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MacArthur Fellow Walter Hood Revitalizes Neglected Urban Spaces

North Carolina-born landscape architect Walter Hood has reimagined street corners and town squares across America.
Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
North Carolina-born landscape architect Walter Hood has reimagined street corners and town squares across America.

In Oakland, Calif., a site next to a highway underpass is now a gathering place with plazas, fountains and curving lawns. It's called Splash Pad, and it was one of the early examples of urban transformation that made landscape architect Walter Hood famous.

Across the U.S., Walter Hood has reimagined street corners and town squares, many at the heart of underserved neighborhoods.

Hood is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. On Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation recognized him as one of this year's 26 MacArthur fellows, an award known as the "genius" grant.

Hood says he thinks of his grandmother's house in rural North Carolina as a throughline to the work he does today. When he was a child, getting to her house was a journey that took him from his home in Charlotte onto highways and eventually ended by him seeing his grandmother's house sitting on its own in the middle of fields.

"It didn't have toilets. You know, it had an outhouse, but there was always room in her house, food, and everything was about the land," Hood told All Things Considered. "I think those memories now shape kind of everything I think about."

Interview Highlights

On how his work looks at the history of places

[Splash Pad] started out as a project for crosswalks. You know, they had a bond measure to improve the crosswalks. And we went out, and people showed up in hundreds to say we want to make a space. So then you have to figure out a way to take that simple direction of we need to improve crosswalks and how do we make it something bigger?

Then you need a narrative. You need a story. Then we were able to look backwards and say, well, you know, this is an estuary. This is a place where [Oakland's] Lake Merritt actually came all the way down. This is a place that used to be wet. And by telling that narrative, having a new narrative, people then are able to understand where we can go in the future. 'Cause a lot of the things in the past, you know, we've erased, right? We've gotten rid of and those memories don't exist.

On how he approaches projects small and large, including community gardens and the upcoming International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C.

It's the same thing, but it's just a different context. You know, [in Charleston], I'm dealing with, like, the history of slavery. I'm dealing with the swamps, the memory of wetlands. I'm dealing with Gullah Geechee, you know. So there's just this — I'm dealing with the Confederacy, you know what I mean?

On how his tidal fountain in Charleston will illustrate that history

The Brooks map [a document of the 18th-century Brooks slave ship] is the first kind of lithograph that basically shows and depicts how slaves were packed in the hulls of ships for the Atlantic crossing. And I said, let's put this on the ground and full scale, one to one, so that people can actually feel this landscape.

I'm hoping it will look like something I've never seen before, but it's an infinity fountain. So there will be about a quarter inch of water that will fill a surface. We're using tabby, which is a shell material that's bound in concrete.

Imagine bodies etched on the ground, and shells actually will be exposed. These are shells that are collected from the Atlantic Ocean, and they actually will make the form of the body. So when the water is covered, you will see kind of these figures. But when the water recedes, the shells will actually expose themselves. And they will be figures head to toe, head to toe, head to toe, and I think about 30 yards wide and looking out to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.