Othering Blackness in Design: Reflections with Walter Hood | Characteristics

Walter Hood. Credit: Hood Design Studio

Mr. Hood wouldn’t let his son go to art school, so he had to figure out the best thing to do. Going through the rest of the list of academic specialties – accounting, advertising, agriculture, etc. But then, an accidental discovery halfway through high school helped make that vision a little less blurry. One day, while walking through the halls, Walter stumbled upon a very strange group of people in a classroom. They were all standing in front of boards, dressed in all-white capes, writing meticulously with T-squares in one hand and graphite in the other.

The strangeness of this activity, but also the familiarity of the act of drawing, attracted him and led Walter to engage in this drawing course for 2 years. At the same time, observing the Brady Bunch at home, observing Mike Brady’s sketches and blueprints, he discovered that buildings must first emerge from a designer’s mind through drawing. This resulted in the creation of a ¼ scale model of a house in its final year. This was hand-wired with circuits for lighting and transported like precious cargo through the daily dangers of a high school bus and hallway, before being introduced to this once-odd group of cartoonists to whom Walter belonged now. He had found the next best thing, and that was architecture.

Shortly after Walter checked architecture on his college application, he attended North Carolina A&T State University. But at the same time those feelings of uncertainty, feelings that have always been there to a lesser degree, began to build up in him that wherever he was he just didn’t fit in. , and while working, Walter always felt that something was always missing from these experiences. In order to remedy this, he decides to return to school and continue his education by pursuing a master’s degree at Berkeley.

However, before heading west, he traveled to New York. The cabinets in Philip Johnson’s 1984 Chippendale Building had just interrupted an expanse of glass and steel, casting a new shadow over the Manhattan landscape. Below and between the graffiti-speckled trains that crisscrossed the city, Walter drew all of these new towers in his sketchbook. Soon the spirit of the time enveloped him in the desire to build skyscrapers himself, creating a vision of the future that supported his trip across the country to California.

Walter in his studio. Image courtesy of Hood Design Studio

Upon arriving in Berkeley, Walter entered the concrete confines of the architectural building, Wurster Hall, with his then-girlfriend. When he saw the students’ drawings, remnants of old and new models pinned above him in the studio, a familiar but creeping sense of uncertainty began to develop within him. Bubbling, he turned to his girlfriend and confessed: “I am doomed.” She looked back sympathetically and tried to offer some reassurance saying, “No no, it’s going to be okay.” “No, I’m going to be doomed, I can’t do that,” he replied as all of those worries about the future and feelings of not fitting in rushed in at the same time.

Once school started it was exciting to research, design and learn the theory, but these underlying uncertainties remained. It wasn’t until a half-joke, half-critic professor remarked “You know you just want to do it all,” did Walter define for himself who he was and what he wanted to pursue.

Thinking about it almost 30 years later, he remembers how it helped him define his interest in the multiple dimensions of design and art. “Because the most boring thing is to say ‘This is architecture, and this is landscape’ before you even get to dialogue with the space and the environment. So that was the most important thing. for me, continually breaking out of these different cultural contexts and going into something completely blind … that has been probably the most exciting and scary part of my career because I have taken risks in different places and [never] knew how things were going to be resolved. ”

Why am I African American, why can’t I just be American? And if I’m American, as a designer part of this design is imbued with my darkness. However, instead, I must be [labeled] a black architect.

After graduating from Berkley, Walter opened a practice in nearby Oakland in 1992 and went on to become professor of landscape architecture and chair of the department for a time. And although he remembers that “I always wanted to make skyscrapers. It was the only thing in my brain that I never did”, in the spring of 2021, Walter’s towers are now rising. at MoMa for the exhibition Reconstructions: architecture and darkness in America.

Walter’s project titled “Black Towers / Black Power” is a collage of models, videos and prints that feature a design for a one-mile stretch of San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, 10 towers that each reflect ten points from the program developed by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale for the Black Panthers in 1966.

At the same time, Walter expressed his frustration with the performative nature in which blackness is seen in the architectural community and in American society as a whole in response to the projects that black designers are supposed to carry out. “Why am I African-American, why can’t I just be American? And if I’m American, as a designer part of this design is imbued with my darkness. However, instead, I must be [labeled] a black architect. [But] if I make a building as a black architect, [the general reception is that] there’s no black in it unless something weird is going on that somebody can point a finger and go, oh, a black architect did that. [The expectation is] that it must be something so different [so special] if it’s for black people, and that’s the problem. We can’t exist in this ordinary way, you have to exist in an extraordinary, almost magical way, which is traumatic and very exhausting. ”

“For the African part of my heritage, this is what I liked about South Africa, this is what I like about West Africa, this is what I have Liked about North Africa, that’s what I liked about East Africa. There were just things that I felt that connection. And it’s a cultural connection, these are these instinctive things, how people do things, what people look like, how people model and practice, these things are something that is almost innate from place to place. [in America], it’s almost as if you [are made] wear your identity on your sleeve [and perform it]. “

Walter Hood’s play “Black Towers / Black Power” at Reconstructions: architecture and darkness in America MoMA Exhibition: Section Drawing – Folding Chair. 2020. Plexiglas. 58 x 24 “(147.32 x 60.96 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Outlining a recent housing project in San Francisco, Walter noted that “when [the firm] talking about this peculiarity, we just call it strange so we just ask different questions [of the community we design for], and it comes out different. But that has nothing to do with my race, it’s the funny thing, and yet people look at it immediately and think oh there must be something dark about it. when there weren’t those hard lines between neighborhoods like the 1915 World’s Fair, and how this story can be used to illuminate connections between communities today.

However, Walter also noted the difficulty in examining the often idealized layers of the American and colonial past, as people at the time “still had to improvise existence within these structures.” It raises the question of the Jim Crow documentation and the romance of “when you had all the blues clubs, but you still have to take into account that people were always traumatized in that” past. Therefore, for Walter the design questions are not focused on solving a problem, the questions become “How do I validate people? … How do I get inspiration from people’s lives?” So that the work you do takes into account their lives, and that what you do validates them [and celebrates them]… instead of giving them some sort of western thing to fit into. I need to dig in and find something they see around them [that] anybody [else] is taken into consideration. ”

In America, different groups take ownership when they become more powerful, and I think you see the same in the black community.

While it is necessary to dig deeper, there is also the question of ownership by these communities and the frequency with which tropes, both political and architectural, are projected onto people. Walter, thinking back to New York City’s past, remarked that now “graffiti has been appropriated because the group that owned it was using it for power.”

In the 1980s, in an environment where people’s lives were terrible and they had to live in the trash, “the city is going to be painted, and the city was.” But slowly, thanks to this appropriation, “he lost power because all of a sudden this local person tagging a building could no longer compete with a $ 5 million coin” that was designed for someone to advertise.

“In America different groups are appropriate when they become more powerful, and I think you see the same in the black community,” Walter remarked, adding, “you have heard a lot about this over the past year or so. … you know: you like black music, you like black literature, but you don’t like black people … and that’s what I said earlier: how we take control of these things that we appropriate ?, these things were not [accurately] articulated what they are. In music, we know what they are, in cinema, we know what they are, in literature, we know what they are, like our stories and our stories. But when you sort of think of architecture and design in the public domain, it’s almost like we have to be different, we can’t be Americans. And often, in these marginalized spaces, more people are welcome, while in the most privileged areas, even with more resources, fewer people are admitted. ”

Thus, Walter concluded that: “How can we organize the space and create these means in [which] we want people to come and experience our neighborhood on our own terms, which adds value? Instead of adding value [through simple preservation] and just saying ‘Oh, let’s go see some old stuff, right?’ “

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