The People's Park
"The public realm is the last true democratic space," says self-described urbanist and UC Berkeley professor Walter Hood, "and my approach is essentially the same, whether it’s a park for homelesspeople or the de Young Museum."
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While Hood is justifiably pleased with the five acres that surround, and in places brilliantly invade, Herzog & de Meuron’s copper-clad de Young in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, he is most passionate about transformations he has wrought in neglected nooks and crannies of the urban landscape. Hood attended North Carolina A&T State University before doing graduate work at UC Berkeley and winning the Rome Prize. He spent five years working for Garrett Eckbo and shares his former employer’s social consciousness and dedication to public works. More civic plazas than traditional parks, Hood’s projects are hybrids, neither artificially picturesque nor overly programmed: "They have a lot of uses but not a lot of little landforms." Guided by the twin muses of Le Nôtre and Miles Davis—the one for the pure beauty of his geometries, the other for his transcendent improvisations—the 47-year-old Hood has loosened up over the years. "When I started out, I wanted everything tidy, but I’ve learned to appreciate a bit of mess. Now I like for places to be a little lived in, to have spontaneity. Geometries allow for that without the chaos."
Definitely lived-in, yet surprisingly well-kempt, is Lafayette Square Park, more commonly known as Old Man’s Park, in downtown Oakland, where groups of people chat, smoke, and sleep in the sun on a barely crisp autumn morning as dominoes click in the background. Hood infused what had been a dismal square of flat grass with topography and life—not so much a park as a series of gently overlapping outdoor rooms: a round hillock with a view, some checkers tables, a blooming slice of perennials, a historic old oak framed with trellises, barbecues on the grass, and a sheltered performance area that also offers protection from the rain. "I wanted an environment that wouldn’t be bleak," explains Hood, who designed everything, down to the garbage cans and tree surrounds. "Just because many of the people are homeless, it doesn’t have to feel like an encampment. This is why I do public spaces. Who else is thinking about those guys in this way? And they take good care of it!" Similarly, a short drive away, a double allée of purple plum trees Hood had planted down a street leading to a once-derelict creek had the effect of dispersing the drug dealers. "If you do it big, it can last and have amazing impact," says the designer, who stops to chat with a neighbor who remembers him from years back. "This is also a hybrid space: It’s a wilderness, a street, or a park, depending on whether you’re strolling under the trees, looking out your window, or hanging down at the creek."
More recently, Splash Pad Park, scene of a thriving farmer’s market, was carved from the site of a former traffic island beside a freeway in Oakland, which Hood at first planned to screen. "Then I realized, it’s not going away—I need to pull it into the design." As is his style, Hood embedded a little history in the place, like a serpentine wall that used to define a fountain and part of the old curb that once edged the street. Paths traverse the plaza, subtly guiding pedestrians from the parking lot beneath the overpass to the street. Big planting zones of dogwood refer to the area’s previous incarnation as a wetland, and ferns pop up randomly through the decomposed granite, "like a little bit of improv." It’s a jazzy little enclave, a graceful balance of plant material and concrete, what Hood calls "the dance between the paving and the green."
Hood took the same concern for the locals to Macon, Georgia, when commissioned to revamp Poplar Street, an especially wide thoroughfare of mostly marginal businesses. "It’s like the backyard of the city, where the brothers live and hang out. So I had a notion to create a series of yards." The 180-foot-wide plazas are edged with diagonal parking spaces—making it easy for folks to meet up—and contain historic references, such as trellises created from old Quonset huts in the area. In one square, an obelisk commemorating the United Daughters of the Confederacy sits amid raised white cubes, picnic tables designed as abstractions of big bales of cotton. Like most of Hood’s designs, they’re subtle, but unmistakable.