Walter was a keynote speaker at the recent MESH conference held in Melbourne. He is the Principal of Hood Design in Oakland California and is trained both as a landscape architect and as an architect. Walter is also Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. His presentation focused on the revitalisation of urban communities.
Kerb: Your lecture today seemed to show a real concern for the pragmatic in design. Do you find your emphasis is on simplicity rather than theory in your work?
Walter: Yes, but think it is a misconception to discount or discredit the theoretical in doing work that is humanist and tied to the community. I lecture in other venues where I talk about my work through a theoretical lens. I think that’s the hard part of design. The stuff that your professors are teaching is trying to give you a strong grounding in the history and theory of the profession and to me, the smart designers are the people that are able to make that connection, to somehow bring their own experiences and their own way of looking at things into play. Then you don’t have to talk about it.
It’s part of the way you see the world and think about it …it’s integral … A lot of my own work is rooted in object theory and in a lot of the French post modernist theorists who talk about the notion of objects that we have in the environment and how people respond to them. I believe that from a chair to a box on the street we interact with those things in different ways and how you place them in the environment can create a dynamic. You have to think about it in it the context of what you’re doing. The work may seem simple on the one hand but …I didn’t really mean to demean the work at all by saying that… no, I don’t take any offence to it. We can talk about this notion of simplicity but as you work, you try to reduce it so it does seem simple. Then in that simplicity is amazing complexity that one can’t see unless you’re part of that process, so think you’re dead-on in thinking about it in those terms. think that everyone tries to get to that point where it just seems so deliberate, kind a of a no-brainer. ‘Oh this iS where its arrived at, it must be the answer.’ It takes a long time to get to that point, and you throw a lot of stuff out.
K: Einstein once said that things should be as simple as they can be and no simpler, would you agree that this statement embodies some of the work you showed?
W: Yes, in my younger career thought you should do something including the kitchen sink in it. I think I made a statement yesterday. about how I want people to feel that this means this and this means that…and we’re making a park! I mean god, I’m out there with my woman and just want to have some sun on my face and have a picnic, I don’t want to feel guilty, you know what mean?
K: I do know what you mean and I actually really appreciated that about it.
W: There are places for that, to bring those various aspects of our society into the way that we live, and in that way we learn our history. There are places for that. In the everyday we are bombarded with so much that sometimes…just shut up you know and just let me be.
K: Often we are encouraged to bring those ideas of theory and history right into the face of the general public. In your work are you comfortable with not bringing that, forcing that…
W: That is the sign of a really good designer that you’re able to understand when to let go and what to say and how to say it. Instead of this overly didactic construction…” will someone get it?“â€¦and I find they don’t get it. Meaning to me comes through this amazing kind of collective consciousness that one might have to a place, to a people, to a thing, and I don’t have to write the narrative out.
K: It’s much more important that sort of association than something imposed - a fashion trend or something that’s happening at the time?
W: Yes, you start to see timelessness when you look at good architecture or good landscape, it’s not something that you can reference to a time it just lasts forever. For example, Villa Savoye, even some of the Italian gardens, a lot of the Moorish gardens are timeless. A lot of them were built up out of allegorical constructions that were really strong because everyone got it - if it was a calmness, a pool in the Moorish garden, or a place to pray. Or if it was an understanding of the villa and the extension of the countryside or if it was about just strolling; these things are tied to how we live, how we play and our beliefs, and those things are timeless.
K: It’s interesting that those things still work, even if you’re foreign.
W: Yes, because somehow they’re able to tap into something that is universal. When you see something beautiful and you experience something beautiful it hits you, right? And that’s what you strive for… to find that thing. You know that project I showed you with the double row of purple trees? Well this woman came out and she looks at these things, ‘WHY are you planting those things?”, and she went back in and we’d planted maybe eighteen of these things and she came out later and said, ‘OH, this is a like a room.’ That’s the kind of simplicity mean. a She got it. It’s a room. She could step in she could step out, whereas before, there were no rooms out there in the landscape, there were just things to look at. All of a sudden she could occupy the space so the work for me was done. Some things seem straight forward, but if you put them in a context where they are not or they’re not familiar they can easily become familiar to people. To me that is the power of, again, thinking about theory, thinking about history, and trying to understand those things and the placement of those things.
K: Just going back one step what is the work that you do with communities, how do you become involved with them, how do you discover what their concerns are?
W: Well, first of all in America it is a mandate! It’s public work. You can’t do a public park without engaging communities, there is a public process. It has been since the early sixties. That’s fantastic. Fantastic to a certain degree. The law basically says that everyone has the right to comment, so contracts are written. You must have two community meetings, at least two. So you draw up something, send out fliers for a meeting, no- one shows up and there’s one meeting, or, people come and you say ‘well this is what I’m gonna do what do you think?’ A lot of people do it that way. I find the thing that I try to do with communities is to understand what the scenario is for me and it’s always purpose. Landscape is always fighting ground. It is tabula rasa. There is nothing there, everyone one wants to impose upon it, it’s the cheapest, it’s the clearest to see, it’s the quickest to appropriate. People can appropriate it because it’s public. A lot of it is public so you are trying to get people to buy into or accept a vision that’s based on their needs, and that’s design. Its not saying ‘OK, you need this, you need this, you need this, OK, I’m going to give you that.’ It’s to say ‘Ok this is what you want I can take that, think about it and get to the Gestalt and give rise to some larger thing that might not contain that thing you asked for but it’s taking it somewhere else.’
W: Not quite, lets say, we go to a meeting a and you say you a want a place for your kids, a place to go jump, a place to play basketball, these ubiquitous things. I come in and say I’m going to give you guys a hill, because this hill is about your life it’s about your children’s future. It encompasses all these things, and besides the stuff that you want; it’s there, here it is over here, but its not the kind you think, and based on what I’ve heard from you this is your dream; you just can’t articulate it because you don’t know how. We know how to articulate that and that’s the thing you try to find. I use the term Gestalt. Somehow you have to take these disparate things and put them together and find meaning, and a lot of people think it’s just about putting the basketball court next to the…no, it’s about finding something else.
K: A potential, rather than an actual?
W: Yes, that’s based on landscape, and based on our understanding of the city, of the place. Most people can’t see the forest for the trees. They want that thing and we’re more concerned with forest. I’m trying to say the forest is important. We have to find what that forest is, and that’s the hard part. That’s the hard part, because, when you miss it, you miss it big. You have to be sure to hit it, because that’s the move, that’s the thing that you’re getting people to buy into. That’s what makes it design, and I tell my students that. Design is not something that you know. Design is process. You might have some sort of framework but you never know, and that’s design and that’s what makes it so amazing because you’re constantly evolving. Eduard Bru talked about it yesterday, he thought he had it in the beginning with the diagram - but no he missed it, he came back to it until he found it. The thing with communities though, is you have to find a way to be articulate and that’s the hard part.
K: A way of presenting?
W: I do a lot of different things, one of the things I try to do with communities is to be as non- professional as possible. At the start of a meeting I just talk and people are surprised, you know, ‘What? He’s talkin’ to us?’ We can communicate and that’s the part of communications.
K: I heard someone describe the lecture as the non-elitist one, the one that connected with the non-landscape architect.
W: Well, that brings up the notion of equity. I totally believe that if I’m working for a rich client or a poor client that I act in the same way, and that is my responsibility. Lots of people are very quick to cast me as someone who only works with poor people or black people and that’s a failure on a their part to understand this whole issue of equity. Someone came up to me yesterday and said I’m working with this Aboriginal community but I don’t know what to do. It’s like what do you mean you don’t know what to do? That shouldn’t even get touched on.
K: But if they said if they were working with the community and didn’t know what do, it’s a different case?
W: But we find ourselves out of our context and out of contact very quickly, based on class, based on race, based on culture, and once you do that you’ve lost the game already. I mean I work on the museum in San Francisco for one of the richest non-profits in the bay area. The Boss there comes to one of my community meetings because it’s in his neighbourhood and it’s totally different work, but he sees me working in the same way in both places. It’s less tiring, less frustrating for me because I work one way. don’t have to change it. In America, particularly with people of colour we always had to act in that way, you know, when I went off to school my father said you have to do things twice as well as the next person. I always had to think about whites as well as blacks, whites never had to think about blacks as well as being white. So already you start out with a totally different worldview, because of your handicap, because you are caught up in this multiplicity of cultures. As I’ve got older it becomes a pattern, you just operate like that.
So to me difference has never been this black and white reduction it’s just something I’ve had to do. So even when I’m working with other cultures, whether they’re European or whatever it never comes into play, but if you’ve always had to deal in a homogenous society in a singular existence it’s an issue, and you’ve got to get over it. That’s your issue I mean you have to figure what you’re gonna do, and that’s hard, I mean you have to relearn how to deal with it.
K: Yesterday there was a question raised about the consequences of gentrification, could you talk a bit more about your response?
W: Anytime we intervene in a place it’s because change is occurring or we want change to occur, in all the presentations we saw. One of my mentors Garrett Eckbo always told me, landscape architects are called in to change. If there’s no change we don’t get any calls. So change isn’t the product, it’s the by product. So I have to then step back and say, I’m working in an impoverished place, if I change it this way it will get better, if I change in this way it won’t. To me that’s the argument
K: With that process if you are doing community consultation and you have a landscape which is responsive to the needs of that community, but then in the process that community has had to leave for some reason, do you feel that what you have done has contributed to that situation?
W: Again it’s the context. Say I’m working in Oakland, lets say 90% rent, 75% are below poverty level, and 85% are African American. I come and do a state government project that improves all the public spaces in that area. In turn once all this work is done, land values start to increase. Now, people who own land but don’t live there all of a sudden see the economic realities of this and decide to sell their places, and of course the people who live there can’t afford to buy them, so a new gentry comes in, therefore gentrification takes place. Now, am I wrong for improving that landscape? No. If I back up and say, ‘If I improve this landscape gentrification will happen’. Do I walk away from this project? It’s the chance I have to take.
Nine times out of ten if I’m doing that public landscape have the belief that its for the health, welfare and long term ecological improvement of this place and that would be the only reason I would do it. Landscape architecture cannot solve a lot of the economic and political issues of cities, cities will always change and are always in a state of flux. Particularly in America, property values and property rights are part of that. Landscape can for those people who are able to sustain themselves in that environment, it can validate their inclusion. Meaning that they’re there, you can work with them and provide amenities and things that they can respond to, but as far as being able to make sure that they can compete economically…? I mean just understand my limitations, unless I want to become a politician. There are a lot of limitations that one has to understand with landscape architecture, and it’s hard because there is so much political and economic issues tied up in how we work and the things that we do, but think we have to be real. You will get a lot of bleeding heart liberals that will come to the table and say you shouldn’t do that because it will cause gentrification, but they’re willing to let those neighbourhoods stay in decay which I find just bullshit. It’s the paradox of the city, in the 19th century when people got enough money to get the hell out they got out. When the city became a resource, they came back because they could. The poor always get pushed around because we live in class-based society. Every project I have with the public is always loaded.
K: How do you deal with this? How do you keep your patience?
W: You can’t let program bog you down, landscape is totally different to architecture program and landscape changes. One day we want baseball fields, the next year we want forests. Twenty years later they’ll cut the forest down and make baseball fields. Central Park is this amazing thing Olmsted did. In the fifties the park commissioner came along and said we need baseball fields. They put baseball fields in these big drains, but you know twenty years from now someone might say baseball is stupid, let’s make sheep grazing area. The key is, Olmsted recognised that you have to make these open spaces, these meadows, the meadow can then hold a field, it can hold all these things, but the meadow is the landscape. It’s the framework that’s holding this thing together. It’s not the program.
That’s always the hard thing to get my students to understand that there’s a difference between program and fun. You want your fun to be as non-objective as possible. Tie it back down to this larger thing because when you think about the program it’s not what we engage in, it changes with the wind. You can’t be obsessed with this one thing, like dog parks. Ten years from now we’ll be obsessed with something else. You make a landscape that has a structure that is able to take change, it’s like the Fens that are able to take that kind of change. That’s one of the things we’re always thinking about. If we take out the program do we have something? You know, get rid of all the junk. That’s the key. If you don’t have anything you never will, it’s that simple. Take out all that little stuff, the benches, the lights, the garbage cans, what do you have? I mean that’s the litmus test, that stuff is just accoutrements and that’s when landscape becomes really hard. Again it goes back to what are we making?