Upon hearing the term “hybrid” these days, what immediately comes to your mind? If you are like me, your response would be a car like the Toyota Prius or the Honda Insight. But have you ever heard of “hybrid landscapes”? Well, I did for the first time last week at an event hosted by the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA/LA) at the University of Southern California. Specifically, Walter Hood, an Oakland-based artist, designer, and educator, gave a very interesting and thought provoking talk about hybrid landscapes and examples of his work. Mr. Hood is well-known in the field of landscape architecture and design. He has his own firm which is called Hood Design Studio and is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department.
So, what are hybrid landscapes? According to Hood, hybrid landscapes are either “conscious” or “unconscious.” He called conscious landscapes deliberate “collisions of differing points of view,” which “fuse the un-fuseable.” He said the result of all this fusing is a “strangeness,” because there are different types of landscape brought together that perhaps do not belong together. Quite honestly, his introduction was a bit philosophical and difficult to follow. However, I began to better understand Hood’s explanation when he discussed the various conscious hybrid landscapes he has worked on. For example, he helped transform a 180-foot-wide street in Macon, Georgia, with a square wedged in it, into Macon Yards on Poplar Street, a landscape consisting of a street, park, and plaza. He also talked about Splash Pad Park in Oakland as a unique mix of different types of public spaces. He referred to it as a place where a park, plaza, and street meet. It has proven incredibly popular and is home to one of the largest farmers’ markets in Northern California. Hood then talked about Lafayette Square Park, another park in Oakland. His assignment was to redesign the space because the park was in decline and vagrants had taken over the space. Previously, the park had a classic big X in the center of it, where the paths criss-crossed. Hood ended up getting rid of the X and doing away with the idea of a central park that everyone could use. Instead, he created many, smaller separate spaces for various user groups within the park.
Hood also talked about probably his most famous work, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, in which he created a vivid landscape to match and connect with Herzog and de Meuron’s building. To come up with this design, he researched the history of Golden Gate Park (where the museum is located) and discovered that hundreds of years ago it was covered in sand dunes. It took 100 years of effort to change it into the lush green space it is today. To bring the new space into the modern history of the park, Hood sampled all the trees and plants in a quarter-radius around the landscape. He called it a “strange, not corporate, landscape” that both brings back what was there before in the form of sand paths, but also what was never there, with big ferns from Australia (which many think are native, but are actually not). He also said that as a result of his design, “it’s now not clear where the park ends and the de Young garden begins.”
Regarding unconscious hybrid landscapes, Hood said that perhaps they are that way because “we just don’t have a name for their conjunctive beauty.” To illustrate this, he pointed to the massive salt ponds people see when they fly into San Francisco. He believes this inability to make the unconscious conscious is connected to our fear of understanding or discovering new approaches and putting them into words. He talked about Solar Strand, a project he worked on for the University of Buffalo. Instead of just installing thousands of solar panels across the campus (what they had done on their own the first time around), Hood organized them into a piece of art work and public space. About 5,000 solar panels were placed in a strand-shape that illustrates how they power the campus. The strand went in over a quarter of a mile and looked very impressive (based on the aerial photo he showed). Around it, Hood convinced the university’s groundskeepers to “let everything go,” so there are now fields of weeds with paths cutting through them. Spaces in the middle of the solar arrays are set aside as public spaces, laid with concrete chunks dug up for the project.
Besides larger scale projects, Hood has also worked on parklets. (If you want to know more about parklets, check out UCLA’s toolkit.) Specifically, he designed the one on Powell Street in downtown San Francisco as described in this article in Sunset Magazine. Hood has done projects here in Los Angeles as well. Most notably, he is currently part of the team working on The Broad, a new contemporary art museum built by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Hood was also recently selected by Metro to create an integrated sculptural work for the Expo Line Downtown Santa Monica Station.
In addition to highlighting some of his key projects, Hood described how he works creatively with local clients. He said he tries to tell his clients that “landscapes are messy and filled with contradictions; they are not clean.” His ideal landscape is messy, with its essence coming from the land and the people who occupy it. He shared that he wants to know the boundaries or perimeters of a project before he breaks them. He also wants to always keep an open mind as he moves through the linear design process because “epiphanies don’t happen when you think they will happen. Strangeness comes from the side. One has to be receptive.” He believes that this open-minded receptiveness is very critical to successfully working with communities. Hood expressed that he does not want to come in as an outside designer and impose some artistic vision foreign to or inconsistent with these places. But based on his professional experience and knowledge, he is not afraid of making suggestions and recommendations to his clients that may be very different or beyond the original scope of a project. Ultimately, his goal is to really work with the local culture and respect the values and traditions of a place.
Overall, I am glad that I attended Mr. Hood’s talk and appreciated his insights. It was unfortunate that due to technical problems, many of the slides in his presentation were not legible. However, he was still able to effectively describe the projects mentioned above which helped me to better understand the concept of hybrid landscapes. Mr. Hood also raised some interesting questions which made me think more deeply about my role and work as a park planner. Specifically, he challenged the audience not to be limited by existing terminologies or definitions (of parks, for example) and the established professional boundaries (whether we are planners, landscape architects, or architects). I certainly agree with Mr. Hood that we need to think, plan, and design more creatively to meet the needs of and improve our communities. As I have shared in a previous article, we can definitely use more creativity and creative individuals in planning.
Walter Hood from University of California, Berkeley
de Young Museum from University of California, Berkeley
Solar Strand from University at Buffalo