PLAN 78: Article
Walter J. Hood Jr. Appointed First Taylor Fellow

Award-Winning Landscape Architect and Urban Designer

Visiting Professor Walter J. Hood, Jr., has been appointed the first Robert R. Taylor (1892) Fellow in the School of Architecture + Planning. The fellowship was established to honor MIT’s first African American graduate, also the first African American in the US to earn an architecture degree; Taylor went on to become a distinguished architect and designed most of the buildings at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. (More on Taylor here.)

Hood is an award-winning landscape architect and urban designer with an international reputation for his pioneering work in environmental design, particularly in the integration of history, race and urban design. His teaching record and professional projects stand out for their sustained engagement with diverse local communities, for their fusion of design excellence with community-based planning and for the close links between his studio teaching and his urban design practice.

‘Walter has an usual background,’ says Dean Adèle Naudé Santos. ‘He is a talented and prominent landscape architect with many important built works, such as the De Young Museum in San Francisco, and he recently got an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute. His work has evolved into an exciting fusion of landscape and art and he is also an exceptionally talented, creative teacher. Appointing him to be our first Robert Taylor Fellow is a wonderful tribute to our history at 150 years and he is a prominent practitioner to celebrate.’

‘I am thrilled to be here,’ says Hood. ‘MIT is a place where creative thinking actually happens in a cross-disciplinary way, not only physically but intellectually and even culturally. It’s a very exciting place. Just in the few days I’ve been here, the conversations I’ve already had with people I didn’t know before…I hope they exemplify the kinds of the interactions I’ll be having here. This type of cross-fertilization through the culture and the built world here, I hope it continues.’

With specializations in landscape design, in community development, in the simultaneous design of architecture and the landscape and in citizen participation, Hood's research interests include the examination and development of specific urban landscape typologies for the American city. Through his teaching, writing and practice, he advocates the art of ‘improvisation’ as a design process for making urban landscapes and architecture.

‘This idea of improvisation in design,’ he says. ‘Most people think of improvisation as a set of unconscious actions. But it’s much more than that, more intellectual and experiential. For musicians, it’s finding that place they know they can improvise – between the first and the third beat, for instance – but they can’t play just anything, they have to know what to play. Musicians improvising have a really clear understanding of the tradition they want to improvise in.

‘I try to bring this attitude to the development of urban spaces and public art. Take a public square, for instance – a piazza in Rome, or a square here on the east coast – there’s always something in the middle of it. In one of our projects we took that idea and transformed it, filling the center to make edges. It was the same kind of spatial idea, putting something in the middle, but the thing in the middle took up the entire middle to make an edge. That’s a matter of locating the place of transformation, the place where you can improvise.’

This spring Hood is teaching a class called Activating the Mundane, focused on those mundane objects in our environment that we walk by every day and pay little attention to. A concrete curb, for example, or a bus shelter. ‘I’m interested in somehow activating them,’ he says, ‘through technology, spatial transformations, materiality, whatever – so they can offer more to us. The students will pick the objects and see what they can do with them.’

Hood founded Hood Design in Oakland CA in 1993. In 2009 he received the National Design Award, which honors the best in American design, for his body of work to date in research, publication and practice. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize and is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

Key publications include Urban Diaries (Spacemaker Press, 1997); “Storing Memories in the Yard” in Sites of Memory: Perspectives on Architecture and Race (Craig Barton, editor) (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001); “Defining Minicity” in Everyday Urbanism (John Chase, Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski, editors) (Monacelli Press, 2008). He is currently working on a new book, Hybrid Landscapes.

Hood holds a Distinguished MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2009), an MArch and MLA from Berkeley (1989) and a BS in Landscape Architecture from North Carolina State University (1981). Since 1998, he has held the Beatrix Farrand Distinguished Chair at Berkeley. He also served as chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning from 1998-2002. He joined the Berkeley faculty in 1990.

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