Peter Walker has been reinventing himself as a designer for the past 40 years. A current partner at PWP Landscape Architecture, Walker has become known for his Minimalist design flair, relationship to the Modern style, and numerous additional achievements. One thing which has remained consistent throughout these years is Walker’s appreciation for art. His understanding of Minimalist and Modern design language through his academic studies, private collecting, and professional practice have positioned him and his team at PWPLA as an authority on the execution of these two styles.
I approached PWPLA before Mr. Walker’s visit to The University of Tennessee and asked if he and I could discuss his views on Modernism and Minimalism within landscape architecture today. For the interview I set out a list of questions which I thought would help designers better understand the Modern and Minimalist styles in landscape architecture. I also hoped to get a response from Mr. Walker about the appropriateness and relevance of Modern and Minimalist styles for today’s culture. The conversation that ensued helped reframe my understanding of these styles and the deeper issues under my questioning.
(*The following interview is not in transcript form but rather a mixing of guided thoughts and ideas as presented by Mr. Walker and edited by myself. First, Walker repositions understanding Modern landscape architecture design as something which cannot be fully realized at this point in time. He then discusses his ideas on style and how style develops. Finally, he provides examples within his own work of modern/minimalist style and where these ideals have come from.)
History and Understanding Style
Mr. Walker began our discussion by first saying that much of what we read regarding modernism in landscape architecture is ‘typically not scholarly conclusions,’ but rather ‘personal reactions’ by individuals who are not historians. “That doesn’t mean we can’t learn more” from these writings. The lack of writing on modernism in landscape architecture is a unique problem to examine. One of the major reasons for this is our proximity to the timeframe in which Modern design was most widely exercised.
Modernism began during the late 1920’s, stopped briefly during the Great Depression and World War II and then resumed after the war into the 1970s. “Most of the building was done in the 50s.” Understanding design and style comes from a critical response about a topic. “Our critical response is about sociology, landscape, and ecology. These did not really exist in the 50s consciousness.” Here, Walker is making a good point that much of the knowledge about modern landscape design which exists today is still developing. Those who were learning in the 1950s – 1970s “couldn’t read about these (issues). Teachers didn’t teach a critical response but more of a story about historical landscape.”
Designers, academics, and students are placed in a unique position. “We are kind of lost trying to put these things together ourselves. After time you find some things. But this doesn’t mean that this is systematic or true. It is a chaotic process,” Walker says. “This is a dialogue by art and cultural historians that isn’t going on in landscape architecture.” One such voice is English historian John Dixon Hunt. Hunt has been writing about gardens and designed landscapes since the 1970s. A more refined voice, Hunt helps to position landscape architecture in cultural and philosophical terms.
Design styles have developed throughout the ages, often times as a reaction to previous styles. Gaining a proper understanding of these styles and their genesis helps everyone gain a clearer understanding of their meaning and relevance.
One of my original intents in approaching Mr. Walker was to elicit ideas about Modern design and how it can become manifest or folded into today’s design vernacular. It seemed that in the works of many of the mid-century Modern landscape architects, there existed a response to current cultural trends which sometimes had roots in previous styles. Being sure to avoid a prescriptive answer, Walker said that one “shouldn’t tell other artists what they are supposed to do but encourage them to do what they think of.”
Styles, like any art, are an expression which is not only rooted in the past and present culture but an expression unique to the designer. Walker believes that “a lot of ideas don’t go anywhere.” That design is an “expansion of the consciousness. Some sit at a computer and draw all kinds of stuff, but you still have to build something. And that has to be recognizable. You can make styles on all sorts of things, but they have to be built and visible.”
One major act of claiming or creating a new style is the deliberate reaction against those styles which have come before. “Modernism came along and said everything that came before was terrible and nonsense. There are exceptions to this,” says Walker. “The Baroque hated the Renaissance and then Classical and so on. Minimalism rejected painting. It talked about the object. For instance, post-modernism loved the Baroque period. They loved crazy and kooky things. They used the rejection of modernism to become distinct.” Rejection, it seems, is a prerequisite for becoming something new.
Numerous designers have taken up the mantel of modern design. Oddly enough, while rejection was present, acceptance was also important. “Garrett Eckbo used Kandinsky. Lawrence Halprin used surrealism and was a naturalist and constructivist. Church brought back pools from Alto Europe. Mies van der Rohe was thinking of Japanese architecture. Fredrick Law Olmsted was a nature copier copying the Hudson River Artists.” Olmsted’s Central Park and Halprin’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial are examples to examine.
One notable landscape architect was Daniel Urban Kiley. “Kiley is a classicist. But not inspired from history. He got it from looking into modern architecture. They were then doing buildings with rows of columns. He transferred this into the landscape.” Later this became obvious. “Kiley used grids of trees, hedges aswalls. He was building a classical vocabulary, partly evolved from architecture, but really borrowing from the Greeks and some of the Renaissance.” It seems that style was and is a process of developing a language. Like language, a basic set of rules are set forth and then embellishments come later.
These embellishments are continuing today. Like the styles of old, current styles are serving as a representation of current philosophical and sociological paradigms. Planning is transitioning from its post-war appreciation for suburbia to something that is more urban in nature and systems efficient . Ecological design is emerging into new realms as well. Ecological design has surfaced numerous times in the past, more substantially in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today’s push for ecologically sustainable design is rooted in the words of Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Thayer, Ian McHarg, and other notable environmentalists. Stylistically it is being realized in many different ways than before. A specific vocabulary and design vernacular is being established which will one day be viewed as a separate and distinguishable style. Referring to water and grass Walker says, “Look at it in two ways. We use them (water and grass) but we don’t use it as a primary source. Fritz Steiner is one individual who is using these materials. They are trying to make an expression out of those things. Now you see more native grasses than anything else. This gets ecology into design but there is not a style yet. Technology is another element which changes our view. Our knowledge changes how we can build.” Recently there have been “lots of writing and interest in water. Focusing on water has developed a lot of landscapes which are distinct.” Minimalists use this focus to their advantage.
***Thanks for reading this first of a two part interview with Peter Walker of PWPLA. Check back on Monday January 20th for the second part of the interview. Read about how Peter Walker has taken his experiences and knowledge and transferred his understanding into his designs. See you then!
Go HERE for part two of the interview with Peter Walker of PWPLA