Landscape architecture used to be the redheaded stepchild of design, looked down upon by haughty architects as window dressing, and poo-pooed by urban planners as merely prettying-up. Not any more: The discipline has become front and center to efforts to create sustainable cities. That’s in part thanks to success of designs such as the High Line; the recurring problem of beautiful buildings surrounded by horrifying expanses of concrete; and brilliant men such as Walter Hood.
Our own Dan Macsai gives a taste of what makes Hood excellent, in this profile for our 2010 Masters of Design issue:
A designer who tackles the mundane things of this world may not seem revolutionary at a time when Michael Graves is making teapots for Target, but in landscape architecture, Hood is very much breaking new ground. For decades, modernists such as George Hargreaves, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and Peter Walker — all white, all Harvard educated — reigned over the profession with their clean-cut office parks and pristine college campuses, much in the vein of Lake Merritt. “Then Walter came of age, and nobody knew what to do with him,” says Charles Waldheim, chair of Harvard’s department of landscape architecture. “He was finding value and producing meaning in places that seemingly had none.”
Before Hood started designing Splash Pad Park in 1999, for example, it was a deserted traffic island under Oakland’s I-580 freeway. “Some people wanted it to be a dog park, others wanted an underground creek, and a few wanted something completely different,” says longtime Oakland resident Ken Katz, 67. Today, it’s all of the above — and then some. Cement tiles blanket the apron in front of an amoeba-shaped fountain, engraved with the names of the donors who made the installation possible. Grassy knolls are dotted with palm trees from the original island, as well as newly planted dogwood, a water-hungry plant that thrives off the underlying swampland. “It’s a hybrid space,” Hood says. “Everyone can find a way in.” And they do. Every Saturday, the park hosts a massively popular farmers’ market and concert series.
This is public space as Hood believes it should be: multitasking, respectful of the land, rooted in — and watered by — the community. “Think about the history of civilization,” Hood tells me, as if I’m one of his architecture students at UC Berkeley. “The agora, the piazza, the theater, the street, the Colosseum — we define ourselves in the public realm. And in America, our public realm is sad. We have to be told how to act.” He deepens his voice. “Sit here, look there, understand this, don’t walk here, don’t do that. It’s crazy.”