The Peace Maker

As he works on the landscape at the de Young museum in San Francisco, observers wonder: can Walter Hood bridge the divide between public space and in-your-face architecture?

Just before lunch on a bright day in April, Walter Hood straddles a low wall at Splash Pad Park—which he designed—and says, “I like public space messy.” Not strewn-with-garbage messy, but messy in spirit. Messy, even, in the way that America is today. “It took me awhile to get around the nonpristine concept of public space,” he says, surveying the scene. A woman lying on the grass mutters to herself while a pack of high school kids tosses a football, which sometimes careens dangerously close to Hood’s head. Traffic on the I-580 freeway whizzes by high above, and palm fronds rustle in the wind. Wearing dark sunglasses, and inserting “man” and “ya know” in sentences alongside “intervention” and “engagement,” Hood exudes both star power and moral rectitude, like a landscape architect version of Bono: “You can make spaces that allow people to understand where they are just by letting things be versus trying to control everything. That’s an aesthetic that I’m trying to become more comfortable with.”

And not a moment too soon: Hood is about to complete the largest commission of his career, and it demands relinquishing control. In October the new de Young museum opens in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, the building from the outside looks like a beached battleship, but on the inside it serves as ecstatic rejoinder to every dull Modernist gallery ever built. Crackling with life, the venue makes the Museum of Modern Art in New York seem like the emperor’s new clothes. Its brashness and energy could forever alter San Francisco’s often pathetic sense of architectural modernity.

Hood has designed five acres of landscape surrounding the new building. But his real task has been to integrate the museum into Golden Gate Park—to literally mediate the ground where San Francisco’s traditional countercultural spirit meets the global architectural avant-garde. “This building would be great if it were in the middle of the woods,” Hood says, stating fact more than malice. “It would be perfect. But we’re in a park particularly in America, and a park particularly in San Francisco. And what does that mean?”

For Hood the question has guided the design, but it’s also very much academic. Throughout his career he has fought the standardization of public landscape while continually questioning its purpose. At 46, Hood is now one of landscape architecture’s leading public intellectuals: former chair of the department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at Berkeley, Pentagon memorial competition juror, and constant lecturer. As an African American in a profession with seemingly none and an urbanist in a discipline just barely breaking free of the pastoral, he’s something of a phenomenon. His faculty position has given Hood the ability to pick and choose projects, a luxury he has exercised carefully and often polemically, working nearly exclusively in the public realm, and often in the inner city.

Hood hasn’t built all that much, yet with words and designs he has insisted that landscape architecture be held accountable for the publicness of the spaces it creates. Rather than any particular aesthetic, he defines his work by the behavior it encourages—or rather, the behavior it doesn’t discourage. In a Walter Hood landscape you’re free to be: to loiter, to sleep, to perform, to throw a football, to walk a pit bull. “There’s this notion that everything is neat and clean and definable but it doesn’t have to be that way, because when you start looking closer it’s not,” he says. “Some people like it that way because it’s predictable, but most of us are bored by that. In public space it’s about inserting difference.”

As Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California at Berkeley, explains, “Walter is trying to allow the latent social program—the invisible activities—to create poetic moments between the landscape and the people. He really is looking at how to draw that out in his design process and raise it to some kind of aesthetic realization.”

For the de Young museum, his approach is the perfect foil for Swiss minimalism. “We all felt the humanity and the sensitivity, and I suppose the political correctness, of the Hood approach would kind of balance nicely with the more austere Swiss, foreign, world-renowned architects Herzog and de Meuron,” museum director Harry Parker says. Hood’s diplomatic skills, both formal and interpersonal, were essential for the project—whether negotiating with the keepers of the park, the museum’s benefactors, or its architects, who are not known for suffering fools. Hood is capable of both developing consensus to get his projects built and for building projects that draw people together. “I was talking to Jacques [Herzog] last week, and he said, ‘You know, we approach things differently, but we respect that you have a way of doing things.’ And they do,” Hood says.

Clearly the de Young is a new beginning for Hood in its scale, budget, location, visibility, and even the aesthetic ambition required. But he tries to laugh all that off: “It scares the hell out of me, to tell you the truth.” It’s not that Hood’s prior work hasn’t received plenty of attention, although small parks beneath freeways and in lower-income neighborhoods don’t attract the media spotlights—much less teams of publicists—that $200 million museums do. Still, the themes of his work are continuous, as becomes clear when Hood and I visited Lafayette Square Park on the edge of downtown Oakland. One of the city’s historic squares, it had long been known as Old Man’s Park when Hood started working on the site in 1994 because of the men, primarily African American, who hung out there. “In a lot of people’s eyes they were homeless, but they’re more just a transient community,” Hood explains as we pull up. “This place used to be just a pigsty. Working with the city, we decided to build on what was here but not kick the homeless out.” Hood designed a barbecue area, community center, playground, restrooms, and a grass hillock near the center. But what matters is not only what he designed but the process by which it was built—in stages so as not to displace the men. “It’s been ten years, and these guys are still downtown—unlike in San Francisco in front of city hall, where it was like, ‘Clear everything out,’” Hood says.

Recently a new apartment building has gone up across the street as part of Oakland mayor Jerry Brown’s goal of bringing 10,000 new residents to downtown. Hood wonders if they’ll “have a problem being with the brothers.” His landscapes start from the concern not with form or program but with a place’s inherent relationship to the public, about who uses it and how—not coincidentally a crucial consideration for softening the de Young museum’s landing in Golden Gate Park. Hood knows that in a park everybody is a loiterer, although some people call it walking and some call it having lunch. “But in this country a lot of it has to do with what you look like,” Hood says. “The reality of making public work is that it’s political, it’s economic—and it’s class biased.”

Hood learned this in the 1980s while working in Philadelphia for the landscape architect Bill Wilson designing parks in inner cities throughout the Northeast. “The landscapes were just terrible,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to think of this stuff. After working for a few years it just seemed like the ways we were approaching the work, and the way everyone else was approaching the work, weren’t dealing with the real issues. We were solving problems, but we weren’t looking at it in a more poetic and powerful way.”

So Hood went back to school, enrolling at Berkeley. As a college student studying architectural engineering at North Carolina A&T State University, Hood had switched to landscape architecture after hearing Paul Friedberg lecture. As a graduate student Hood worked for Garrett Eckbo, one of the pioneers of Modernism in landscape architecture. “He made everything crystallize to a certain degree,” Hood says of Eckbo, who is famous for his private gardens but also worked for the Farm Security Administration designing camps for migrant laborers in California’s central valley. “In Eckbo’s work I responded to something powerful in this notion that in making things you can become a surrogate advocate,” Hood says. “When I’m thinking about making public work, I’m thinking about those voices that I know aren’t here because they don’t have the time. I’m connected somehow to that life and that spirit.” The son of a career serviceman, Hood grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. When his family moved to the suburbs, he was bused downtown for high school. “Being African American, the first thing my father said when I went to school was, ‘You’ve got to be three times better than everyone else,’” Hood recalls, his voice pitching with emotion.

In 1996, after several years on the faculty of the college of environmental design at Berkeley, Hood won the Rome Prize. Surrounded by fancy New York artists and ensconced in a palatial studio at the American Academy in Rome, all he did was paint. “That year liberated me from the notion of this responsibility I have: being black—I went to an all-black undergraduate school—there is this thing on my shoulders, and I can’t lie about it. That’s why I do the kind of work that I do, sure. I do feel I have this commitment to the public realm because I know what those issues are. I’m a little bit more familiar with them, and I want to be a voice for that advocacy. But on the other side, I do look at myself as an artist. I have these other kinds of needs that are more spiritual, more individual.”

The range of those needs help Hood create places with broad appeal. Splash Pad Park, completed in 2003, is a rehabilitated traffic island in the shadow of the I-580 freeway in Oakland, but it’s also the vibrant social center of Grand Lake—the kind of area that sees gentrification as an occasion for collective soul searching. One hundred and fifty people showed up for the first public meeting about the park in 2001, a huge number for what is essentially a neighborhood project. The dog people wanted it to be a dog park, others wanted it to be like Times Square with a big media billboard, and some wanted to open up an underground creek. “You could just see the schisms,” Hood says. “So we convinced them that it should be a little bit of everything—a hybrid.”

Hood designed narrow sidewalks that crisscross the park, establishing an overall structure that is rooted in the freeway pylons. A previously existing street becomes a narrow roadway that forms the spine for an enormously popular weekly farmers market. There’s a long arcing bench surrounding a paved plaza, with sand underneath so water can seep through—in recognition that historically this was an estuary connected to Lake Merritt. And the original palm trees are there, along with a small grassy mound. It’s a lot of moves, creating a multitude of distinct places in a relatively small space. But the design is also open-ended, even a bit confusing and messy. No one would mistake it for minimalism—and no one would say people’s behavior here is minimized. While some high school kids toss the football, the rest settle down on the grassy mound to watch and chat. They yell and cajole. They inhabit the space fully, bringing life to it so palpably that Hood smiles. “This is what I love about public space, and I can see designing this so it couldn’t happen.”

So how do you make an art museum—even a populist one—this way: rooted in the tangible past, enlivened by the public, and integral to the community? “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘This is very different from what you’ve been doing,’” Hood says of the de Young. “Yeah, the client’s different, the budget’s a little different, but it’s the same thing. At least I look at it as the same thing. What’s the connection? The connection is that it’s public space. It’s that dumb. Harry Parker hired me because I work in the public realm, and that had more to do with it than anything.”

Hood’s work at the de Young will completely surround the museum, and even enter into it at a few places, but as of late April it’s still dirt. I circle the building with Hood, and he sketches some plans with a stick on the ground. The Pool of Enchantment—a beloved feature of the old de Young—is being restored and reshaped; the original palm trees will again take their place the front of the building. The goal is to connect the new museum and landscape with the spirit of old building. There’ll be a children’s garden, in which Hood plans to provide all sorts of stimuli—a sonic walkway, a “fog bog,” and outdoor rooms made from eucalyptus trees. On the other side of the building, the sculpture garden is meant to make the museum disappear and reappear behind plantings or within a James Turrell skyspace being built into an earth mound. At the sculpture gardens’ edge, bamboo creates a transition to the adjacent Japanese Tea Garden—a favorite tourist fixture in the park. “In a way the building is so loud that no matter what you do in the landscape it’s not going to be as loud as the building,” Hood says. “At first I thought the landscape has to be its own thing, but there’s just no way it can be. It’s not large enough; it’s working at this in-between scale, in between the park and the building. How do you make this landscape an in-between space?”

The observation room at the top of the new 144-foot tower, which twists as it rises above the galleries, is spectacular. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows are shaded by the perforated copper panels that compose the museum’s facade. Below, the roofscape of the museum reveals its distinctive scissorlike plan. Hood’s landscape—still a parking lot for bulldozers and backhoes—surrounds the building. The park surrounds it, and the city surrounds the park, the voluptuous contours of its hills popping up from the street grid. And then the bay surrounds the city, creating an effect like nested dolls, each relating to the other. “Hopefully in the building people will have an appreciation for the park,” Hood says. “And then when they’re out in the park, through this landscape people will appreciate the building.”

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