African Ancestors Memorial Garden International African American Museum
African Ancestors Memorial Garden at the International African American Museum. Courtesy Sahar Coston-Hardy/ESTO

Walter Hood: Facing History Through Landscapes

How Walter Hood proves the power of green space to tell new stories, communicate culture, and confront hard truths

International African American Museum
International African American Museum. Courtesy Fernando Guerra

The new African Ancestors Memorial Garden

Just a few months after landscape architect Walter Hood was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, METROPOLIS editor at large Sam Lubell talked with him about his African Ancestors Memorial Garden at the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. The project, which is deeply layered with stories and history, sits on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, the port of arrival for hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans.

Walter Hood
Walter Hood Courtesy Adrienne Eberhardt

Sam Lubell: I remember the last time we chatted you were on the tail end of winning a bunch of awards. Now you’re winning more. It’s exciting to see the chances you’ve been taking pay off. Because you never know while you’re going through the process, I’m sure.

Walter Hood: Oh, yeah, it’s like, “God, is this the right thing?” It’s nice to get to a point where we don’t worry about that anymore, right? And it takes decades to get there. But with experience and time, it comes. It comes with a little reverence, but also a little courage, you know, to just stay with your convictions.

SL: That’s a nice, nice place to be, I would imagine. Although I would imagine, not less challenging, just different.

WH: More challenging, actually, because of the expectations.

SL: Let’s talk about your work at the International African American Museum. I’m particularly struck by how you’ve been able to tell a story with landscape architecture. And the fact that you’re broadening the scope to incorporate art and other innovative elements.

“In design, you’re…part of this culture that is tied to a professional set of principles. And for me, that’s always been a straitjacket.”

International African American Museum
International African American Museum Courtesy Fernando Guerra

WH: Landscape architecture has employed narrative for a long time, but generally it’s the normative stories that get told.

Historically it’s been this allegorical or metaphorical aspect; it’s nature into civilization. It’s been the same age-old story, whether you’re looking at French gardens, Italian gardens, or English gardens. They [the stories] are coming from one side—the side where the privileged are actually setting these narratives out in the landscape, and then everyone becomes almost subservient to those narratives.

The thing that I’ve thought for a long time is “How do you bring in other stories?” I like using the term “storytell- ing” because storytelling is as old as human occupation. It doesn’t mean everything has to be true. It’s coming out of a cultural setting and of ways in which people experience each other and the environment. And that was a linchpin that gave me a kind of freedom that echoed back to my own Southern roots, which I had kind of forgotten about. People tell tales, and sometimes they’re heroic, and sometimes they’re not. In design, you’re almost taught to weed those things out and become part of this culture that is tied to a professional set of principles. And for me, that’s always been a straitjacket. How do you get out of that thing?

SL: I really like that because, yeah, any profession can make its own bubbles and make its own expectations, and it takes some guts and some skill to get out of those. Let’s talk about this particular project. Can you tell me how you were able to weave that freedom, that narrative?

WH: I was asked to lead the design process for the museum’s Ancestors Garden, which is under the plane of the mu- seum. My first thought was “Okay, I want to take people on a tour of the low country.” We put together a committee of about 25 or 30 people, from politicians to academics, architects, local historians—everyone who was involved in the project. And for two days, we visited different places. We went to Middleton Plantation; we went to Gullah Geechee communities in North Charleston; we went out to Sullivan’s Island; we went to Mother Emanuel Church, where the [2015] massacre had happened. It was not about design; we just went and had conversations.

Out of those experiences and conversations I was then able to create these stories. Some of them were about bricks; some were about this bell on the plantation that would ring every day; some were about water; some were about bodies. Just these kinds of stories based on these scenarios and concepts we discussed as a group. I would present narratives in these stories: “We saw this and we’re going to do this. We’re going to flood the entire under- neath of the building. We’re going to have bodies that are going to just rise up.” What was beautiful about the process was that it was a chance to be speculative without having to decide on a design.

Some people would say, “Oh, that’s too much.” They would say, “Ah, that’s interesting.” It wasn’t “I like this scheme versus that.” In the final design, you actually see pieces of this narrative. We created a capacity of experi- ence, as well as a set of scattered moments in which different stories could unfold through a landscape. They’re not directly pedagogical but they come out of an interest in the medium—one of landscape, but also of conversation.

“We created this kind of capacity of experience as well as a set of scattered moments in which different stories could unfold through a landscape.”

Multiple column like sculptures coming out from the ground.
Details like the screens made from local wood pieces that reference badges worn by enslaved people in Charleston, allow stories to unfold through the landscape. Courtesy Fernando Guerra

SL: So, each one of these elements is its own story. You’re putting this palette together with your experience, but you’re also doing it with history and what the museum is trying to do in general, I would imagine.

WH: Yes. For the serpentine wall, we decided to do abstract figures coming out of this kind of block. That came out of conversations with historians who talked about when Africans came to Gadsden’s Wharf. They were no longer African because they had landed in the Americas and were beginning this process of transformation. I didn’t want that figure of the chain—slaves and chains—which you see in a lot of places. I wanted to get people thinking about the metamorphosis that we’re still in: this metamorphosis to become Americans.

The Tide Tribute is an abstract version of the “Brookes Map” [a diagram of the Brookes slave ship’s inhumane conditions], [inspired by] a cartoon that I saw at Sullivan’s Island in this meager display about the enslaved in the back of the Civil War Museum. I took a picture of it and later I started to see the figures. We decided that the insides of the figures should be the shells that came out of the Atlantic Ocean, which [references] tabby, which is this concretized material utilized by the enslaved that you see all over [the Southeast]. There are all these layers just in the paving itself, and even in the figures. You get a dialecti- cal reading of the landscape, and of the materials that are also part of that journey.

SL: And then there are those geometric wooden screens.

WH: Those are the badges. Charleston has a very strange history; you could actually rent out your slaves. [Editor’s Note: Metal badges were used to identify people hired out as part-time laborers by their enslavers.] Our original idea for the badges [in which metal badges representing museumgoers would be suspended from the museum’s soffit, chronicling the progress of the African diaspora today] didn’t work, so we then took the same idea and made them out of local wood pieces. The wood pieces are riffing on the badges. It’s not hitting you over the head in the same way, but I wanted there to be this relationship so that people would ask, “This is interesting. What is this about?” It also goes back to African-American cultural arts, this idea of improvisation, taking something old and reshaping it into something new and modern.

“My career has gone from a small stream to now a river where some of these ideas can actually permeate the public realm.”

A presentation of the “Brookes Map” slave ship diagram, the Tide Tribute’s figures represent the men, women, and children who endured deeply inhumane transport conditions as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Courtesy Sahar Coston-Hardy/ESTO

SL: You’re embedding meaning and testing boundaries.

WH: If you look at a lot of African-American institutions across the United States, I think at the time, the equal justice movement was just coming on board. The most audacious thing I’ve seen is at the Lynching Memorial [The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama], where you see these things [steel blocks memorializing lynchings] hanging, it’s very austere. That was a new threshold for me: “Okay, it’s possible. How can I create this process to begin to push and see how far we could actually go in the imagination to tell these narratives that before, I don’t think a lot of people were comfortable with?”

We’re still uncomfortable. My career has gone from a small stream to now a river where some of these ideas can actually permeate the public realm. But for a long time, a lot of these things could not. There are projects that I’ve tried and failed. I’ve been told over and over, “Walter, we‘re not ready for that yet.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. I don’t know how many times I’ve lost projects or clients have moved on because we’re not ready for this. And even still today, there are projects where people tell me, “We’re not ready for this.” And so, the river is not rushing. The river is still trying to get around the bend. M

Courtesy Fernando Guerra

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