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Conversation with Amanda Williams, Andres L. Hernandez, and Walter J. Hood

On May 6, 2017, the Pulitzer hosted a public conversation with Amanda Williams, Andres L. Hernandez, and Walter J. Hood, Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design at the University of California at Berkeley. The following is a partial transcript of their discussion.

Amanda Williams (AW): I am thrilled to be having this conversation for many reasons, and I’d like to begin today with the idea of place making, as well as how the hybridity or fluidity between landscape architecture, architecture, and art can be a vehicle to address urban space and place.

Andres L. Hernandez (AH): To start, it’s important to consider the embedded histories of any given site with a goal of figuring out what’s going on in these environments—uncovering the layers while also beginning to imagine what can happen in the future, which requires a new level of hybrid practice. I think it’s interesting to maybe use Kanye’s term “architecting.”1 So we’re architecting environments, architecting the future of our cities, and of urban environments in particular.

Walter Hood (WH): It’s really great to see that you two are here working in St. Louis and investigating these types of questions, and I’ll just be blunt: I’ve been, in the last few years, just reeling about how black folk are finding their voice in this context. I think the kind of erasure of environment, particularly in this country in the last century, is something that’s impacted our communities in ways where you can’t return to anything anymore. I really love that this project is trying to make people aware of erasure. Really documenting something being torn down. Most of the time it happens in the night. You wake up and it’s like, “Damn, what happened? It’s gone.” And we forget that people remember. I think these kind of projects will allow us hopefully to have that conversation—not in a nostalgic way, but in a way that we remember and talk about these histories and these memories in a slow way.

AW: I think that hits home with this question of nostalgia and memory, especially with African American communities that feel like they’ve been denied an ability to have a moment to remember or a way to remember. So there’s a holding on to every little thing. I think it’s a moment of courage for designers to not fall into that trope.  An expectation is that artists of color, or designers of color, are going to move towards memory in that nostalgic way. So how can we help usher in these conversations, but then also push people beyond the idea that everything is supposed to be memorial? Even now, we have only a very short relationship with 3721 Washington Boulevard, but it’s still a very emotional one. So how do you honor that emotion, but at the same time move forward?

WH: I think one way is through the involvement of people in the “Subtraction” phase of A Way, Away. It reminds me of a creek restoration project years ago. It was in the middle of East Oakland, and they would let these brothers out of jail on the weekend to do community work. We were removing dead animals, refrigerators, all the kind of stuff you find in these dump sites, and these guys were complaining all morning. But right after lunch, the water started moving and it’s like these men turned into children. The conversation completely changed. They remembered playing in creeks; they remembered the sound of water. So maybe now, your project becomes that place: where moving a brick and talking about the name on that brick, or being in a certain place, the light hitting you in a certain way, being around people… everything begins to conjure up connections.

AH: Yes, you have to disturb the surface in order to get at what happened, to get at the history. In a lot of ways, our project has created this huge disturbance of the surface. It’s sort of picking at a larger scab that urban communities are dealing with across this country, right? That, in general, we’re seeing our cities being unbuilt before our very eyes, and we really have no power, or the citizens feel no power over it. When we did our first phase, “Marking,” we could hear paint rolled on the brick building, and we could see and feel the mortar crumble. People were sharing these details with me throughout the day, saying “I’ve never done this. I've never been close to a building like this.” All of these moments come out of the project in an artistic way, but there is also the embedded history of brick and of labor.  

WH: I think that you two are doing a kind of archaeology with this project. And I wonder, can that become a device where value is placed on these emerging stories or these new ways to talk about and look at these places? New kind of ways to tell this story, which might be of value?

AW: There is the question of the invisible forces that shape how we think about investing in localities—about when we invest, or who is supposed to be investing, or what spaces are supposed to be invested in. But, there is also a way to rethink how to activate these places that enables citizen activations, not necessarily driven by an institution or a program. Is there a way that this form of empowerment can become contagious? I know that might seem utopian, in a way, but it feels like we’re in a moment right now where people are ready to get involved. On a very banal level, though, we’re also talking about materials and material investment. In St. Louis especially, we’re obsessed with brick.

AH: Even today, we were talking to the guys from Refab, one of the project partners. We talked for half hour just about the different types of bricks and why certain bricks were crumbling.

WH: I’m actually loving concrete right now. We just finished a project in Nashville called Witness Walls. I was trying to think of a twentieth-century material, and in my mind I connected Civil Rights and concrete. So we embedded images in concrete, and people were always asking, “Well, why did you choose concrete? Why didn’t you do marble or stone?” As though that’s what a commemorative piece should be. But when you touch concrete—it’s tactile, it’s living, it heats up, it cools off

AH: The process of working with both materials and place is often very much one of trial and error. It’s based on the relationships that you’re building with communities and their histories.

WH: I think we have to put it on the table: the term “place making” suggests there’s nothing there. Often, you’re positioned as the expert or the creative person who has to come in and make something. In that scenario, you’re already going the wrong direction because you’re not validating that there is something there. The first thing I tell a client is that I’m interested in coming there and engaging with their environment. We’re just interlopers when we come through. We’re just visitors.

AW: This point also raises the question of time. In order to imagine a new place, there have to be pauses or gaps. This takes place over time. But when you have been trained to make, and when to make is always additive, not subtractive, that creates a panic. But these pauses and gaps in the process are often because we’re working within a state that is itself not stable. Not nationally, not globally. The question becomes how to interject in that moment. 

AH: It reminds me of Rem Koolhaas’s essay “Preservation is Overtaking Us” and the moment where we need to think about what we will and won’t preserve. What’s disposable? What will actually not be here in ten years, twenty years?

WH: We’re working with the planners on a project right now, and there’s one young man who always says “That’s going to take twenty years,” or “That’s going to take fifty years.” Many people think in terms of anniversaries, with the idea of looking back on something. In every landscape project, though, I embed something for right now. There are things that we need to think of every day, and not just in some imagined future. I think that if all of us did this, there would be a kind of beautiful labyrinth out there with clues and traces of these different things. There wouldn’t be just an anniversary down the line, but there would be something almost daily where you walk up and all these little points will activate. And hopefully they’ll tell different stories in the moment.

1. In a speech to the Harvard Graduate School of Design on November 17, 2013, Kanye West addressed the importance of architectural thinking in his work, noting “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be architected.”