testing for a scent and another data point. He admits it doesn’t usually help, but it probably doesn’t hurt. Black manganese bricks, rich in color with a clean edge, are settled on for the moment. But material is a question the team will regularly revisit.

Meanwhile, path layout tests are staged on site with a garden hose. When the result is too imperfect, the team falls back on surveyor string, until finally getting their hands on the bricks. Hundreds of iterations are born and fizzle on site, in scale models and sketches. Planting ideas begin to take shape and inform the path.

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Marked-up iterations of the garden’s wandering path / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Monacelli Press

Van Valkenburgh, a renowned planting designer, illustrates his approach to plant selection in vivid terms. Branches are scaffolding, and the space between them is air. “Airiness,” like figure and spread, is a quality by which a tree can be judged, Van Valkenburgh assures us. “Don’t be confounded by the difficulty of finding words to describe what the space of a tree feels like.” Those fluid qualities are worth consideration and cannot be specified in a drawing.

The airiness of trees in the Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Lexi Van Valkenburgh

All of these decisions are made via trial, error, and regular conversation between Van Valkenburgh and Anne Hawley, the museum director at the time. The book opens with a semi-formal letter from Hawley to Van Valkenburgh requesting his services and describing the desired outcome for the garden. Among other attributes, it should be a garden “where Proust could contemplate.”

As for the path, Michael and his team feel it come to life when they decide to incorporate schist as a balance and foil to the manganese. In an email to Hawley explaining the decision, Van Valkenburgh, writes: “All too often people reduce Proust to madeleines, forgetting that the real magic is found in madeleines and mint tea together.”

Manganese and schist bricks combine in the Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Scott Shigley

Designing a Garden is a small but outstanding text culminating in a smaller outstanding text, The Gardner Gets a Garden, an essay by Laurie Olin, FASLA. Olin offers effusive appreciation. He contextualizes the garden in relation to other art works and Van Valkenburgh’s own body of work. Van Valkenburgh, Olin writes, has demonstrated a career-long interest in the sensual and perceptual. In this book rich with illustrated and photographic insight, we can understand that conclusion.

From Geometric to Fractal: Bauhaus and the Landscape

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The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle / Princeton Architectural Press

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus’s founding in the city of Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius. The legacy of the Bauhaus has been felt throughout nearly every design discipline, in part because of the towering stature of its faculty and their many game-changing works of architecture, design, and art, but perhaps more deeply because of the body of theory produced, practiced, refined, and extolled at the school.

The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle is a new edition of the 1991 collection of essays edited by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller that uses text, images, and experimental graphic compositions to explain Bauhaus art and design theory. “Triangle Square Circle” is derived from a theory that artist Wassily Kandinsky put forth about the intrinsic properties of the three shapes and their association with a primary color. As Lupton and Miller state in the introduction: “This is a book about theory. A theory is a principle that attempts to explain diverse phenomena, a concise concept capable of shedding light on countless situations.”

Bauhaus theorists saw simple geometric forms as the essence of natural, organic shapes. The bookend essays, Elementary School by J. Abbott Miller gives insight into how Bauhaus theorists reduced landscape and natural forms to simple geometric ones, and Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry by theoretical physicist Alan Wolf explains how Bauhaus thinkers tried but ultimately failed to acknowledge nature’s complexity in their theories on geometry.

In 1925, Gropius designed a new complex for the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, moving the campus from Weimar. The architecture designed in the international style became the emblem of Bauhaus architecture and thought, despite architecture not being taught at the school until 1927. The building is the centerpiece, a sculpture among a sea of rectilinear patches of grass, with ankle-high fencing to prevent people from walking on the green spaces. The landscape of the Bauhaus campus is a formal exercise, a decoration of the plinth the building sits on.

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Bauhaus Campus in Dessau, Germany / Wikipedia

In Elementary School, J. Abbott Miller focuses on the development of the core principles of the Bauhaus through the creation of Friedrich Frobel’s kindergarten (or child garden).

As Miller explains, the name was “metaphorical as well as literal: early in his career as a teacher, Froebel discovered the importance of play in education and made gardening a central part of his pedagogy.” While gardening was lost in the Bauhaus school, playing with shapes and composition was fundamental to Bauhaus teachings.

The focus of Frobel’s teaching were a series of “Gifts and Occupations” comprised of geometric blocks (gifts) and basic craft activities (occupations). The gifts increased in complexity as the child progressed through the educational system, culminating in enough complexity to construct representations of their world with the blocks. The children began to see the world as a construction of basic elements, a theme continued and propagated by Bauhaus teachings.

Distilling the complexities of the world to their intrinsic properties became a central tenet of the Bauhaus. For Kandinsky, these often resulted in complex representations comprised of basic shapes and lines.

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Orange by Wassily Kandinsky in 1923 / Wassily Kandisnky.net

The practice of geometric simplification began in early education and continued through the university for those studying at the Bauhaus.

It is no wonder then that the complexities of natural forms were represented by rectilinear green shapes in the landscape of the Bauhaus campus in Dessau. They didn’t have the geometric language to represent the complexities of natural forms; fractal geometry wasn’t discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot until 1975.

In Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry, Alan Wolf explains the mathematical principles of fractals as an abstraction of natural geometries that cannot be expressed through an intrinsic or simple geometry, only through an increasingly complex internal relationship between its parts.

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Romanesco broccoli approximates natural fractals / Wikipedia

Bauhaus’ attempts to distill all natural elements to their essences doesn’t work in a chaotic world. Today, complexity is central to our contemporary understanding of how natural and cultural systems work. For example, landscape and ecological processes, rather than formal qualities, guide projects like Fresh Kills Park by landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations.

Freshkills Park master plan / Freshkills Park, James Corner Field Operations

The Bauhaus’ use of geometry to represent the world still holds, but the geometry we use to represent it has evolved alongside our updated conception of nature as an interwoven set of systems interacting in increasingly complex ways.

As Alan Wolf writes: “since the discovery of fractal geometry in 1975, it is no longer possible to represent nature with a starter Lego set limited to such simple forms as triangle, square, and circle. Now we know that we need an advanced set of building blocks, which includes fractal forms of various types.”

Battles Ahead: Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign

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Proposed Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hirshhorn Museun

The conceptual design for a new Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on the National Mall, designed by photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, was recently approved by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), following an approval from the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in May. This comes amid concerns from The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) that the current design, which was created by landscape architect Lester Collins in 1981 to significantly modify the original 1974 design by architect Gordon Bunshaft, is a masterwork of Modernist landscape architecture and should be preserved. The organization included the garden, which displays some 60 sculptures, in its “landslide” list, which aims to raise awareness about threatened culturally significant landscapes.

There are three major components of the redesign: reorganizing the spaces of the garden to meet the need for more event space, reopening the underground tunnel that connected the garden and the museum under Jefferson Drive, and creating new stacked stone walls. The reorganization and stacked stone walls would greatly shift away from Collins’ design.

Sugimoto’s design breaks the garden into three distinct sections, which the CFA called “lawn, pool, and grove.” The West Garden, or lawn, and the pool will house new forms of sculpture and provide spaces for performance art, while the East Gallery, or grove, will showcase the museum’s existing collection of bronze sculptures.

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Major zones of the redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, thinks this will allow the museum to better accommodate the increasing scale of 21st century art and growing popularity of performance art.

The reflecting pool, which was in the original design for the site by architect Gordon Bunshaft, will be enlarged to accommodate a performance platform. The design team proposed four options for the pool. NCPC vice-commissioner Thomas Gallas preferred alternative option 1, which integrated the existing pool, at a depth of 6 inches, with a larger pool, at a depth of 3 inches, and the performance platform. NCPC also asked for an option that retained the original dimensions of the reflecting pool found in Bunshaft’s design. CFA had reservations about the new design of the pool as well, critiquing the “generic quality and functional limitations in creating a flexible performance space.”

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Alternative 1 for the pool’s redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Restructuring the garden with a reworked system of ramps will allow for greater accessibility for wheelchair users and families with strollers. In Collins’ redesign, the only accessible entrance from the National Mall is on the north side of the garden. A visitor needing the ramp entrance coming from the museum would have to go around to the other side of the garden.

The new plan creates a ramp system that starts from Jefferson Drive, greatly increasing the accessibility of the garden. The ramp system would snake around the West Gallery before providing access to the rest of the garden. Many NCPC commissioners thought that increasing accessibility was important.

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Sketch of new accessible route from North and South sides / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Reopening the tunnel running between the museum and the garden contains its own set of challenges. The passageway still exists, having been turned into ARTLAB+, a learning center for teens to engage with the latest technology. The tunnel was closed, in part, because it felt unsafe to visitors, who subsequently didn’t use it. The original opening into the plaza wasn’t large enough to light the length of the stairs.

The new design proposes enlarging the opening to the edge of the historic plaza stairs, an option NCPC commissioners thought was an appropriate balance to make the space feel safer and retain the historic character of the plaza. Based on solar angle studies, this would allow light to reach the bottom of the stairs and, when paired with a new stainless steel wall cladding, will brighten the length of the tunnel. Sugimoto based the shape of the wall cladding on a mathematical formula, a technique he has used before for sculptural work.

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Proposed entryway to connecting tunnel / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

The introduction of stacked stone walls received the most push back from the commissioners, although not for historical reasons. Sugimoto seeks to create a hierarchy of walls so that all of the proposed or reclad walls will be shorter than the existing exposed aggregate concrete walls. Almost all of these walls are meant to define rooms in which sculptures can be exhibited.

Commissioner Mina Wright felt that, although the new walls were successful in creating display rooms, they would be too busy and potentially distract from art work displayed in front of them. Vice-commissioner Gallas mirrored these concerns, although directed at the largest wall that would serve as a backdrop of the performances of the reflecting pool. He expressed concern that the wall was over sized and less successful at creating a room because it spanned across multiple sections of the redesigned garden.

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Rendering of stacked stone wall with bronze sculpture / Hiroshi Sugimoto

CFA also directed the design team to continue to study the stone stacked walls to ensure they acted as a backdrop for the work rather than a distraction. TCLF opposes the stacked stone walls because they believe they would diminish the legacy of Collins’ design.

The existing plan is subject to a Section 106 review, a stipulation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA). Every federal agency has to assess the effects of proposed changes to historic resources. Furthermore, public values need to be considered when determining the historical significance of a project. In the case of the Sculpture Garden, this is complicated by a classification called the period of significance (POS), which for the Hirshhorn complex ends in 1974. The POS is set by the Smithsonian and determines the explicit time frame that should be considered for historical significance.

Gordon Bunshaft was the architect of the Hirshhorn building and the original designer of the Sculpture Garden, which was completed in 1974. The garden was entirely exposed aggregate concrete, making it miserably hot during the D.C. summer. The sunken garden was only accessible from a series of stairs, making it inaccessible to visitors in a wheelchair. Public backlash was harsh, and a redesign of the garden was committed to by 1976.

Bunshaft’s Sculpture Garden as built in 1974 / Smithsonian

Enter Lester Collins, who at this point was a well-known D.C.-based landscape architect. He worked with the character of the garden, incorporating plants and trees for shade as well as introducing a ramp from the North entrance, off of the National Mall, that was the beginning of an accessible route through the entire garden. As TCLF puts it, “the redesign aimed to afford every user a dignified arrival and a comparable spatial experience.” The space became enjoyable to spend time in, a place to contemplate art and the gardens relation to the larger museum. At the time of its unveiling in 1981, even Bunshaft felt the redesign was “sensitive and well-proportioned.”

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Collin’s 1981 redesign greatly increased green space in the garden / The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C. photo: OLIN

But the POS doesn’t extend to include this addition, only the original Bunshaft design. The Section 106 review only has to account for designs within the POS. The TCLF has two fights ahead of them, extending the POS set by the Smithsonian and then ensuring the new design doesn’t interfere with the cultural resources of Collins’ design.

Because of the limitations of the POS, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and by extension the Smithsonian, currently has every legal right to change the garden to better meet its perceived needs. Both NCPC and CFA found that the configuration of the garden has been subject to changes based on use and accessibility concerns throughout its lifetime. The proposed redesign is a new layer in its history. Neither commission took the Section 106 review as a limiting factor during the conceptual design phase of the review process.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and CEO of TCLF, who is a strong advocate for Collins’ original design, posits that “if the Smithsonian deems a work of landscape architecture that is part of its material collection culturally insignificant that sends a dangerous message about the worth of landscape architecture more broadly.” Others have joined TCLF in opposition to the redesign, including Docomomo DC, a group aimed at promoting Modernist works, and District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office (DC HPO), who were a part of deciding the POS time frame for the Hirshhorn.

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Current state of the sculpture garden / Smithsonian

Only the conceptual phase of the project has passed the CFA and NCPC, meaning there are at least two more rounds of approval with each commission. During the intervals of this meetings the Section 106 battle will continue, as only the first step out of four has occurred. The second consultation meeting for the Section 106 review is tentatively scheduled for July or August of this year.

All parties involved agree that something needs to be done to revitalize the garden, but the debate focuses on what and how much should be changed. The Hirshhorn museum currently holds the upper hand. But the debate is far from over and will only become fiercer the closer it comes to a close.