Episode 103

Walter Hood on Connecting People and Place Through Landscape Architecture

Interview by Spencer Bailey

To the MacArthur “genius” fellow and landscape architect Walter Hood, “place” is a nebulous concept that is made meaningful only through the illumination of its history and the people who have inhabited it. “By giving people a different way to see the place that they’re in,” he says on this episode of Time Sensitive, is where landscape designs “liberate themselves.” Hood has dedicated his career to this very illumination through his roles as creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California, and as chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley, where he has taught since 1990.

Hood and his firm are renowned for creating engaging, resonant spaces and culture-shifting environments that challenge how we think about not just neighborhoods and cities and parks, but also public space and the notion of “landscape” at large. His projects include a series of conceptual gardens at the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina; the grounds of the campus of the tech company Nvidia in Santa Clara, California; and the landscapes of San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and The Broad museum in Los Angeles. Currently, he’s at work on the wayfinding for the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago; a new park in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina; and twin memorials for Emory University’s campuses in Oxford and Atlanta, Georgia. What makes Hood’s work particularly powerful is that he consistently makes space for new narratives, creating alternative ways of thinking about, looking at, and experiencing the world. His designs embrace ambiguity, abstraction, and complexity in order to represent a multitude of voices and views. Through his work, Hood has time and again built transformative, ecologically sustainable public spaces that, in many instances, empower the marginalized communities they serve.

On this episode, Hood discusses the intersection of social justice and landscape architecture, his arguments against what we traditionally deem “memorials” or “monuments,” and the power of language to literally shape the world around us.


Hood discusses the intersection of time and place, and how “minority landscapes,” have been infringed upon or often even entirely erased over the past century. 

Hood dissects the ways in which three particular landscapes—Monticello, the site of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, in Charlottesville, Virginia; the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama; and Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina—have changed over time and now carry profound new meaning.

Hood considers how his own landscape designs, including Splash Pad Park and Lafayette Square Park, both in Oakland, California, engage with history and create new narratives.

Hood discusses recent projects that have brought him back to his Southern upbringing, including his fountain for the International African American Museum in Charleston; “Native(s),” a set of public buildings for a South Carolina Gullah community; and his Twin Memorials installations at Emory University in Oxford and Atlanta, Georgia.

Hood reflects on how his polyvocal projects—such as his two donor gardens at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Solar Strand in Buffalo, New York—celebrate difference and allow space for a multitude of truths and perspectives.

Hood recalls the “vague terrain” of his youth spent in a segregated neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, through earning his M.F.A. at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also talks about the fountain he designed at the International African American Museum and how the response it has received embodies the value of embracing ambiguity.

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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Walter. Welcome to Time Sensitive.

WALTER HOOD: Thank you, Spencer. Looking forward to it.

SB: I wanted to open our conversation today with the epigraph from your book Black Landscapes Matter. It’s a quote from Michal Sobel’s book The World They Made Together, which references a “traditional African sacred cosmos.” Sobel writes, “Time was viewed as having scale of value. There were good times and bad times, times that were favorable for an activity, and times that were inauspicious for that special action. These particular events that were tied to time were also tied further to place. Events should and have occurred at particular places on the earth, places that were auspicious for and tied to the event.” It’s a heady quote, but I wanted to ask first, how and why did you select that particular excerpt for the epigraph? And second, how do you personally think about this intersection of time and place?

WH: Well, I have to think about the piece now. I’m going back [to] why I chose it, but Michal Sobel’s work I’ve used probably over the last twenty-five years in my cultural landscapes class. When I read the piece, I was reminded of growing up in North Carolina, and my grandmother raised me from 8 years until I was maybe 14 years old. The elders always talked about good times and bad times, and so immediately, when I read that, I could hear my grandmother and the elders speaking. And it was always tied to—if someone passed away, it was a bad time. 

It wasn’t like, “Oh, they passed away last week.” It was just a period of time and it was mourning, and then there was a time of celebration or where grief just was laid to rest and you moved on. It didn’t relate to a day of the week, right? It [wasn’t] like five days went by, so everybody was okay. It was just this moment where it was now good times again. That always stayed with me, and particularly in rural North Carolina, because I’m from Charlotte. In Charlotte, the clocks were okay, 5:00, 6:00, dinner. But when we went to the country, there were clocks, but no one ever referenced them.

This notion of time, it actually almost stood still. I remember me and my siblings, it was like we were always in a hurry to get back to Charlotte—because that’s where it’s like you could count on time. When you went there, time was just tied to the place and it was tied to this rural landscape where things just happened. That stayed with me. When I read that, and then doing the kind of work that I do, it kind of stayed with me as a way to be in a place.

I like going to places and not thinking of the watch, but just to go and be. You can actually find time, if that makes any sense.

SB: Yeah. Wow, I’m glad I asked that. [Laughter] In the book, you write that, “As time passes, things accumulate around us: buildings, vegetation, objects, and even space. This accumulation is typical in cities as their dynamic engages specific environmental, political, social, and cultural change. In many places, the accretion occurs unmitigated… In many cases in the United States, when time comes to change, Black landscapes are wiped clean, leaving little to commemorate what came before.” Can you share a bit about how you, through your work, seek to mitigate this, and also, expanding out of that, create alternative spaces and new narratives?

WH: Yeah. I guess I would have to begin with the understanding that people live in these places. And so in brown and Black landscapes—minority landscapes—people have lived in those places. And pretty much [until] the last century, they lived in these places in a neutral way which was legislated: It was “separate but equal.” Even in the North, you still have this kind of segregation playing out.

Once integration occurred in this country, when people were allowed to migrate to these other places, it was almost as if they had not lived in the other places, and the other places were seen as empty. Then it was okay to go in and start anew, but you’re still forgetting people are still there and people were there, and memories were created in those places. It occurred to me—I don’t know when, maybe it was after a year in Rome at the American Academy and going to archeological digs and things like that, and listening to archeologists talk about these archeological places…

I just remember going to Carthage and there’s, like, nothing there. We spent four hours there, and of course all the architects are like, “I gotta get out of here. What are they talking about?“ But I was taken by how they were always like, “We know this.” And there was an explanation of how people lived. And I was like, “Wow, we never do that in America, to a certain degree.” Even if there’s a cataclysmic—something happened cataclysmic—like at Pompeii or whatever, there’s kind of like, “We gotta figure out what happened.”

The Bay Area, we had an earthquake in ’89. It’s kind of like, “Okay, the freeway came down or whatever.” It was like, “Just get rid of it and let’s just start anew.” There wasn’t this sense of culture, and that these places really mean something. Because if I go in and validate people were there, I’m validating people. Maybe then this double consciousness or the veil that people have to wear because of that subjectivity can be lifted up, and there can be this way to talk about these places that have not been invested in. Because literally [in] most of these places [it] was [the intention] not to invest. Because if you don’t invest, then all of these stereotypical or marginalization processes can take place, like, “Oh, they can’t take care of their own neighborhood.”

SB: Yeah.

WH: That’s because you didn’t put the tools in place, the infrastructure in place for them to actually take care of it—where you actually subsidize other neighborhoods.

SB: Redlining.

WH: Right? There’s this inequality. So for me, in the beginning, it was really about just trying to validate that people were there and just telling a simple history. I had it in my mind twenty years ago that that could be a powerful conjuring, that I could then be able to talk to people then on equal footing, versus trying to coming in and treating them in a more paternalistic way.

If I could literally uncover that time going back to that and be articulate about it to them without giving value, there’s a way in.

That’s been kind of the—I wouldn’t say the secret—but the difference in my practice and others’ is that I am very, very cautious of going into a place and bringing something from the outside. I’m constantly looking to extract something from the inside to start the conversation. It’s a very difficult thing because sometimes there’s nothing, and you really have to dig to find that linchpin to make a connection.

SB: I love this vision of you at an archeological site at Carthage. I’m just thinking how profound [it is] in terms of thinking about your own practices. You’ve described it as a cultural practice, but could you speak a bit to this anthropological element, the digging?

WH: Yeah. When I was at the art institute, the “social practice” thing had kicked in. I thought I fit into that, this idea that you go into communities and you become almost one with them to a certain degree, and that’s the practice. Then I started noticing that that was just more about event. That was just more about the artists coming in and actually having an event and then leaving. It wasn’t about being there.

I started thinking then about culture and cultural anthropology and how placing people are tied together, and that the detritus that they leave behind is actually, you can’t have one without the other.

That’s the most important thing, in a way, was all of a sudden realizing that [in] every place humans are there’s something that manifests through our needs.

The needs could be very simple. They could be needs to get out of discomfort from the environment. The needs could be food. The needs could be belief. But there’s something that marks and begins to change the place. That, to me, is why we do—meaning designers, architects—that’s why we do what we do. In some cases, we’ve forgotten all of that to a certain [extent]. And for a while there was a moment, I think, in architecture and design where phenomenology, Christian Norberg-Schulz, all of that—there’s something going on here, how do we put our finger on it?

There was this moment where I thought—I was in architecture school at the time—I thought, “Wow, this is amazing that we’re thinking in this way.” That kind of found itself, kind of died off—postmodernism and all these other things.

But that always attracted me—this notion that there’s something here. I don’t know what it is. It’s created by this group of people, and I gotta find out what that is. That’s an itch that you’ve just got to scratch.

SB: Well, it’s making new meaning. And you’ve highlighted Monticello; the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama; and Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina, as these places where a new narrative is emerging or has emerged because of work that’s been done there. Could you talk a bit about what makes these particular sites so successful and dynamic?

WH: Well, they are about that particular place. If I compare it to…. Probably this is the better way to compare it to where [Martin Luther] King was struck down, Lorraine [Motel].

SB: Mm-hmm.

WH: When you go there, they have to talk about slavery and the diaspora and the world. You don’t really talk about the place until you enter that room in the last part of the journey, in Mahalia Jackson. They kept the room the same, and then you can look out to the balcony, you can’t go out to it. But most of the pedagogy in the experience is not about Memphis. And you see that in a lot of places where…. Even in the National Mall. It’s about everything, football, basketball, not about D.C.

If you chose to talk about those places, these narratives would emerge. And I think these are the first places. It took Monticello a long time to reckon with the place, but now they have to, to a certain degree. And also it just makes that story just more powerful. It actually situates us even today in this very fragile idea of this democracy and whiteness, and how whiteness literally had to mitigate the ugliness of it through an architecture, through a design vocabulary that allowed people to exist. Because that’s some heinous stuff that you gotta get up every morning to.

To me, by locking it into a place, you have a more multidimensional experience of how we got here. You go to Montgomery, and without the [Memorial for Peace and Justice] in Montgomery, Montgomery would just be another capitol with the story of: King came here and the march ended here. But now to go to the Alabama River, to see the Alabama River right across and to see all of these stories comingled— When I left there, I’m hearing shackles of people walking up the street. All of a sudden, that’s now part of my memory which is being fed by having these different narratives. And Gaston’s Wharf, the same thing. Before, the site was a park, people just taking their dogs out. “We’re going to the aquarium.” Without that story, it’s a place I can go and relive Dixie.

Now with this story, I was just talking to a friend, having lunch. We were shooting and I was watching the tourists go out to the tourist boats, not knowing that this new thing is there and all of a sudden going, “How do I get around this thing?” They get to the fountain and there’s these bodies and shells, and you can see the fascination in their faces. They get to the wharf and they have to wait for the boat to come, and then they’re sitting, then they come back over and they’re taking photos. You can tell that something’s going on, and now they’re going out to Fort Henry or whatever, and now Gaston’s in their mind. That, to me, is powerful.

The more we can do that, in this place, in this time, I just think we would have a better understanding of who we are collectively versus the fiction that is constantly being fed to us without having to talk about these places, whether it’s in the coast of North Carolina, the city where we have Black politicians who were completely run out of town. There are all these narratives that are out there that I think could help us overcome these differences that we see emerging at different times. Sorry for the ramble. [Laughs]

SB: No, no. You’ve described this sort of “pendulum of remembrance and neglect” that exists in this country. Could you talk a bit about that, and also the swings as you’ve seen them between the pendulum?

WH: And that’s not my quote, that’s King.

SB: Of course.

WH: It had never occurred to me until I think the lockdown that I was just obsessing and reading just a lot. I was reading something about the early twenties—and maybe this was when I was working on the Princeton project as well, but with Woodrow Wilson. I got into this whole thing of the period of lynching, and that was like teens, twenties, thirties, all the way up until the civil rights [movement], it was still happening.

But there was this moment, and I then started thinking, I was like, “Wow, these people out marching in the sixties, knowing that people had been shot in their driveway, or fucking hung from a tree forty years, fifty years before,” and having that ability to come back and go, “No, we’re doing this now.” And knowing that, but there was this period of time. We had wars. There were some things that changed. We had a housing policy. Some things changed and I guess people felt they were compelled, but we still didn’t have certain rights. But people felt that there was more freedom, I’m assuming, that they could do things now.

Then we get to the late sixties. And then there’s this period, not until the nineties. I’m in California at this point. I’m out at a bar on a Thursday night. I remember Thursday night, and the TV comes on and L.A. is rioting. I’m with all white people, my friends, my colleagues, and they all get up and they leave. I’m like, “Where are you guys going?” They’re going home. I’m like, “But that’s in L.A.” And it just literally changed everything.

I remember going back home and I get to a red light—this is a real story—and I see one of my students at the light. I’m crossing the street to go to the bank, to the machine, and I hit her, the top of the car, and I wave. This white guy comes running off at me and I had to grab him and push him back. She gets out. She said, “That’s my husband.” And her husband had gone from somewhere to pick her up from work to drive her home. That’s when it hit me that we’re at this other moment. Right? And then, George Floyd.

So there are these periods. I have students who were not around in the early nineties, so for them it’s the first one. I’m just watching them connect dots, right? I’m like, “No, guys. This has been a long, long journey, and we’re just at this other place.” Even with the lockdown and George Floyd, when all of this happened, I didn’t go out and scream from the mountains like lots of people, because I just see it as another moment. And it’s dissipating again. You can kind of feel it. And who knows what the next one’s going to be?

I think there are those moments to act, and I think that’s what I was writing [about]. It’s like, well, we’re at a moment to act because if you don’t act now, complacency is going to set in and then we’re going to be normalized again. At those moments of bifurcation, we can either move out, move in, but that’s where things can actually happen.

SB: You’ve talked a little bit about how during these periods of neglect, there’s sort of a, “pregnant pause.” I find that notion really powerful, that during these periods of neglect, that’s actually when new things can be birthed.

WH: Yeah. New things can be birthed, but also where a lot of constraint happens that’s insular, that’s waiting to explode, right? I mean, it’s—

SB: Yeah. I mean, let’s take the pandemic, right?

WH: Right. It’s that.

SB: Pandemic hits, George Floyd, boom.

WH: Right? It’s that moment. Those who live in these marginal neighborhoods are always in this moment where, I still have to go on with my life, but all this shit’s happening to me. So there is this kind of inner [sense of] trying to hold it together. And then you have certain things that exacerbate it, like the police state. I mean, all of these things. And I was watching a program about the Watts riots and then the nineties riots with Rodney King, and it turned out that the police chief in L.A. was a young rookie in the Watts riot.

In both cases, they just let shit happen, knowing what would happen. And so even fifty years later, he’s now the chief—does the same thing. You go to Detroit, Black Bottom. They moved everyone from Black Bottom to the other side of the city in an already jammed neighborhood, knowing that it’s going to exacerbate something, because you can’t put all those people in this place and then subject them to this brutality. And then of course that place doesn’t exist today.

SB: Rikers.

WH: Right. And I don’t think someone’s, like, in the redwood forest charting this stuff out. But it is happening in these different places, that at these moments they do come together and it creates these dystopian futures for us to a certain degree.

SB: Yeah. History stumbling over itself.

WH: Yeah. Even in this time right now, as we’re driving here, it’s like, I’m thinking we’re not going to make it and we’re getting close to the courthouse and I’m like, “Okay, this is why the traffic is this way.” [Laughter]

SB: An important aspect of your practice, I wanted to bring up, but it’s really an important aspect of, I would say, any great landscape architecture practice is how incredible it is that something you design now, for today, can be completely different from how it will exist twenty years from now. I thought maybe we could talk a little bit about that here and use Macon Yards as an example, this project in Macon, Georgia, that you started in—if my numbers are correct—1998 and completed in 2004. Tell me about this project and how have you seen that evolve over time?

WH: It’s funny you choose that project. That’s a project I want to say when I first got back from Rome I worked on. And it was one of the first ones where I was digging, like, literally. It was a competition that I didn’t think I would win. We were against a New England team that basically did a Boston Commonwealth [Avenue] scheme. I was like, “Oh, yeah, they’re going to win that.” They had a person who talked about….She was the first one to write a book on place, and she had the Biddy Mason wall in it. The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden, which I highly respect. And I’m like, “They got it. They’re going to win this.” 

Because I went down this other rabbit hole. [Laughs] As I started searching the history and, through my experience, I felt that they were ashamed of the Black community. The Black community had been moved to Poplar Street. By reading the history, I actually mapped their diaspora within the town. And they had been moved three times over maybe a seventy-year period. When Blacks first inhabited downtown, they inhabited an area along the native Indian route, which was a diagonal down to the river. When it became a county seat, get out of here. They put the county building there. Then they moved them around the corner on a street called Pine or something like that.

As that developed, because that was the street up to the mansions, they moved them further down the hill, to the bottom of the hill, and that’s where they stayed. Then they populated Poplar Street, which was a wide, wide boulevard—I want to say a hundred and eighty feet wide—where they stored cotton. That’s where you brought the cotton to town. Of course it was a worker’s street, and there are images of just these bales of cotton in the middle of the road. And I’m like, “Wow, there’s something here.” And so the scheme, while we were there, they never took us down Poplar Street, which was a design. They took us around the corner to the good street, and then we went up and had mint juleps in the mansions.

As I’m going home to California, I’m thinking, “God, they’re embarrassed.” It was like, “We need to fix this street.” So I started thinking about, “Well, there’s no squares in Macon.” And for some reason in the South you think there’s going to be squares, like Savannah, whatever, and there’s just these wide-ass roads. So I started thinking about backyards. My particular backyard growing up where the front yard was where you showed everyone, and that’s what they showed us. The backyard, you don’t show anyone your backyard. That’s where all the junk cars are. That’s the stuff you hide. That’s where the dogs are. 

SB: [Laughs]

WH: The front is the thing that you show. That’s when I came up with this idea of Macon Yards.

Doing the project, it was then about showing that there was a market here, a creek here, there were these alleys here, all of this stuff. It was a very postmodern, nineties idea, and I didn’t think we were going to win because it was very disjunctive. It was, like, stuff just didn’t fit together. It was a lot of ideas put together. Unbeknownst to me, one of the guys on the jury actually was one of the residents, a Black guy, and he fought for my scheme. And I didn’t know it until afterwards. He said, “This is the only scheme that’s going to keep us on Poplar Street.”

And so we win. Jim Marshall’s the mayor, who then becomes a congressman later. We become good friends. I come down and we try to make the plan happen. Then he goes off to D.C., and they get their first Black mayor and he builds it. Some things got built the way I wanted, some things didn’t; it’s the South. The project was there. Then slowly I started seeing pictures of it. At Christmastime, they light it up. It’s this weird thing, they just light everything. Then when George Floyd hit, someone said they should remove the doors of the Confederate Obelisk. I thought that was interesting because twenty years before, I was like, the obelisk was obscured and I cleaned it up and put a fountain in front of it, which was a completely different take on these things than in contemporary times where people want things to go.

I think they’ve removed it, and I think they’ve redesigned the first two blocks which I had cast these bales of cotton. There was a fountain that had a runnel that led right to the [United] Daughters of the Confederacy. For me, I was confronting history right through this work, versus the erasure. I think what has happened with that project now, that piece has been erased, and it’s just a different time and place. And that’s one of the projects over twenty-five years that has had a change that’s related directly to the social change that’s happening in the country.

Where I compare it to another project, Splash Pad Park, twenty-five years old, now under freeway. Next to a freeway, a large market. They just celebrated twenty-five years last Saturday, and it’s just an amazing place. Still the same. I mean, the city doesn’t take care of it. It’s holding together very well, but it’s still doing its work and people don’t see a need to change it.

Lafayette Square Park, which is of the same time. These are all twenty-, twenty-five-year-old projects. Homelessness is [on the] rise again and the gentry comes in and they want to change it. Immediately someone from the city calls and goes, “Someone… they’re trying to change it.” I go meet with them. They’re like, “Oh, we’re just going to put in some bocce balls.” “No bocce, keep the horseshoes. Because the bocce is not recognizing these Black guys who have been here.” So, still having conversations, but I can see how projects like Lafayette could have that flip really fast with the new gentry because they still don’t see these people who are inhabiting the park as someone who belongs in this place.

And so change is different in landscapes because, again, you could have these socio-political moments where things just change [snaps fingers] or you have this slow creep, where…. Cities are dynamic and they do change. But when the polis changes outright, you can see complete erasure. I don’t expect for my projects to last a lifetime, but I do expect them to have a conversation with their times because of how they’re made.

SB: Yeah. And I think one of the profound things is how people respond to a landscape, and you’ve said “Landscape shapes you and it shapes how you view the world.” I wanted to ask about two locations in particular. You just sort of hinted at one, which is Oakland, the other being the American South. Could you share here in hindsight how you think about the Oakland work—and you’re nearly four decades living there—how you’ve seen those projects emerge, evolve, and reshape the city as you know it?

WH: Yeah. The Oakland work is very different in that… It doesn’t document, but it actually spotlights my struggle living in a city that doesn’t really believe in itself—that doesn’t believe that it has this innate power to change itself. Oakland listens to the world too much, right? It’s like, “Oh, we don’t want to be San Francisco. We don’t want to be like this.” But in turn it kind of [says], “Oh, we’re a Black city.” It just keeps listening to itself versus stepping back and going, “That’s not us.” We’re many things and we keep coming back to a single definition, and then people romanticize it.

So every decade I see the young hipsters coming in and graffiti and everything, and I’m like, “Really?” We found this place. And that’s what I mean by not defining it, so that other people don’t come in and define it for you. And we’ve fallen into this. And those projects, to me, spotlight these moments where I’ve tried to help the city envision and change itself. In our last project, the Oakland Museum is the last one which is this past year, if I go back twenty-five years. It’s completely different than those early projects. Those early projects [were] public, really strongly coming out of a public ethic. Now this one’s an institutional one. It’s interesting how the public stuff, I can’t do the public stuff anymore because you don’t even have the people in place to allow you to do them in a way that’s powerful and prophetic. Now you have to look to the institutions that might do it, but the city is so fragile and broken at this point.

That’s what the work means to me. Right now, I don’t have any projects in Oakland. I’m about to do one in Piedmont, which is a small enclave, but I don’t have any in Oakland. There’s not a…. How can I say it? It’s really strange, too, to be in a place and to have some notoriety, and you can’t have that impact the way you want to have it because of just the thinking. What we’ve decided to do then is invest. I just bought a new building and we’re trying to try another way now. That’s through being in this place and being one of the people to a certain degree versus trying to make it work. And every day I go, “Why did I buy this building?”

Because it’s along a strip of landscape that’s completely uninvested-in, full of nonprofits, full of parasitic uses, and there’s just no dream of this place. And that’s what I mean. It’s like when I first came to Oakland, it was like a dream. It was like, people still riding high on the civil rights [movement], having their first Black mayors, like the dream. We could be this amazing, the Panthers, all of this. Then slowly you just start to see this change where the dream just, I don’t know, just no one sees the city in this powerful way. We had Jerry Brown, who was this amazing mayor who had a dream. First one, in all my years of living there, someone who got up in front of the mic was saying, “We should do this,” where the rest of them were like…. Don’t get me going on my hometown. It’s really depressed. [Laughs]

SB: Do you have any hope that the pendulum could swing back?

WH: At some point, but I’ve gotten over trying to make that big change. At one point in time I was very optimistic and idealistic that you could [make change] at that scale. But in this country, there are so many things that are broken that it’s just really, really hard. We got rid of redevelopment agencies, we got rid of parks departments, we got rid of our planning department. We just got rid of all these things that would collectively suggest we all buy into this idea of the civics of our country and we want to all participate and we have to participate with capital. 

You’re seeing right now in the country, no one wants to do it. It’s hitting everything from our infrastructure, our education system, our health system. It’s just destroying us to a certain degree, and we’re fractured.

At one point in time, I did have this optimism for the belief in the public—that the public, meaning the collective, we can solve anything. We’re just so divisive now. I’m not optimistic about that. And that’s even seeing the work, that public work I argue very early, that’s all I want to do and I can’t make a living doing public work, which is really sad.

SB: Turning to the American South, which—this ties back to your upbringing in Charlotte—but I wanted to ask here a little bit about the International African American Museum in Charleston. Also “Native(s),” this project that you’ve shown at the Venice Biennale this year. It’s a design for a set of public buildings for a South Carolina Gullah community. What has it been like for you to take these trips back to the south, [and to] engage in work there in the landscapes there in the Carolinas?

WH: Going back there after twenty, maybe even thirty years being away, I never understood it as I thought I understood. Because I left when I was, like, 18. I never understood the South, in that North Carolina, always during my time, thought of itself as a northern state.

SB: It’s got “North” in it, right?

WH: Right. Right. So this was this northern state. Even my whole time growing up, I never considered [that] we were part of the Confederacy. But South Carolina, it was like they’re the Geechee. We called them Geechee, and I never even understood why, I just said, “They eat rice. We eat grits.” That was the big thing. That’s what you said. They eat rice for breakfast, we don’t eat rice for breakfast. That was the big thing of South Carolina. Then when I went through landscape architecture and architecture school, I read a lot of [Frederick Law] Olmsted’s travels through the South. South Carolina was always thought of as this tattered place. It was never highly organized. I just had all these ideas in my head about South Carolina.

Then, when I got invited to do my first Spoleto installation with Mary Jane Jacob, I spent two and a half months there off and on, just going back and forth. We had a place, an apartment, me and three other artists.

It just brought back all of those memories because it’s hot, it’s humid. It is just like, it’s in the air, the Southern drawl. I mean, all of this stuff started flooding back. It’s now been this really interesting way for me being introduced back to the South through South Carolina, not through North Carolina. And I’ve spent more time, probably, in the last ten years in South Carolina, not North Carolina.

It’s really opened my eyes to a lot of things. It’s really interesting seeing North Carolina through that lens, because now I can be a little bit more critical about the times that when I came up, the things that I didn’t know about, now I see them in a clearer way.

Now we have our first project in Charlotte—well, second project in Charlotte. It’s interesting having that conversation with people who are there because they’re all new. They’re all the new gentry coming in with the banking money. So they kind of see the history in a completely different way. I’m bringing it up and it’s really, really interesting.

So it’s been a reeducation process, but it also has been revelatory. I feel really, really passionate about that work. We just got a new commission in Atlanta. I was telling someone—we’re out in Oxford, Georgia, and it’s the first time I’ve ever started a project out…. I was introduced to the college and the president was there of Oxford campus and Atlanta campus for Emory. And I was in tears. I just cried, because of the power of this place. It was just because they had showed me some books about these ex-slaves, and one of their names was Walter, and then I’m in this kind of antebellum building. 

I’m introducing my firm and everything. Literally, I started crying. Then the new president of Oxford, the new dean of Oxford, this sister from Chicago, she starts talking. And then she starts crying because she’s telling the story about her history when she’s 10 years old and she’s asked to do a family genealogy project, and she could only go back to her grandmother. Then she’s crying. I was like, “What is going on here?” But it’s the South and people wear those emotions.

SB: Yeah. Add a little more context here. This project, the Twin Memorials project—share for the listeners a little bit what this project is.

WH: It’s a project where Emory University, Oxford, mid-1860s, starts out as a Methodist training school for boys that becomes one of the first universities there, and it’s built by enslaved people. It’s in Oxford, Georgia, which is like forty-five minutes outside of Atlanta, and the descendants are still there. And in Atlanta—there’s an Atlanta campus —which I found out they call Big Emory, and they call Oxford Little Emory. And you spend two years at Little Emory, and then you go to Big Emory, which is really interesting. You go to the city.

We haven’t met with the people from the city yet, but the idea is to build two Twin Memorials, one in the urban Atlanta and one in Oxford that tells this story. At my introduction, I was like, “I’m not into monuments. I’m not into memorials.” That was my first thing. I just started telling them that it’s about these two places. But it was more, I think, of a branding strategy for them to make them memorials. Because I think in people’s minds, that’s what they can kind of elicit from that term versus keeping it ambiguous. But they’ve done a lot of work already. They had a firm come up with ideas, which gave me a lot of reservation, but they seem open.

SB: So exciting. I mean, I think there’s a lot of work to be done if we’re talking about the American landscape and acknowledging the enslaved labor that’s gone into it. The University of Virginia did a beautiful small memorial, [laughs] but that’s just the term for it. You could look at it and it could be considered a piece of landscape as well.

WH: No, it’s a wonderful piece. The issues that I tend to have—and I’ve talked to Mabel [O. Wilson] and some of the others, even, who worked on that project—and it’s like, when I went for that interview, I was like, “Okay.” They were asking, I was like, “No, the name should be on the buildings. You shouldn’t do another space somewhere. You should put their names on the buildings.” I just knew I lost that one. I talked to the design team and they were like, “Yeah, we were trying, trying, trying.” It was like, that was not going to happen to get it to be in that sacred space.

To me, that’s the work. How can we have these double logics, double semiotics, that we actually design versus those that emerge? Because I think that’s our problem. It’s almost like we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, right? It’s like, “I can only take this story.” [Laughs] “If you add that, it just messes everything up.”

SB: Yeah.

WH: “I can’t deal with that.” But they start to do it at Monticello, right? I mean, it’s probably the better one where they literally at Mulberry Row, even, they rebuilt the slave cabins too good. [Laughter] They didn’t talk about Sally Hemings. It’s right there.

But even there, they’re like— I don’t know if they’ve made it or not, but they were interviewing to make a “decompression space.” I went and interviewed for that. I knew I wasn’t going to get it. I’m like, “What’s a decompression space?” They were like, “We know when people come here and they’re going to experience these things. We’ve got to give them some place to, like….” I’m like, “I’ve been coming here for so long, you never gave me a place to decompress.” It’s just this weird thing, and it’s coming out, I think, out of whiteness. This idea that for us to learn the truth that you somehow have to mitigate it. What’s the use?

That’s where I think I find [difficulty with] some of the projects or the ways that we’re going about it. That’s my fear for this project, because it’s like, it’s twin memorials and they have all these concepts because they’re looking at other places. Of course in the study, they showed the thing in UVA, they showed these other projects, and I was like, “It’s got to come out of this place.” I think that’s the work. If I can go to the blah, blah, blah, and understand that it’s not as simple as the architect who put their name in the corner of the building. We tried to do this in Washington, D.C., I’m going to say it, I don’t know who’s going to listen to this, for the [American Institute of Architects] headquarters. We were hired to work on that.

One of the pieces—we’re right next to the Capitol—and there’s an old colonial house, the Octagon House, right across from this brutalist building. And so there’s this really interesting juxtaposition of time. We have this colonial time and we have this Midcentury Modernist time. I was like, “Wow, this is really cool.”

I designed these walls and I put all the names of the slaves who built the capitol on the wall because I was like, “Architecture never talks about its labor. Wouldn’t it be great if you came to this place to learn about architects and, actually, labor was just presented?” [Laughs] “Oh, this isn’t in the right place. Dadadada”…. I’m like, “Really?” I said, “really?” So it’s hard for people to— That dialectic. The dialectic. It’s really hard for people to, I don’t know, to give that up. And to me, it’s not giving it up. It’s actually freeing yourself.

SB: Yeah. You stare at it head-on to deal with it and then—

WH: Free yourself.

SB: Yeah. What we’re talking about here in part is memory. Given that you’ve done so much in the public realm, so much of which has to do with collective memory, could you talk a bit about this aspect in your work? How do you create for a multitude of truths and perspectives and people? Because it’s not about the monolithic—you’re celebrating difference through your work.

WH: Well, sometimes you just can’t focus on people, and that’s to me where the place comes in. The de Young Museum is a good example of that where we were hired with Herzog [& de Meuron] to design this museum, and we pretty much only had a forecourt and a sliver between the buildings. Over time, we ended up with two donor gardens at either ends. They’re very different because I had two clients. But the thing that I got really interested in was the creation of the park. It wasn’t a story that I presented to people. This was just my own digging. The park was a giant sand dune. They basically had to figure out the botany, the horticulture, to change the sand dune.

[John] McLaren—I think it was McLaren—he went to Europe because the Dutch and others were experimenting with this process of taking beaches and sand dunes and turning them into land. There’s a whole process because Olmsted came out, was like, “You guys are stupid, prevailing winds. You should do your thing up here. You should not build a park,” because of what it would take. They had to literally cut the tops of mountains, bring in topsoil. They had to start with grass first, then they had to start with perennials before they could even draw trees, and so for a long time, this landscape was becoming. I got really fascinated with this.

They started getting donations from places where they were having relationships with, like, Australia. Australia was giving them Australian tree ferns. And the Japanese Tea Garden gets built. They get these maples and they start their own botanical garden and horticulture place. I’m like, “Huh.” All the vegetation at the de Young is from a quarter mile around the museum, and everything on the ground when you look down is about the sand. That’s pretty much all we say to them. It’s a place where people come in and there’s something going on—they don’t know it—but I don’t need to talk about people. I can talk about this place.

That, to me, is where that some projects liberate themselves, where, it’s just giving people a different way to see the place that they’re in that creates the bind.

When I ask people, they go the de Young, I can ask a Black person, a white person, Italian, whatever, they’re having this experience of that place unfettered by race, class, and some of these other things. That’s very few and far between, and that’s where the institutions, I think, do really well. Museums have become these new public places where people can come in. You have this freedom of artistry to make a place that can reference many things. The Broad, a big fiction. Olive trees on top of a parking deck. There’s a tunnel underneath. Of course—it’s L.A.

There’s a kind of a thing going there and seeing people taking selfies with trees. But that’s L.A., right? Or Jackson, Wyoming, where on the side of this hill we just made a quarter-mile-long, twenty-foot-wide terrace. It’s like you see the landscape and it just blows your mind, but they didn’t see it before because they had a parking lot. So sometimes it’s just that freedom—of getting people to understand where they are—can have this amazing impact. The last time I was in Jackson, the museum had put together for me to do a walk, just along this thing. They invited these young Latino students because their fathers and mothers are probably the workers in the hotels and everything. I was taken by these kids.

They just came up to me and they were like, “How did you become…?” They were just so inquisitive, and it was awesome because they were unfettered by who they were, why they were here.

They were just like, “Wow, we’re on the side of this hill, and you did this.” I think they couldn’t imagine that I could do something that wouldn’t have race in it. You can kind of feel it. It was kind of a liberating moment for me.

SB: It’s not about that.

WH: Right. It’s about just being here. Then they were just really inquisitive. “How do you get to a place to do this?” I was reading from them—it’s like, freedom. Because they don’t see a lot of people like me doing this kind of work.

I do think it’s that moment where that freedom can happen with the medium, but you have to have a client who’s willing—that’s where these institutions become really important—and the client is not hitting you over the head with some programmatic or some pedagogical objective that they think the project should have, which, more and more in public landscapes, that’s kind of what you’re getting.

It’s like, “Oh no, we got to honor these five people. We got to do all this. We got to do all this, and we got to make it maintenance-free.” It’s like, “Really? Why can’t it just be about shade?” Because it’s really hot out here. Sometimes it’s really pushing against it, but more and more, it’s that space that you’re given so that you can have this kind of freedom to talk about place.

SB: I think some of this also ties—and you’ve talked about this—to language and using language as a tool for freeing up new ideas. 

WH: Yeah.

SB: In preparing for this, I heard you reference all these different phrases that I wanted to mention here, one of which is “vague terrains.” It’s a J.B. Jackson phrase. Your book also notes “prophetic aesthetics” which is a phrase that I’ve seen credited to B. Ruby Rich. She’s written a lot about that. I saw another interview where you referenced Svetlana Boym’s book The Future of Nostalgia, where she uses the terms “reflective nostalgia” and “restorative nostalgia.” I mean, these are such great terms. [Laughter] “Vague terrains.”

WH: I’m a sucker for terms. [Laughs

SB: Yeah, “vague terrains,” “prophetic aesthetics.” What do you think they offer you as a landscape architect, and how do you engage language in your work?

WH: Well, language is really important. I’m trying to finish this book—hopefully it’s done next year—on hybrid landscapes. This has been cooking for quite a while. My work started out with this idea of improvisation and really looking at the African cultural arts.

SB: You had an early book in the nineties, right?

WH: Yeah, and really trying to work through that. Then I saw that it was kind of almost too broad. Every time I brought up improvisation, people would be like, “Oh, did you listen to jazz music while you design?” 

SB: [Laughs]

WH: Then I figured that landscape architects were not—or the profession—was not theoretically inclined or not even interested in this place of critique, per se, and that we were more associated with these typologies. Even if you ask a landscape architect a typology, they’ll tell you an orchard is a typology. I’m talking about a postcolonial typology, like a plaza, a square, a street, a park—that’s an American invention—the wilderness. These are typologies that are colonial. And now they’re postcolonial, and we somehow covet them to a certain degree.

SB: The term placemaking.

WH: Yeah. That suggests that nothing’s there. Even the use of place is so broad, and it’s not even coming from place—the word for morphological or typological unit out of Spain. I started hearing how these typologies were just used in a way that they just didn’t have any power to them anymore. Like a parklet. A park could be anything now. You could have a park inside your basement here, right? Oh, come into my park. No one would question it. Which means then if I’m designing something out in the landscape and I’m calling it a park, I’m not even interested in this definition anymore. That got me interested in this notion, then, of, how do I move away from these typologies? That means language. I have to figure out a way to call them other things. That’s where the “vague terrain” comes in. 

When I first read that, I was like, “Oh, these were the kind of spaces I played in as a kid.” The old power line, they just left it. Or someone who just didn’t hack the weeds in their backyard and left a stand of things. These were just these places that were undifferentiated as far as typological. There were no names on them per se. Some people might call them vacant lots. Then I started seeing that, when I got a project, and if I disagreed with the client, I had to have another way to talk about the project. Then I became really interested in, one, just changing the typology. If someone was like, “Why don’t you design this park?” And say, the space is, it was an old house, it was a residential lot, and now they want a park. I’m like, “What if we made it a garden?”

It immediately changed the conversation. “Ah, never thought of that being a garden.”

And then the garden can be whatever you want to make it to a certain degree, but it’s got to have some botanical stuff in it. But it doesn’t have this prescriptive set of objectives to it. Same thing with streets. When you call it a “streetscape” you’re forced then to think of trees and pits, versus thinking of it as a landscape. Then we started coming up with just different names for projects, like the Solar Strand, and it’s coming out of landscape. It’s a long, linear thing. Oh, it’s a strand. So let’s call it the Solar… And that then became a way. It’s like people then start saying it, “Oh, Walter. Walter’s building the Solar Strand.” It’s like, “Got you.” It’s all of a sudden then that becomes a way.

Then hearing people reference, “Oh, Plaza Park.” [Editor’s note: Hood is referring to Plaza de Cesar Chavez, in San Jose, California, designed by George Hargreaves.] It’s like, “Well, why is it compound? Ah, it was a plaza at one time.” Then people wanted to be green because homeless people were here, or something was happening here and they wanted it to change. then I ran across Homi Bhabha’s work and others linguistically who talked about linguistics. There’s these formal and informal hybrids in linguistics. The formal basically creates double negatives and they never co-join. They’re just there, butting heads. You hear that sometimes in language. Then there is the informal. These are new words, new meanings—and that’s where you can go. My book is about these early projects which are formal hybrids. I think the work today is probably more informal hybrids, which is seeking these new terms, new words, and new ways to talk about landscape.

SB: You touched on it so I want to return to it, the “vague terrain” of your youth. [Laughs] Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. Could you speak about your mother, father, what your childhood was like, and maybe go a bit more into that vague terrain?

WH: My father was in the military. So we… [for the] first part of my life, I was like 6, we were traveling all the time. A stint in Fontainebleau, France, near the Black Forest. Going into weekends with my mother and father, I remember going into Pigalle, they called it “Pig Alley.” This was where the Black soldiers could go and dance, and I would go in and dance at night. So there are these vague memories of that part. Then we moved to Charlotte when I was very young, and my mom was like, “I’m not traveling anymore.” So my father had to…. Literally, he still had to go to Fort Benning, Georgia [Editor’s note: Fort Benning is now Fort Moore], then Texas or whatever, and he just basically commuted. My mom was like, “I ain’t going anywhere.”

We grew up in a segregated neighborhood in Charlotte, on Moretz Avenue. Behind our house was a power line right of way, and it must’ve been like two hundred, three hundred feet wide. I just remember our backyard being really big. We had two dogs and we must’ve had, at least a quarter acre? More? And my dad basically would plant it. This is in the middle of the city. He would basically farm it. Then every Saturday, my mom would say, “Get out of the house.” Because she would clean the house. You only existed in a neighborhood. I look at it now because I’m working in Charlotte, and I always like, “God, I thought it was so big.” It was like maybe ten, twelve blocks, but that was our landscape, and you knew everyone there. And these “vague terrains” were interesting because you just knew different ways to different places.

To go to the store for my mom, I could go out of the house, cut through my neighbor’s yard—someone had pierced the fence—hit the right of way, go down the right of way and come back around. If I wanted to be more public, I could come around the other way and walk down the street, which was boring. There were all of these places. We had the parachute tree, [which] was a stand of trees that they were probably Ligustrums or something where you could climb the tree and grab the branch and jump out and it would take you down. It was just crazy stuff—the creeks. But it was just this undeveloped land, leftover land because of right of ways, because of buried creeks, all of these things we know that happened in those segregated neighborhoods. That was pretty much my youth.

I never thought about it being segregated until we went to the suburbs. I was in high school and it was like, “Ah, it’s a different world out here,” which was completely different. There were no more “vague terrains.” It was new. It was a landscape that seemed that it was just created. I know it was probably twenty, thirty years old, and as soon as we moved in, all the whites moved out. It was that moment where, “Okay, now I understand.” Then once a month we would get in the car and go to my grandmother’s house, ninety miles away, outside of Raleigh to Fuquay-Varina, and this was, like, woods. I mean, this was country outhouse, seventies, eighties outhouse. It was just like, “Okay, this is really…. Everything’s a ‘vague terrain.’” That was kind of the upbringing.

Which, again, when I think about it, even today, it was a very special moment in time because it was the seventies and the eighties which was a product of a progressiveness in the Black community where people could actually move. They had mobility. To watch my father go from a serviceman, a butcher—he had a butcher job at night. He was at the EVAC station during the day because he was giving soldiers their medical exams. We lived in the projects. I remember [we] lived in projects for a couple years, and they were able to buy a little house. Then, fifteen years later being able to go to the suburbs and buy a bigger house.

That was a very clear trajectory that stayed in my brain. I was the first one to go to college. Well, to stay in college.

That trajectory…. I always felt this trajectory. I think a lot of that has put me in the trajectory that I’ve been where it’s like education, education, education. You literally have to keep— There’s a trajectory. There is no flattening.

SB: Well, then you had this profound moment in high school where you saw this drafting class and the teacher—

WH: Was a brother.

SB: … it turned out, was Black.

WH: Yeah, was a brother, and went to the H.B.C.U. who didn’t force me, but he convinced me to go there. There were these moments. But there was always this incline though. It didn’t feel like we’re pushing the rock up the hill, but there was always this thing of there’s more expected. This is not the end. That’s where I get around people where this futile mentality— I never can be in that head space because I was always brought up…. My grandmother would always say, “Get as much education as you can.” She would always say that. When I was very [young] I never understood what she meant, but what she meant was no one can take that away from you, at a certain point. You define your own self.

But those are things that, as you get older, you go, “Why am I this way? How did I end up this way?” A lot of that is through that experience that you have in a place.

SB: Yeah. I did want to mention here, your education might’ve started maybe on the more technical side, but you went on to get your M.F.A. at the Art Institute [of Chicago].

WH: Finally, finally. Yeah. Finally.

SB: [Laughs] I would say in that process, you also built sort of a liberal-arts approach to your worldview, your understanding of things, that wasn’t necessarily given to you straight away through your education. It was something that kind of evolved. And your approach as a designer is also this one of nuance and subtlety that I think really comes out of this liberal-arts line of thinking. You aren’t creating super-corporate things, you’re also not creating Instagram moments. You aren’t doing things that are overly theatrical. This is not work that screams out for attention.

WH: And that’s been the critique at times.

SB: But it does carry this profound meaning. I think it’s this meaning that can only be found, or not only but predominantly can be found through the kind of inquiry that you find through liberal-arts education, through an arts education as well, like you got at the Art Institute. To those who pay attention to your design and really engage the work that you do, I think that there are these revelations that occur.

WH: I hope so. I always like to say we don’t do pink chairs. Right? It’s like, if I gotta paint it pink, I’m not doing my work. If I have to—

SB: Unless there’s a reason to paint it pink.

WH: Right. But you know what I mean. It’s kind of like, how do you make a work that you don’t need to talk about? I’ve had these amazing people in my life, like Giancarlo De Carlo, which I hardly ever talk about, but I spent three summers, actually, in his presence in Urbino, Siena. Two summers in Urbino and one in Sienna. He would just say these things that he just stayed with you. He’d say these things like, “If you take something away, you have to put it back.” [Laughs] He just would say these little things. And the way his architecture was different than any other architecture I had seen before….

It was coming out of the Corbusian, that Midcentury Modern, but he was really interested in people and place. He would go to a place and he’d be walking, and before you knew it, the whole town’s walking with him. But it was that kind of Pied Piper mentality. We went to one project in Catania when he did this restoration, and it just seemed normal. He took us behind and they had rewired the place because they modernized it. The wiring was so fucking immaculate, but that was the place where he put the time. I was like, “Wow.” Then he said something where it was like, “Scarpa. If the hand cannot touch it, it’s not architecture,” or something like that. And then I started noticing Scarpa projects on railings, the wood. There’s this amazing kind of—

SB: Tactile.

WH: Tactile. But a conversation with knowing where that moment would happen, and it’s not a visual thing.

It’s not, “Look at my building.” It’s, “Experience my building.” And that’s something that I really—

SB: It’s like haptic.

WH: Yeah, [that] I really like. It’s like you want that thing where people are sitting there and it’s like, “Fuck. The sun is in my face.” Right? Where there’s that moment of revelation. It’s not much, but you just did something.

SB: You walk into the Pantheon.

WH: Yeah, yeah. Right?

SB: Right. It’s a hole in the ceiling.

WH: It’s a fucking hole. It’s a great hole, right? But those are those moments.

SB: [Laughs] Yeah.

WH: And they’re few and far between. The fountain at IAAM, I have to say, I hadn’t seen it working. We were there doing the opening, and that’s one of those moments where everything disappeared and people were like, “Huh, what’s this? There’s no sign.” Then the water receding, people were like, “Holy shit.” Then the security guard is telling people something, and it’s wrong, but it’s great. Then someone comes up to me and was like, “Man, I love those bones. Man, I like how you did the bones. The bones are just different.” Someone else came up to me.

In that one weekend, I had at least a dozen interpretations. I was like, “Awesome. That’s so cool.” Of course the museum was like, “Walter, we need you to tell people….” I’m like, “No!” [Laughs]

SB: Well, yeah. I mean, actually, I want to end on this question because, to me, this is the crux of your work, and it’s what I love about your work. I think it’s also what makes your work so special is this power of abstraction, that you move away from these literal or figurative interpretations. You’re not hitting people over the head with the thing. You’re actually embracing ambiguity. Could you talk about that? Why embrace ambiguity and what comes out of that? If we could all embrace the ambiguity a little more, what do you think?

WH: Well, we started out talking about difference. To me, that is the quintessential thing: to allow difference to pervade our lives where everything is, “Well, is that there because of this?” Everything’s in question because everything is in conversation. There’s no resolution. For a long time I used to think about resolution and just this kind of visual thing. I tell my students, “Squint. Come on.” All of that. But this resolution of this junk, incongruency, that we have this over our head. It’s like, “Things should line up. Things should be the same.” All of this.

If you put a ketchup bottle in the middle of mayonnaise, it’s like, “Wow, there’s a red thing.” You know what I mean? It’s just this wonderful thing that could happen because it’s then calling attention to uncertainty, to the precarious aspect of life to a certain degree.

I love the idea that things can mean many things to different people, and that’s the beauty. When I heard this guy, this security guard talking, giving his description, I was like, “That’s fine.” He’s like, “No, tell me.” And I’m like, “No, you got it right, man.” Of course, he’s just making it up, and he’s like—

SB: Well, what do you think it is? Right? And that’s—

WH: Yeah. He’s like, “Oh, these are the dead people who died here.” I mean, literally he’s like, “These are the people who died right here.” I’m like, “That’s good.” Then some people are like, “This is an abstract thing on Atlantic Crossing.” “That’s good.” “Oh, this is the blah, blah, blah.” “That’s all good.” And it’s all of those things, right? Because I can’t think of one design I’ve designed that says, “That means that.” That’s a lot to put on a move. It’s like, “This means this.”

Of course you see designs where people think, “Okay, that has a singular meaning.” But no, it doesn’t. Someone’s going to come without the sign and go, “That’s a big-ass hole.” Why would you make a hole this big? People will have their different opinions about it, but I love this idea. I call it “embracing the strange.” But things look out of place or [off-kilter] or something seems just not quite right, but I’m going in there anyway. To me, those are the places that I remember.

It’s like, you go in the Pantheon in the rain. It’s like, “Am I supposed to be in here?” Right? It’s that moment where you see people, they come in the door and go like… And then they just move in around it. It’s just this wonderful thing. I think design has that ability to put us in these spaces and allow us to be in those spaces, unfettered, but in a way that we want to be, which I think is a very optimistic way of thinking about it. But it also suggests that everybody’s welcome, and there’s a place for everyone under the sun.

SB: Walter, thank you.

WH: No, thank you, man, for these revelations.



This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on November 2, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Hazen Mayo, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Adrienne Eberhardt.