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Originally published on September 25, 2019 7:54 pm

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

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 country, Walter Hood has reimagined street corners and town squares, many at the heart of underserved neighborhoods. Today, the MacArthur Foundation recognized Hood as one of their 2019 fellows. This is the award sometimes known as the genius grant.

Walter Hood, welcome and congratulations.

WALTER HOOD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You grew up and went to school in North Carolina. Can you remember a place or an event from your childhood there that creates a through line to the kind of work you do today as a landscape architect?

HOOD: Yeah. I think it's my grandmother's house, which was located in the middle of the woods. And going to my grandmother's house was, like, really - it was, like, taking a journey, right? We would leave Charlotte. We'd get on this highway, and before you know it, you were going down this old, worn road. And, you know, the house sat in the middle of a field. You know, 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. I think those memories now shape kind of everything I think about.

SHAPIRO: So for people who aren't familiar with your work, your ethos, your philosophy, describe how that experience at your grandmother's cabin translates to the work that you've done in cities that look nothing like the rural landscape of North Carolina.

HOOD: A lot of the things I talk about even in my research and my work is really about memory, right? It's like, how do we kind of look backwards without getting stuck?

SHAPIRO: So give us an example.

HOOD: Like, you mentioned Splash Pad. Like, Splash Pad, you know, the project 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, like, in hundreds to say we want to make a space. And so then you have to figure out a way to take, you know, that simple direction of we need to improve crosswalks and how do we make it something bigger? And so then you need a narrative. You need a story. And so then we were able to look backwards and say, well, you know, this is an estuary. This is a place where Lake Merritt actually came all the way down here. And right now, 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.

SHAPIRO: You now have some very high-profile projects, like the International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C., which is scheduled to open in the next couple years. So when you approach a big, expensive, fancy project like that, what does that share with your approach to something like a community garden in a little neighborhood in an inner city?

HOOD: It's the same thing, but it's just a different context. You know, there, 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?

SHAPIRO: So tell us about one of the physical, tangible ways that you were telling that story to people who visit the museum.

HOOD: I think the emblematic piece to the project is this sort of tidal fountain and it's part of the ancestors garden there and...

SHAPIRO: Where the water comes in and goes out.

HOOD: Where the water comes in and goes out, and we were at this site, which is a plantation site. And then we moved over to the island where, you know, slaves were brought in, and they were held in these pest houses. And I said, what about the Brookes map? And the Brookes map is this - 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.

SHAPIRO: So can you just describe what that will look like when it's finished?

HOOD: 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. And imagine bodies etched on the ground, and shells actually will be exposed. And these are shells that are collected from the Atlantic Ocean. And they actually will make the form of the body. And 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.

SHAPIRO: Walter Hood, congratulations on the award. It's been great talking with you.

HOOD: No, thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: He is the creative director and founder of Walter Hood Design Studio in Oakland and a professor at UC Berkeley. Today, the MacArthur Foundation announced that he is one of their 2019 fellows. And in another part of the show, Audie talks with another of this year's fellows, historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez. She has built what she calls a rebel archive. Stay tuned for that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.