Close Mobile Menu

City Jazz

January 22, 2010
by Dashka Slater
Image source: Photograph by Marcus Hanschen

From the new De Young museum to Oakland’s “Old Man Park,” Landscape architect Walter Hood designs through improvisation, fusing natural and social histories into a celebration of contemporary urban life.

We are sitting at a café in the Glenview district of Oakland and Walter Hood is looking out the window at Park Boulevard. It is the kind of street that Americans encounter daily—a bland four-lane expanse of asphalt, gussied up at the edges by a few plum trees and a narrow median strip tended by neighborhood volunteers. “Park Boulevard is an awful road,” he says. “It could be anywhere.”

Between bites of the yogurt-and-granola parfait he is breakfasting on, Hood begins to imagine how Park Boulevard might have been designed with its own particular history in mind. The street was originally a logging road used to haul redwood trees from the grove at the top of the hill and Hood muses on the possibility (though not the feasibility) of lining the street with redwoods. It’s a casual thought, not a serious proposal, but it goes to the heart of Hood’s particular approach to making landscape. “I’m interested in cities and I’m interested in people,” he explains. “I’m interested in the ground under cities and how it relates to the things that we build on top, and how those relationships might prompt you to do something in a very different way from town to town.”

Hood, 47, is a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at Berkeley and, as the principal of Hood Design, one of the field’s hottest professionals, particularly since creating the landscape for the new de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Deborah McKoy, a Wurster-Hall colleague at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development, describes him as “the rock star of urban design.” He looks the part, with his dreadlocks pulled back in a loose ponytail, a diamond stud in his left ear, and a sinewy grace that makes him seem as if he is gliding rather than walking. Metropolis magazine has called him “one of landscape architecture’s leading public intellectuals,” while The New York Times describes him as the “Frederick Law Olmsted of [Oakland’s] dispossessed neighborhoods.”

Hood’s aesthetic is more spare and modern than Olmsted’s, and his designs celebrate urban life rather than offering respite from it. But the comparison to Olmsted remains apt. Like Olmsted, Hood has a gift for making beautiful places, and like Olmsted, he creates places that bridge social and economic gaps. In the past 150 years, the field of landscape architecture has ricocheted between aesthetic values and social ones. Hood’s work celebrates human interaction and history, while managing to be uncommonly lovely. “In the tradition of Garrett Eckbo, who was his mentor, Walter fuses artistic brilliance with social responsibility,” observes Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design. “And he’s one of the few people in the world who does this successfully.” Hood states his philosophy more simply: “You can be an advocate,” he says, “but you can do beautiful things.”

Today is Friday, the one day of Hood’s extraordinarily overscheduled week when he gets to work in his studio. “Today I can listen to the muse,” he says, tapping his chest with his long, elegant fingers. Such time is hard to find. He is also teaching two courses at Berkeley and another two at the University of Michigan, in addition to lecturing and exhibiting at the University of Texas. At the same time, he is working on close to a dozen commissions, including landscapes for the Autry National Center in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, the University of Virginia, the Virginia Key Beach Museum in South Florida, the redesigned entrance to the San Jose International Airport, four different public spaces in four long-neglected Oakland neighborhoods, and a new civic infrastructure for Francisco Street, one of the oldest and wealthiest streets in San Francisco.

When he wearies of the constant demands on his time, Hood sometimes says he’d like to go back to being unknown, but he enjoys having reached a point where he can make the work he wants to make, and where he is celebrated, not for being one of the few African Americans in the profession, but for having a singular vision. “I don’t want to be at the table based on what I look like,” he says. “I want to be at the table based on what my ideas are.”

Improvisation is the word Hood often uses to describe his approach to design. People in marginal circumstances have to make do with what they have, and so they appropriate public spaces designed for other things and improvise within them. The idea of improvising within a structure, the way a jazz musician does, appeals to Hood’s mix of artistic invention and intellectual intensity. “It’s about working within a tradition, but finding your own place within it, and therefore you extend the conversation,” he explains.

Improvisation requires that a designer understand the community of people he’s designing for, and design for the way they actually use a space, rather than the way he thinks they should use it. Every park bench with a bar down the middle so the homeless can’t sleep there, every cookie-cutter tot lot, generic basketball court, or “no skateboarding” sign demands that the users of that landscape conform to certain preconceived ideas. “Improvisation begins to argue that we’re not the same,” Hood says. In his 1993 book, Jazz and Blues Landscapes, Hood re-conceived an existing pocket park in West Oakland, designing it for 16 imaginary characters, including an inventor, a single mother, and a musician. The single mother’s park has a small constellation of trees and plenty of open vistas, so that mom can keep an eye on her children. In the cook’s park, people can gather on the lawn or under a shelter to eat the ribs barbecued on the park’s own grill.

Walter Hood grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a working-class but upwardly-mobile family. His father was a career serviceman. Hood started his childhood in subsidized housing and in junior high was bused from the inner city to the suburbs. By high school, his family had moved to their own home in the suburbs, and he was being bused back into the city. The contrast between these two worlds, urban and suburban, helped shape his attitudes about equity and public space.

“I can remember when I was in seventh grade—well, how come I never saw a split-level house until then?” he says. “I didn’t even know they existed, that there were other ways to live.” Being a black kid in the suburbs was often difficult, but Hood credits the experience with giving him a sense of possibility, an awareness that the world was much bigger than he had assumed.

His earliest memories are of drawing, and he continues to be a nearly constant doodler, his pen etching shapes on the closest page while he talks. After working on a commission until six or seven in the evening, he’ll spend another four hours painting landscapes. “I was always trying to figure things out graphically, by drawing,” Hood says of his childhood. “And that led me to drafting in high school, and then architecture, engineering.” In 1976, he went to North Carolina A&T, an all-black land-grant college. He was the first person in his family to pursue higher education, and began with a major in architecture.

Then he attended a lecture on landscape architecture. “It seemed that everything I wanted to do was encapsulated by these guys who had come to talk about landscape architecture,” he recalls. “The drawing was much more free. There was this kind of multidimensional aspect to dealing with people, the physical, the natural.” Hood joined the landscape architecture program—the first at a historically black college—founded by Charles Fountain.

After getting his degree, Hood worked for the National Park Service and then joined a private firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But the work wasn’t stimulating to him. Having had a predominantly technical education, he found himself craving another kind of intellectual experience. “I needed to train my mind,” Hood says. In 1985, to the consternation of his family, who failed to understand why he would give up a well-paying job and return to the life of a student, he applied to Berkeley.

That was when Berkeley landscape architecture Professor Randolph Hester got a call from his old friend Charles Fountain. “It was the only time Dr. Fountain ever said to me, ‘You just have to admit this guy,'” Hester says now. He found Hood to be just as special as Fountain had promised. “He worked twice as hard as anybody else. He had more raw talent than most people,” he says. “And he was able to develop his vision.”

Hood became a research assistant for Garrett Eckbo, the father of modern landscape architecture, and then went to work for Hester, a fellow North Carolinian who shares his passion for socially conscious design. After five years he had earned two master’s degrees, in architecture and in landscape architecture, and had been invited to apply for a faculty position. He has now been on the faculty for 16 years. Ivan Valin, the TA for Hood’s first-year studio class, says, “He demands rigor from the beginning of a design, rigor with the idea.”

It’s another Friday morning, just before lunch, and Walter Hood stands in a triangular park that runs from a parking lot under the I-580 freeway to the edge of the Grand Lake shopping district in Oakland.

“I like watching the cars go by,” Hood remarks, his eyes fixed on the cars sliding along the concrete overpass. “They go so fast.”

While most landscape architects view freeways as eyesores to be screened out by thoughtful plantings, Hood has an unconventional affection for the realities of city life. “I’m not making antidotes to the city,” he explains. People have sometimes told him that he doesn’t use enough plants in his work, a statement he dismisses with a sigh. “At one time I thought that constituted landscape—the plants, how you put the plants together,” he says. Hood feels that the most important aspect of design is finding a formal structure for the landscape, which he likens to the bones of the body. “There has to be this very strong set of bones,” he says. “Because the things that you make might go away, but the bones will not.”

Where we are standing is an ungainly piece of land created when the freeway sawed off a corner of the parkland around Lake Merritt. Once the site of a fountain that was supposed to entice motorists to the retail stores on nearby Grand Avenue, the Splash Pad, as it has long been known, existed for years as a kind of planning hiccup, an ugly, acre-and-a-half traffic island of concrete and palm trees. In the late ’90s, a proposal to create a Trader Joe’s on the site unleashed an emotional neighborhood battle over its future. The city hired Hood, who listened to what each of the factions had to say and then created something that defies easy characterization—a hybrid of plaza, garden, and park, with paths and walkways that reconnect it to the retail districts nearby. On Saturdays, it is blanketed by the stalls of a hugely popular farmers’ market. There’s a water wall for splashing, a native plant garden cultivated by neighborhood residents, and benches for sitting and watching the traffic roll by. Because the area was once a marsh, the surfaces—crushed granite, grass, wood, and brick—are porous. A low curved wall evokes the park’s previous shape, and the old park’s palms are still there, but they have been given what Hood calls “a shave and a haircut” and incorporated into the park’s undulating design.

Ken Katz, chairman of the Splash Pad Neighborhood Forum, recalls the meeting where Hood presented his plan—to a chorus of questions and complaints. “But Walter has a lot of charisma,” Katz says. “He explained every feature of the park. There wasn’t a hand raised or a voice raised for 30 minutes. People were just rapt.” On the first sunny day after the park opened, Katz saw a man reading a book on a grassy slope, exactly the kind of lounging Hood had predicted would occur on this reclaimed traffic island. Katz went up to the man and told him, “Congratulations. You have fulfilled this slope’s destiny.”

None of the history of this park is known to the 30 teenagers sitting on the walls of the park’s plaza area eating their lunches and talking while Hood admires the freeway. They are ninth-graders at Emery High School, a small, predominantly African American public school in the slick shopping metropolis of nearby Emeryville. The teens are taking part in something called the Y-PLAN, in which city and regional planning graduate students work with high school students to develop plans for their own communities. Hood has been working with the program for five years, and today he is taking the kids around to different public spaces in Oakland and Emeryville and talking to them about what’s there.

The kids, of course, have no idea that the guy in Doc Marten boots and sunglasses is taking time out of his studio day to be with them. When he tries to get them to cluster closer together so he can be heard over the din of the freeway, they stay right where they are until he walks over to them and says firmly, “Up. Off your butt.” Then he begins roving among them, asking them what they want to see in their hometown of Emeryville. The kids say “activities” and, when pressed, tend to say either “skating rink” or “bowling alley.”

“That’s like five bowling alleys!” Hood says, smiling. “Y’all like to bowl.” He’s affable and inquisitive with them, bantering gently while pressing them to think about their future lives. When a teenage girl in a Burberry hat tells him she plans to be a “business lady” and “work in a big office,” he shakes his head. “You’re going to get bored,” he predicts.

Next stop is Frank Ogawa Plaza, in front of Oakland City Hall, which Hood had no role in designing. It’s your basic civic landscape—there’s an amphitheater and a plaza and a grassy lawn. Aside from a vendor selling jewelry, the place is deserted. Hood asks the kids to look up and count how many street lights they see in the plaza. After some discussion, the students conclude that there are close to 80.

“Most people walk through an environment and they don’t pay attention to the world around them,” he says later. “A lot of the things that happen in the landscape, we’re controlling people. If you’re not aware of them, you’re being controlled.” Park lighting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a choice that implies surveillance as well as safety. Hood would like these high school students to start noticing the choices that other people have made about the neighborhoods they live in, neighborhoods that tend to have many more street lights than street trees.

These days, it is often the poor who use public space. Rich and middle class people have plenty of other options: backyards, gated communities, summer homes, resorts. If we want the outdoors, we get in our cars and drive to it. And yet, public spaces are rarely designed with the poor in mind. “Why can’t I design public realms for a diverse public? Whether I’m working in West Oakland, or the de Young Museum, I try to remain steadfast to this notion of democracy, of creating a space that allows everyone equal access to things,” Hood says. “And allows them to imagine what they want to bring to it.”

We are so used to poor neighborhoods looking one way, and affluent ones looking another, that it often never occurs to us that it could be different. But what if you took a run-down park at the frayed edge of downtown Oakland and sank $2.1 million into it? What if you really pulled out the stops and used handmade ironwork on the tree guards and trellises? And what if you did it all not with the goal of emptying the park benches of homeless people but of making a place that the homeless people could enjoy along with everyone else?

The place in question is Lafayette Square Park, the last survivor of the city’s seven original public squares. For years, the 1.5-acre site was known as “Old Man’s Park,” in recognition of the old and unemployed men who have gathered there since the Depression. Geographically, it sits at a kind of crossroads. The view to the east and north is of power: the state and federal buildings, the skyscrapers of downtown. To the west and south are apartments and residential hotels, homes to the city’s poor, transient, and immigrant residents.

When Hood was hired in 1994 to redesign the park, it was with the understanding that its poor and homeless users would not be displaced. At the same time, the space had to make room for more recent arrivals: downtown office workers and young families, most of them Southeast Asian. It seemed an impossible proposition, and yet Hood has managed to create a landscape that feels welcoming to everyone. On a Wednesday morning in April, four regulars sit on benches under the shade of an expansive oak tree and exchange commonplaces: “Hey, Joe!” “How ya doin’?”

Behind them is an awning, which offers protection against inclement weather, and a set of rest rooms. To their left is a hillock that recalls the long-gone observatory where Victorian residents once surveyed the night sky. The hill is bisected by a metal runnel that allows you to see water running below it, like the invisible creeks that move under the city’s asphalt skin. On the summer solstice, the runnel aligns with the sun. Skirting the edge of the park is a bosque of purple-leaf plum trees protected by spiraling iron tree-guards; elsewhere, clusters of towering bamboo mirror the height of the downtown buildings. The landscape rises and falls, pooling into little pockets of activity—a man dozes over his book in a sunny glade, while a young Vietnamese mother arrives with her toddler and heads toward the tot lot at the other edge of the park. There are game tables and a horseshoe pit, and spaces for the various improvisational uses Hood learned about when observing and interviewing the park’s regulars—tai chi, skateboarding, cooking, haircuts. Most important, it feels like there is room for improvisation to continue. Like an old blues musician, Lafayette Square Park has learned to play a lot of songs, but it’s still open to learning new ones.

Across the bay and a world away from downtown Oakland is Hood’s largest and most expensive commission to date—the five-acre landscape surrounding the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The museum itself, a bold, copper-clad monument by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, is lofty or severe, depending on the angle you see it from. It is an aggressively contemporary building, but Hood has managed to weave it into the park, so that it seems a natural outgrowth of all that has come before—the dunes that preceded the park (reflected in an undulating landscape at the building’s rear), the tree ferns and eucalyptus that define the park now (incorporated into terrariums in the building’s courtyard and the enchanted gardens on the side), the serenity of the beloved Japanese tea garden (evoked in the tranquil sculpture garden that borders it). Flowing through all of it like a blithe spirit is the jazzy eclecticism of contemporary San Francisco.

On a chilly weekday in April, visitors cluster around the entrance, searching their purses for money, looking at maps, calling each other on cell phones while seated on the benches Hood designed, the wooden slats of which cascade over a metal frame like water. Here, stripes of pinkish pavement alternate with stripes of lawn and a battalion of palms to create a textured pattern that evokes the museum’s textile collection and the ordered arrangement of trees at the music concourse across the street. But as people move around the side of the museum, drawn by the circular Pool of Enchantment with its water lilies and turtles, the landscape wriggles and snakes, drawing them into Hood’s enchanted garden along a curved wooden walkway. This garden is filled with unexpected things: bronze animal sculpture; piles of glinting Sierra Madre slate; a tranquil, pungent room with walls of eucalyptus branches pressed between the bars of a metal trellis. As a middle-aged couple walks along the path, a swirl of fog floats up from a machine beneath them and billows in the wind like a Chinese dragon. They stop wonderingly, and then the woman kneels down and tries to capture the fog in her hands.

From the July August 2006 Indo Chic issue of California.

Share this article