Peter Walker discusses landscape architecture in the 21st century
Today, we had the chance to interview Berkeley, California-based landscape architect Peter Walker for Cleveland Magazine. Walker has a career that stretches back to the 1950s. Over that time, he’s worked on civic landscapes, gardens and parks, and he served as a consultant to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Coordination Authority. Recently, he developed the National September 11 Memorial in New York City and the grounds of the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center. The Cleveland Botanical Garden has just awarded him the Delia White Vail Medal for Community Horticultural Achievement. He was quite cordial over the phone and talked about everything from his early experiences doing landscape design to his interest in the theater.
Your career stretches back some 50 years. At the beginning, did you imagine it playing out the way it has? In other words, are you now doing what you originally set out to do?
When I graduated from Berkeley, I thought I’d be doing backyards. And for my first job, we were doing backyards. It’s just a California, suburban thing. And then I went to Harvard and my first partner said we’re be doing urban renewal and transportation and campuses. He sort of blew my mind. Right after that, we did all that stuff. In the last 15 or 20 years, I’ve been working in a more artistic way. The kind of commissions you get there are museums and major public spaces. And we won a competition to rebuild the Constitution Gardens, which are next to the Mall in Washington. I’m getting ceremonial projects and I’m getting them pretty much around the world. If you’re asking me did I have any notion, I hadn’t the slightest.
In terms of your design career, what would define as your big breakthrough?
Well, I think in each phase when we started moving from thinking about individual houses and gardens to neighborhoods, I was interested in new towns and I worked on a number of new towns in the United States that was a real change in my thinking. About 1975 or so, I started thinking that there is probably more to this than just trying to do a design for a city or neighborhood or park or something like that. I thought there is an artistic dimension. I went on a tour with some students and we went up the Loire Valley and looked at the Chateau around Paris and I realized it could be much, much grander, not in the big sense because those gardens were huge. But grander in the sense that they could be more important, more like Central Park or a major square of a city. In order to do that, it had to a have an artistic dimension. That was a real light bulb. For the last 22 or 23 years, I’ve been focusing on that. Not just spaces that the art could be in, but making the spaces artful themselves and memorable. I think a lot of the housing was fine for the people living there but if you visited there, you wouldn’t take away any particularly strong memory.
You co-designed the 9/11 Memorial and strove to make it into a place for contemplation and remembrance. What did you do architecturally to achieve that?
The real task for us is that the young architect who had thought up the idea of the voids where the buildings used to be had a very strong idea. There is an artist named Michael Heizer who has explored that. I was familiar with Michael Heizer’s work and when I saw the scheme, I knew it was going to be a very powerful thing. It’s huge. It’s an acre square. What the mayor and jury asked us to do is to make it function as a memorial and also as a major civic, park-like space for this high density neighborhood that surrounds it. Our job was to take Michael’s basic idea and turn it into something that goes beyond it and became a memorable space, like Grant Park. There was temporary subway stop when we started but now that subway has become much larger. The whole memorial is on top of a seven-story building. Underneath it are subway lines and shops. We’re just simply a skin on the top of all that stuff. That all requires access and air and exhaust. The other thing is that it’s a target just like the freedom towers and it has a layer of security within it and we’ve tried to make that invisible. That was a dimension that I had to think about when we started it.
What was the inspiration for the landscape design for the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center?
Well, [CEO] Toby Cosgrove. In a word. A mutual friend of ours recommended us because we had to do something minimal and when I first went up there, Toby said he had just become president of the place and he wanted to turn it from a shopping center with parking lots all the way around into an institution that is visible not only to the city but to the people who use it. That’s what we started off doing. That’s a lifetime’s work and it’s not going to happen overnight. I thought of each park as being part of a larger whole. We did a master plan with Toby and what you’re seeing is the first part of it. When I asked Toby what he wanted because he had given a lot of ground to it, he said to remember that everyone who goes down to the heart center is either fighting for themselves or for the people they love. He wanted to calm people down and that’s what we tried to do.
Your firm is at the forefront of sustainability both in terms of design and construction. Talk about your approach in that regard.
There’s two levels of sustainability. One is how you’re dealing with the earth. The recycling of water, how to minimize the use of water. All that type of thing. That also means conserving energy, not just water itself but electricity and all those things. You don’t want to use more energy. We’ve done a series of fountains over the last few years that use very little energy. The one you see at the Clinic there is startling but it uses very little energy. That was one of the key things. The other side of sustainability is social and cultural. If you do a park or anything and the people around it don’t love it, they won’t take care of it. Landscape is very fragile. You can let it go for four years and it’s hard to bring it back. For instance, if you turn the water off, all the plants die. My goal is – and this been particularly true in the last 25 years – is that if you build something worthy of memory, you have to find somebody to take care of it. Half of that question is institutional. You have to work with somebody who is going to stay with it and won’t sell it. I look for institutional clients. The other half is information. You work with the staff of these institutions so they understand what the thing is about and how you take care of it. They need to know because when you plant things, you don’t know the future. So somebody that knows the future has to explain that to the people who are taking care of it so they know what to do. Let’s say you have a shrub that spreads out. If that’s trimmed into a ball, you don’t have the same thing at all. A lot of times, people do that because nobody told them not to do it. A lot of it is education. People can’t appreciate something they don’t understand and they can’t take care of something they don’t understand.
In general, how do you come up with your designs? What are the kinds of things that inspire you?
I find it in lots of things. I find a lot of the situations I come upon have historic references, like the Italian Gardens or the Japanese Gardens. There is a history that you’re building on. The other inspiration is that I’m interested in minimalist art and I collect certain artists. They don’t influence me directly but they do something that I can them use spatially and physically. It comes from art itself.
I know you have hectic schedule. What do you do to relax?
Not a hell of a lot. I’m a Shakespeare fan and I belong to a repertory company that’s up in Ashland. I have seven sons and one is an actor and I spent the last weekend in New York with him and we saw five shows. I’m very interested in the theater. I spend a lot of time going and seeing things and I still travel extensively in Asia and in Europe on my own time.