Fall 2013

Developing a Cultural Practice

Earlier this year, distinguished landscape architect and artist, Walter J. Hood was appointed the inaugural holder of the David K. Woo Chair in Environmental Design. Below, Hood describes the foundational thinking that inspires the research he plans to conduct during his Chair tenure.

The culture of communities is replete with the everyday and mundane actions of people that make up our human experience. We’re conditioned to the familiar: the trip to the grocery store, walking the dog, driving to work. The objects that facilitate these actions are ubiquitous and mostly go unnoticed.

Within this context, things accrete around us as time passes: buildings, vegetation, objects, and even space. Sometimes these layers go undisturbed, creating fascinating places that literally tell their own stories: the moors in Cordoba, the detritus of Rome, the colonial memories of America. Yet in many cases, when it is time to change, such accumulations are wiped clean, leaving nary a wall, a street, nor a piece of infrastructure to commemorate what was before.

de Young Museum
The New de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA (photo by Proehl photography) Enlarge [+]

The spaces and places that people maintain, conserve or preserve reinforce their lifeways — the particular way they want to live. Individualism and collective diversity — a truly American “way of life” — suggest a willingness to validate other norms and actions of inhabitants. Urban design and planning projects often seek to organize and homogenize environments through easily understood standards, negating this idiosyncratic diversity.

Everyday and mundane, commemorative, and community lifeways together argue for “culture” to be central to design. Synonymous in their intent, they recognize that places and environments are maintained, sustained, or transformed by the people and bureaucracies that control them. A cultural practice is a framework that empowers all voices to speak out through their everyday actions and experiences.

7th Street, West Oakland
7th Street, West Oakland, CA (photo by Hood Design) Enlarge [+]

The Everyday and Mundane

The environment around us is host to often ignored objects that are omnipresent in the built environment: power boxes, light posts, street signs, and curbs. A cultural practice alive to the everyday and mundane recognizes these objects and spaces as opportunities, and transforms them into public sculptures that embrace and validate the everyday patterns and rituals of neighborhoods.

When we activate objects, we move from an attitude of problem solving to one of opportunity. We give people the ability to see things differently, to possess the objects around them. The most meaningful interactions occur when we actively engage with the environment around us. Activating the mundane through all of its artful machinations is an opportunity to see and experience the beauty and utility of the things in our life.

Powell Street Trolley
Powell Street (Trolley), San Francisco, CA (photo by Hood Design) Enlarge [+]

Commemorative Landscapes

Commemoration Landscapes embraces the value of history, emphasizing the importance of the past in how the present, and eventually the future, will be constructed. Return to origins requires palimpsest. Akin to an incompletely erased page written over again, the layering of the environment’s surface and its objects reveals the physical, social, and cultural passing of time.

Simply memorializing the past through pedagogical representations of a place forgets the act of remembering. Communities have collective and individual past, present, and future identities, suggesting that a return to origins is complex and indeterminate.

“Narratives” such as the Biddy Mason Wall in Los Angeles, CA and the Freedom Trail in Boston, MA are often utilized as conceptual cues to help us remember. The narrative provides a carefully vetted and agreeable interpretation for a design or artwork. It suggests that everyone experiences the public realm in the same way. Stories, on the other hand, do not rely on agreement and correctness. Rather, the focus of a cultural practice is on experience, interpretation, and the people themselves who emerge with agency to act.

Shadow Catcher
Shadow Catcher, University of Virginia (photo by Hood Design) Enlarge [+]

Community Lifeways

As communities are dynamic, full of many voices, people need a variety of ways to ensure the continued growth of rich and diverse cultural landscapes.

A cultural practice honors a community’s lifeways — recognizing everyday rituals and validating the mundane. Paying attention to the way people live in a place — as opposed to how designers want people to live — yields different project results. The lifeways approach always begins by acknowledging that if there is a community, people live “here,” there is a manner in which they do so, and that is important.

In 1993 I chronicled the experiences of living in and observing the public landscape of my West Oakland neighborhood. I wondered: if we design for the real acts and events in a given place, would the projects be different? By accepting the diverse actions that did not fit the normative, designs can be liberated from best practice models, making visible another side of familiar spaces and things.

These conceptual frameworks: everyday and mundane, the commemorative, and lifeways, formulate a triad used to articulate and navigate the practical and speculative context distinguishing a cultural design practice. They occur as points of determination in a practical, linear design mode. They do not influence the speculative but embrace the cultural context upfront, which guides and provides fodder for deeper inquiry and meaning.