Hood Design Studio

Ana Miljački speaks with Walter Hood about artistic freedom, working with institutions, and succeeding through failure.

Recorded on June 21, 2021. Read a transcript of the episode below.

Walter Hood

Walter Hood is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California. He is also a professor and former chair of landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been called a “community whisperer” as well as a “contemporary prophet of landscape and public space.”

Among his accolades, Hood was a recipient of the 2017 Academy of Arts and Letters architecture award, the MacArthur Fellowship in 2019, as well as the League’s President’s Medal in 2021. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and recognized as a 2021 USA fellow.

Hood has worked with a number of different Bay Area and US institutions, as well as communities, to deliver inspired landscapes and to imbue public spaces with social justice and equity while making past and present community lifeways (as he calls them) visible.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljački: [00:02] Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I am Ana Miljački, professor of architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled I Would Prefer Not To.

I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes: refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, this type of refusal stays hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails and are not easy to examine or learn from. And yet, the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission, or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics, inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.

My guest in this episode is Walter Hood. Thank you so much for joining me, Walter.

Walter Hood: [01:13] It’s a pleasure.

Miljački: [01:15] Walter Hood is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California. He describes his Hood Design Studio as a cultural practice in which work is produced across art fabrication, design, landscape, urbanism, and research. He is also a professor and former chair of landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been called a “community whisperer” as well as a “contemporary prophet of landscape and public space.”

For his extremely varied body of work, he and his firm have received numerous accolades. I will name only the most recent ones: Walter Hood is a recipient of the 2017 Academy of Arts and Letters architecture award. 2019 Knight Public Spaces Fellowship. He received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2019, as well as Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize. In 2021, he received The Architectural League’s Presidential Medal Award. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and recognized as a 2021 USA fellow.

Walter has worked with a number of different Bay Area and US institutions, as well as communities, to deliver inspired, prophetic landscapes and to imbue public spaces with social justice and equity while making past and present community lifeways, as he calls them, visible. His piece Black Towers/Black Power was included in MoMA’s Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America in ’21, curated by Mabel Wilson and Sean Anderson, and his most recent book, Black Landscapes Matter, was published in 2020.

I hope that we will be able to discuss some aspects of Hood Design Studio’s recent work; your process of research, engagement, and improvisation; the principles that drive the work by talking first about the work you have chosen not to engage.

So, Walter, let’s start with your most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission. And if that hasn’t happened yet, then can you imagine it happening?

Hood: [03:24] [laughs] Well, it’s definitely happened. I’m trying to think of the most memorable. [laughs] I guess, the most memorable has to do with the typological parameters around a project. And it . . . probably the first decade of my practice back in the ’90s. I thought that through landscape and urbanism, we can have an impact on housing. And that’s really how I started my project, with local architects working in housing. And I slowly began to kind of see that the way practice had created process, that even coming from landscape or urbanism, we were still the last people to impact the project. And so no matter what I would do to a project, whoever was designing it through their lens, it always ended up that way. And I started thinking, you know very early in my career, we used to talk about “parsley around the pig”—It’s like, architects just want you to put the green stuff around the buildings.

And very early, I just stopped doing housing. I started to sort of see the impact my studio could have from a landscape architecture and an urbanist sort of point of view, and with housing, it was one typology that we just could not crack. And particularly when it comes to what I call pre-fixed housing, which is low-income housing. And it made me really critical even of the language, and the kind of typological marginality that had been created for that work. And so possibly for over a decade or so we just never engaged with housing projects.

Miljački: [05:18] Did you actually refuse it when invited?

Hood: [05:20] Yes, on multiple . . . And still today, we refuse to work on those types of projects. We are currently working on a few housing projects, but they’re part of a larger development idea that comes directly from a developer and not from the architect. And so we’re trying to see if that will afford us ways in which we could actually have an impact. But in most cases, when we get offers to work on housing, we decline.

Miljački: [05:55] So did that push you in a particular direction?

Hood: [05:59] No, it just freed up space to work on other kinds of projects! [laughs] You know, the design field, there’s just a lot of typological projects, and, but that was kind of the first time that I stepped back and started to realize that I could be critical about the impact of the work. And that led to me stealing something from Liz, Diller: This idea that, you know, my studio is not a service studio, and that I’m not good at doing service work. And if you want someone to put dumpsters somewhere, or to design a parking lot, that’s just not where I’m going to come, because I’m going to try to change the parking lot, I’m going to try to change the dumpsters. We are a design firm, and we deal with ideas. And once I articulated that to myself and the studio, it became clearer, then, how we choose projects.

Miljački: [06:59] Maybe we can talk a little bit about what you mean by cultural practice.

Hood: [07:09] As I was getting my MFA about a decade or so ago, late in life, I had the opportunity to critique a decade of work I had done in studio for my thesis. And it became very clear . . . which was a great opportunity to be afforded time to critique work, right? It became clear that I was more interested in places and people. And I was, in all the work, I was always trying to tease out what was the causality between people and place, and how to begin to develop a set of values and attitudes around that, so that when I worked in Chicago, it would be different than if I worked in Florida, it would be different if I work in North Carolina. And how do I go about that?

And culture, unlike social, which is more prevalent in, in our language, the way we talk about things. And the training in landscape architecture is social factors—that, you know, scientifically, you could figure people out. And that’s impossible. I mean, from a physiological point of view, maybe, but, you know, from a cultural, and a set of practices, people relate directly to their places. And so I started using culture as a way, in a way, pushing against social practice, which was emerging in the late ’90s as well, which I found more short-term, more activity-based. Where culture was much more about the past, the present, and the future. It was about digging, right? And that has become kind of a mantra in which every project, then, we’re forced to look for difference, right? And it really creates a different set of processes.

Miljački: [09:10] How do you know that you have found it?

Hood: [09:15] When every . . . When you’re done with the project, it looks strange. If there’s something weird about the project, right? That, you know, something looks out of place, something is not ordinary. And we call it strange here in the studio. [laughs] It’s like, ah, well it’s missing something, right? And that something is normally, if you open your eyes, it’s there. You just have to sort of be open to it.

And it comes in different ways. When you introduced me, you used the term “community whisperer,” and this was a woman in Pittsburgh who made that statement. And it was one of those things where, when I went to Pittsburgh, I was taken by, there were woods. And over time this neighborhood had been disinvested. I mean, there was not a lot of investment. And as we architects and landscape architects got really into the porn of ruin, right? Like around the turn of the century, right, everybody was like, “Oh, let’s, oh, you know, ruin is great!” You know, I forgot what the words were. It was almost like, you know, the greener it is, the better, no matter if the green was, right, successful or not, successional or not. And just talking to people using the terms woods, I would then use that as a way to talk to people. And most people thought I was getting at something, but I wasn’t: I was just curious. And lo and behold, that became a way to see that community, right, and trying to find those things in each place.

Miljački: [11:00] So maybe . . . you recently said in one of the, maybe it was the League conversation, that the work is plentiful, and you’re working with many institutions. And I’m wondering how you navigate that space between community whispering and institutions as clients.

Hood: [11:22] Well, institutions are communities as well, right? I mean, I think, you know, collective, collection of people. You know, recently we’ve worked, we worked with tech offices, or we’ve worked with museum institutions—I would say, that’s probably the clearest one. And now we’re working with universities, institutions. And the questions are all different questions, and it’s the questions that they’re asking that allow us to have this conversation. The tech questions was, you know, “We live in an amazing climate, why can’t we work in it?” Which I found very profound. And I ended up getting the project having that conversation with the client.

On universities, now there is a reckoning, like most places, right, to deal with these histories, and whether those histories are racist policies, or not inclusion, that’s also another set of conversations that we’re interested in, right? Because again, it begins to talk about that community, and how that community wants to reevaluate itself, or create advocacy for something that it hadn’t, you know, sort of seen or been privy to in the past.

Miljački: [12:44] Do you think there are things, sort of, there are conditions that allow them to ask questions that are also of interest to you?

Hood: [12:54] Umm, yes, I mean, this country’s George Floyd moment is, it’s just, I just keep thinking about it. It’s like, we’ve been doing this work for over 20 years. And some of the things that people are questioning now, I’m like, “Well, we were asking you to question this shit 20 years ago.” And somehow, people couldn’t hear it. And so in a way, our practice hasn’t changed. [laughs] It’s just, it seems like more people are open to the things that we’ve been saying. And that’s another thing is kind of weird, you know, that—I’ve been fired from projects. Well, one in particular . . .

Miljački: Do tell!

Hood: . . . because this . . . they thought I was doing more than what they wanted the project to do. And this was one of my first moments in my studio, I think my studio was probably like five years old, and we were asked to go to a certain place, institution, and design a garden for George Washington Carver. And it was a very weird, one, kind of proposal. And I’m just going to be frank: They asked, they invited three Black designers to come to their place, and they had us charette, and then they chose which person did the charrette or did the best thing that they were interested in, and they selected me. And I’m talking to the other Black folk, I was like, “This is weird as hell, right?” And so I then asked one of them to actually work with me on the project. And then I got fired. [laughs]

And it was, the parameters was to create a commemorative piece for George Washington Carver. I did research and I found a PhD, here, their thesis here in Berkeley, where they had looked at his research. And this student in particular had posed the question, was George Washington Carver gay? Because they characterize his work, or his science, as having a feminine kind of projection, where he talked to, you know, the, the potato, or he talked to the peanut, and he would just like: “What do you want to be?” I mean, that was the way he approached science. And I thought that was just really wonderful.

And so I proposed a root wall, which was a set of mounds that I had snaking through this landscape. And I wanted school kids to come with a root or seed from something, and they would place it in this, this wavy landform, and every spring, something different would come out. [laughs] And I thought that that would be, like, holy shit, that would be, like, so amazing, right?

They thought I was crazy. So literally, between me presenting this, getting on an airplane, flying back to California, I get a phone call, it’s like, “I think we’re going in a different direction.” And they ended up with a statue, basically.

But that was one of the first times that I stood by kind of a design proposal. And at first, I was shocked and hurt. But then it, again, I called a few colleagues, and they were like, “Is this your first time?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And this one person said, “Get over it.” And this was a mentor of mine who is pretty well known. I won’t mention his name. But um, but it gave me this kind of resilience, right? That ideal work, you know, it’s your ideas, and you cannot, how can I say, shy away. If you believe in the ideas, you cannot shy away, because, just because this one group could not hear you, or, or see and understand what you’re doing. It doesn’t mean that another group might.

And to me, that allowed me to fail in this wonderful way when I failed. The failure actually led to almost a kind of notebook of ideas. And again, you know, those ideas I was proposing then, I can propose now, and people will be like, “Oh, yes, let’s do it now!” So it’s almost like, we’re incubating ideas for this moment right now. Right? [laughs]

Miljački: [17:54] That’s a lovely way to think about refusal, right? Can I maybe ask you about, well, what are the conditions in which you are able to do your best work, anywhere across that spectrum?

Hood: [18:12] The conditions that are best is, is when you’re giving freedom. Freedom, you’re just giving freedom. And it’s really tough, because you know, as a person of color, as someone whose work has been defined as being community-based, participatory-led, you know, all of those adjectives suggest that it has to be this democratic . . . everything is democratic. Meaning that before I do something, 110 people have to sign off on it. And it becomes the common denominator.

And I think that’s, that’s a fallacy when we think about design. I think one can have a democratic process, but at the end of the day, any artist, you need freedom to actually do what you do.

And this is something I can’t articulate. I can only show you the work: “This is what the work looks like if it’s unimpeded and it’s allowed to happen. This is what it can look like.” And people are drawn to it. And then you get in the process, and they’re, like, trying to control the process. And I’m like, “But you’re not going to get what you saw!”

And that’s another thing that has been coming up is, like, the other refusal that I’m beginning to learn is: We can’t work with groups who have prescriptive ways of doing community participation. It just doesn’t work, because they’re very scripted, and I’m unscripted. And so, they think that they’re looking at the work and going: “Oh, he did this great community project!” But what I’m trying tell them is, you can’t script it. There has to be a level of pragmatism—a level of, how can I say, fear. Because we don’t really know what the thing looks like, right? And so, in a way, risk is really part of that as well.

And that’s where the portfolio, I keep telling people, that’s why the portfolio is there. You look at the portfolio. And so you can’t then expect me to tell you what this thing is going to be in the end. I might give you some parameters, but you have to really trust us.

Miljački: [20:38] Maybe let’s talk about parameters. I wanted to ask you about how both the notion of research and of improvisation connect to what you just described as a kind of giving of freedom and having freedom in both directions. But also, if not a prescriptive engagement process, how would you describe what needs to be there for it to produce the kind of space for risk-taking and effect that you’re interested in?

Hood: [21:12] Well, one is . . . abstraction, I think, is overrated when we talk about abstraction, that people say, “Those ideas are too abstract for people to understand.” And this is why I love improv, this term improvisation, I’ve always used it, but I use it more in a way to talk about taking something old and familiar and reshaping it into something new and contemporary. And to me, that’s where the research comes in. That’s where the history is aligned. And this is where that linchpin is. It’s like the woods in Pittsburgh: Taking something so mundane and using that in a different way to get you someplace else.

And that’s hard for a lot of people, particularly those who are bound to these kind of typological restraints. In Pittsburgh, I was telling people, “The hill is no different than a nineteenth-century suburb.” And I did all this research comparing biomass, all of these things, between these nineteenth-century streetcar suburbs outside of Pittsburgh and this impoverished successional landscape right downtown. The one downtown had turkeys, had wildlife, it had this amazing terrain, overgrown, people were living on, you know, and people just living in, in deep woods. And people could not—well, in America, this became an issue, because all of a sudden, then, I was trying to get people to somehow look past class and race. And they could not do that. Because those typologies were too privileged in one place. And so in the, in the urban landscape, they want to re-densify—“We got to make it what it was!” But it was a frickin’ ghetto before. Come on. But you know, no one wants to see that. It’s like, just keep making that.

And so those are, you know, that’s the place where improvisation allows me to try to be clear about something. But again, I think, in our culture, which, we’re still in a postcolonial, non-hyphenated moment, and so sameness is something that’s really hard to get by, right. And I started with difference. And so improvisation is trying to get things different, right? And that’s what we’re always pushing up against.

Miljački: [24:17] I’ve been thinking about the series of projects that I would call all witnesses. Not all of them are called witness projects. But I feel like, I saw the Chicago trees this last year, but then there’s also Witness Walls in Nashville, the Coastlines in California, which also struck me as a kind of, different kind of witness. But I’m wondering, sort of, how you think about these in relationship to this notion of lifeways? Is there, how would you, you know, how would you articulate that relationship?

Hood: [24:52] Well, the witness interest came about, we were working in Washington, DC, 20 years ago on the Mall, there was a few . . . Maybe it was like, maybe 15 years ago with Diller Scofidio on the Mall. And we came across this one thing. The National Park Service has this thing called Witness Trees. And in DC it’s any tree along the Mall, somehow you can’t take away, because they’ve witnessed our, our history. Right? They’ve witnessed 10 presidents, you know—it’s like, wow, that’s kind of interesting. And it kind of stuck with me for a long time. And every now and then I’ll return.

And it turned out in Chicago, there is a project being done by the Field Museum, where they are cataloging all the oak trees that were used when Illinois was laid out. And they used oak trees as benchmarks. And so now they’re trying to find all the trees that helped stake out the state. I was like, wow, that’s kind of cool! Right? And so again, using the medium as a way to think about the past in ways that, you know, some cultural groups do, you know. Africans that, you know, sitting under the tree, the old men under the tree telling stories. But it’s this idea that these spaces that people have inhabited at some point in time can speak to you. And, you know, and being from the South, I have this proclivity, you know, to get into, I guess, my roots of like, storytelling. Like my grandmother, you know, my uncle, they would tell these stories that really were rooted in landscape. And so, then these witness projects then have become a projection of ways in which to tell stories, but to also allow for the medium to do the work.

And the Witness Walls in Nashville is interesting, because I was more interested in concrete as a twentieth-century material, versus, you know, using stone because, all of a sudden, when you commemorate something in stone, it’s a nineteenth, eight . . . its a very romantic idea, right? I mean. And it just, it says a lot. It’s almost funerary in a lot of cases. And so using concrete was something very different. And also, you know, I was telling the client, it’s like, yeah, just let it go! if it runs—but that’s the beauty of concrete, right? And then you just come in and power wash it! But this is the idea of the medium being able to give life to that story.

Miljački: [27:37] I sort of, I wonder if we can go a little more into this storytelling dimension of it, but I don’t have a good question for it. [laughs] I mean, how, OK, so about taking and not taking the commission again, is this something that you could say registers along the lifetime of the practice so far differently at different times as a possibility, or, I would even call it a privilege to say no to something?

Hood: [28:11] Oh, yeah. Like I said, probably the first decade of the practice, I had a hard time saying no, because I, one, just didn’t know what [laughs] I didn’t want to do. And I always tell my students, you know, it’s like, I tried every type of job, right? I worked for the park service. I worked for a redevelopment agency, I worked for architects, I worked for landscape architects. I mean, I’ve tried a lot of different . . . corporate, tried corporate, tried small office. And I tried a lot of things. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until after I tried these things.

And it’s the same thing with the work. You know, the first, you know, five or six years, I was just getting work because I thought I could make a dent in these places. And you slowly find that you’re just hitting your head against a brick wall.

And then I would say that next layer is like, once you get work, like the first, like, just say the first five or six, where you have no work, and then you’re like, “I’ll do anything to get work!” And then you make a few projects, and you sort of see what, what sticks and doesn’t stick.

And then that next step was “Okay, this stuck. I need to focus on this,” without marginalizing yourself too much. And then that opened up itself to a lot of different things, because once we started with institutional work, particularly museum work. Museums, once you have one museum project, then you can get another project. Once you have one park, big park, you can get another big—you know, so it’s like this weird, you know, food chain thing. It’s like, once you have a thing, people can come to you for the thing. And that’s when I went, “Oh, stop.” Right? Because people were saying, “Oh, you only do this.” And so that’s when I then had to step back again and say, “Okay, now I have to somewhat think about more different types of work.”

Miljački: [30:26] I mean, that’s a perfect place that we could end. But I want to ask you . . . I mean, I have other things we could ask, but I feel like we’ve covered a great territory. So maybe a question for you is, is there anything else you’d like to put on the record in this kind of, in this moment? Or in the context of this conversation?

Hood: [30:50] No, not really, but I do think it’s this idea of freedom, I’ll come back to the kind of freedom to express yourself within the context and with the medium that you choose. And I do think, in the design profession, and particularly in America, it’s been harder, as a person of color, particularly an African American, to navigate this terrain. Because I saw very early, as I was, you know, working my way through, that people who look like me had to make certain choices. My professors had to choose a certain way of working and a certain typological context in which to work. When I went to architecture school, all the architects of color, women, minority—they all did low-cost housing. You know, all the design professors were, you know, the cool European guys. I mean, they were the guys, pretty much. And this is like, late ’80s, early ’90s, right?

And then you start to see how, even within the profession, how people see your identity before they see your work. And so, very early, I started, as I was getting calls and starting my studio, if people called and said, “Do you want to join a project?” I would say, “Do you know the work?” And if they couldn’t tell me what the work was, I would decline the work.

I chose very early not to put Black in front of my name. I didn’t join any societies or, you know, any clubs that, again, put my identity first. And that was something that I had to be very, very diligent about, particularly the first decade or so of my practice, because I was finding that if I had a body of that work, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do any other kinds of work.

And looking back on it, I would say, that’s probably the best decision I made for the kind of work that I want to do. Because it’s really hard . . . you know, now with, the digital platform, people can go and Google your work and see what you’ve done. But before there was this kind of mass information about the work, people just didn’t know I did that work. Which I want more than . . . I don’t want someone to go, “Oh, that’s a Walter Hood.” I want people to see the work first and then go, like, “Who did this?” [laughs] And I’ve had that happen on a few projects, where people go like, “You did that?” And even like, I’m on a plane the other day, and I’m talking to a congresswoman or something, and she goes, “Well, is there anything in the city that I should know you did?” And so I said, “Yeah, we did the de Young gardens.” And her eyes just got that big, you know—it was like, that moment where she was just like, “You fucking did that?” You know?

But that’s, again, that can be problematic. But I would rather it’s that. Because to me, then I’ve changed a person, someone’s perspective. Versus “Oh, Walter did that, Walter did that.” So I think, I don’t want my name on the projects per se. But I do want the medium to speak to people. And then talking to her, it was like, “Oh, my kids were raised in your gardens.” It’s those kinds of things . . .

I think it’s, and with the rise of celebrity and all these things in our profession, it sometimes gets in the way of allowing the work to be the work. And that’s something that I’m still . . . again, as long as that signature doesn’t find itself in too many places. So.

Miljački: 35:09 Perfect. Thank you for this conversation.

Hood: An hour, wow! [laughs]

Miljački: Thank you for talking so candidly with us. And listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.