Walter Hood is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio, Oakland, California, a cultural practice working across art, fabrication, design, landscape, research, and urbanism, and the David K. Woo Chair and professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley.
Rick Lowe is a Houston-based artist and professor of art at the University of Houston. He has exhibited and worked with communities nationally and internationally. His work has appeared in the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Venice Architecture Biennale; and Documenta 14, in Kassel and Athens. He is best known for Project Row Houses, a community-based art project that he started in Houston in 1993. Photo: Brent Reaney
Rick Lowe Should we start by speaking about history in general? It seems clear to me that we, as Black people, have to deal with the dirty truth of our history. We have to because our history lives with us so strongly, in every aspect of our lives. You can see it statistically, in terms of health, in terms of wealth, in terms of education. But white innocence cleans the slate, and then there’s a way for them to live without the messiness of the history.
Walter Hood Yes. It’d be great to have someone articulate that, because I can’t, right? I’m not in that position. I ask my nonbrown friends all the time, Tell me, and they look at me like I’m crazy. I’m like, No, I want to know. What were you taught in school and at home?
RL When I went to Tulsa to work on the Greenwood Art Project, we wanted to have a diverse group of artists tell the story of the Tulsa Massacre. Obviously the Black people have a deep connection to it—it’s been passed along—but I kept saying, White people were part of this history too. What’s their story? It’s amazing how detached the white people were from their history. We’d have these meetings, and it would be mostly Black people who’d come, but a few white people would join, and they were like, Well, I feel a little uncomfortable trying to tell this story that’s so much with Black people, and blah blah blah. But this is not just a Black people—
WH Not a one-sided conversation.
RL I was like, So you mean to tell me that Tulsa is a place where none of the white people have ancestors? These are all people who have migrated to Tulsa since this massacre? Very odd.
WH We’re complicit as well. There are ancestors who, once they were free, they did what they wanted to do. And sometimes passed. Throughout our history there have been people who chose to be white, right? We know this to be true.
WH So we’re complicit in these experiences, but at least we’ve been able to talk about it through art. Spike [Lee]’s movies from the late 1980s to the early 1990s—he brought these issues central, and we were able to talk about it in a very powerful way. You know, Woodrow Wilson screened Birth of a Nation, a Klan movie, in the White House—people should talk about that, versus going, That was just a blip. No, it wasn’t.
RL That whole history issue is so major and we’ve just got to figure out how to address it.
WH There are large concepts that we can talk about in different ways. One of them is the fiction that we created the Black neighborhood. No, we didn’t. We didn’t design these neighborhoods. We had to improvise. But now there’s a kind of romance, right? I don’t want to romanticize that; I want us to be clear about how we were stuck in these places and how we were able to survive—through the arts, through creativity, through nurturing.
RL We have a tendency to deal with history for the benefit of our present moment. That’s just a natural thing we do—we look around and see where we are, and then we start thinking, How do we fit in this place from a historical standpoint? And in order to take us in a forward direction, we try to twist things to give us momentum, because if we allow them to be twisted by other people, they’ll just take us down.
WH That’s the beauty of your Project Row Houses [in Houston]—it’s clear in my mind that you saw this architectural asset not as something from the past but as something that could take us into the future. The mindset wasn’t preservationist, about keeping things the same way—it actually became muscular, to a certain degree, allowing you to go forward. The other piece I was thinking about is that it gave white people a way to express their empathy without having to really step out of line, right?
WH They could come and really get involved. An art institution of this kind created a structure. I’m trying to get Jacksonville to think in the same way—the LaVilla neighborhood has all these shotgun houses and they want to make up a new frame. I’m like, No, let’s use the shotgun.
RL Yes, use what you have. It has a certain kind of richness in history. Also, the thing about the shotgun house is that it offers an opportunity for white people to reevaluate themselves in the context of something very familiar. It could be from an angle of them understanding a forced situation: we were forced to live in these neighborhoods with these kinds of houses. You can also look at it in terms of the ingenuity that impacted their architecture—I remember John Biggers talking about the efficiency of the shotgun house, in terms of how it was designed with the doors lined up for ventilation. And then later reading John Michael Vlach, who talked about how the shotgun house actually influenced the design of Southern mansions—they just sort of turned them to the side and put the porch on the broad side as opposed to the gable roof side.
In your estimation, from an architect standpoint, a designer standpoint, an artist standpoint, this notion of investing in ourselves and our own history and our own skills and the things that we already have—what are your thoughts on that and our ability to do it? On us being able to harness what we already have and leverage it to build a kind of a Black space?
WH It’s a tough thing, because I come out of two educational silos. I went to an HBCU [Historically Black College and University], which was completely constructed through the eyes of Booker T. Washington. Went to A&T [State University, North Carolina] and got a degree in landscape architecture through architecture. I could draw my ass off, right? But I wasn’t taught liberal arts, I wasn’t taught ethnography, I wasn’t taught political science, any of these other things. And when I went out and practiced, it was very clear to me that I couldn’t have that impact on these communities in which I was working. I was working in North Philadelphia, I was working in Harlem, but I couldn’t see past this kind of skill base.
And then, once I’d studied in a liberal-arts program at Berkeley, that quickly showed me the deficiency and gave me a different way to see how I could talk about my Blackness and how I could be impactful. It was on the West Coast, right, and when I came back to the East Coast, it was like, Holy shit, how do I operate? It was really hard, because people weren’t open to some of the ideas, like that there could be another way of talking about something, particularly through the lens of Blackness.
RL Walter, it’s so good that you’re saying that, because I’m dealing with that in my work now, as a kind of abstraction. When I started my career, I was doing what you were saying—I got to the point where I could draw people and I could make these images that show people, and it was direct. And then I did Project Row Houses in a Black community, so although from an art standpoint it was much more conceptual and abstract, in a sense, than what most people are accustomed to, its being based in a Black neighborhood anchored it for people, so they could look at that. They didn’t have to look at all the conceptual stuff, the Joseph Beuys stuff, social sculpture, conceptualism, and all that kind of stuff that the work was tied to.
But then I come along and start doing these paintings. I think when I was telling people that I was making paintings again, they thought they were going to see some Black people in the images [laughs]. And I was like, No, I’m not doing that.
WH That just shows the limitations that are put on us. It’s like, if you even just read the blurbs that come out about me today, “Walter works in disadvantaged neighborhoods, taking unused spaces—” That was twenty years ago, right? But that’s still how landscape architecture wants to position me. It infuriates me, but I’ve given up on trying to change it. I designed the Cooper Hewitt garden on Fifth Avenue in New York, but they can’t characterize me that way, which I think allows them to stay in power, right?
RL We do have these things where we’ve been forced to play the label game, right? Our society forces us to do that. We have to do it as Black people, women have to do it as women, everybody—there’s this forced being. And most of us don’t want to live in the box, because we’re human beings and we see the world in complex ways. But at the same time, many of us understand that label as being a box that has to be broken from the inside out—we’ve got to allow ourselves to be in that box and then break out of it, push it out. So of course there are lots of people who just want to kind of skirt around it and play, Race doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter. But that’s not going to get rid of the box. By trying to ignore the box, you’re just perpetuating it. But it’s an interesting dynamic that we’re in, in that on the one hand we have to embrace the notion of what Black space is and Black culture is, as a way of connecting with it and communicating with it to empower it to come out of the box, and then on the other hand we don’t even want to deal with that box either.
WH I remember my first year teaching, I presented a project in East Oakland to my faculty, and it was colorful, bold, expressionistic, and they immediately dove in and were like, How dare you subject these poor people to your artistic whims? I was like—what gives you the right to say that Black folk can’t have design, things that are speculative, things that are nonpaternalist, that come from a kind of wellspring of creativity? Name one community in America where the architecture of a Black community is expressive of a twenty-first-century kind of idea. None, right? We don’t have that benefit to go in and say, I can craft this other kind of aesthetic because I’m Black and it’s coming out of me. That’s how I want my Black Towers/Black Power project to read. They’re kind of crazy, but why can’t our shit be crazy? Why do we have to be so nonspeculative and derivative of these vernacular forms or paternalistic norms that keep us in a certain silo?
WH There’s probably a handful of artists of whom you can say, They just make work [laughs]. Those are people I look to. If you look at Martin Puryear’s early work, he’s doing landscapes, right? He’s doing sculpture. He’s doing architecture. That’s getting out of the box and saying, There has to be this freedom, and that I think is the only way culturally we can have a conversation in this country that’s equal, that’s on the same footing.
RL That’s right. And unfortunately, the only way we can do it is, we have to go rogue. We can’t do it within a context of a society; we’re always having to approach it in being seen from the outsider perspective. Actually, now that I say that, it’s like, Oh, we’re outsider artists? Outside of what?
WH Outside of what, right?
RL What the hell are we outside of? But speaking of outside, a few years ago—I guess it was around 2015—I was having a conversation with Theaster Gates and Mark Bradford about whether it was important that as three Black artists whose careers were going well, we have a commitment to the physical space of Black communities. And now I’m struggling with this notion of Black Wall Street in the same way. As you said earlier, Black people weren’t all living in the same place because they thought, Oh, this is cozy, we all want to be next to our people. We were forced to do it, right? But since desegregation, people have been able to move and go where they want.
And so the question is, how do we approach this idea of Black space and Black community in a time in which there is a kind of mobility, particularly among a certain segment of the Black population, which is the upper-income population? And that’s the part of the equation of the old Black Wall Street idea that made it work, right? That the lower-class, working-class folks were in close proximity to the higher-earning folks. So is it possible for us to think about Black community and Black neighborhoods in a way that offers opportunities around Black economic sustainability, or expands economic opportunity for more Blacks?
WH It’s a really good question, and a conundrum in a country that values a kind of preservation ethic for its history, keeping generations grounded in something very clear, as opposed to erasure. So when you get to Tulsa, Wilmington, all these places, they have to erase that shit. After the war, after integration, it had to go away, because that’s power. To me, the Black community as an image, as an institution, is power. And when you erase that, people have nowhere else to go, they’re just out wandering. So to me, it’s less about preserving and remaking the thing and more about acknowledging that the thing was there. And then can you put something on top of that thing that gives it footing. It’s almost like our infrastructure has been taken away from us as communities. And it’s not infrastructure that you can just point to, it’s this layered thing, a palimpsest. I mean, when I go to some places, like Harlem or the South Side of Chicago, there’s a sense of something. You can’t really characterize it, but you know that your ancestors walked in this place—I know that Malcolm stood here and talked, I know that this happened here and I know that this happened here. And as they were trying to get rid of some of those things in Harlem, people were like, Hell, no. Imagine if the Apollo was gone?
WH And there were Apollos in every neighborhood, when you think about it. In Jacksonville they still have the theater. So how do we somehow create a new way of not romanticizing these places, but saying, These are the infrastructural footings for the new generations, because you have to look back to go forward. It’s those things that I’m still trying to figure out in my head. I mean, what’s the next layer, and could that layer be something as simple as an educational institution? Places where we make work? It goes back to Project Row Houses, where there’s still that connection to our ancestors, which gives us strength to go forward.
RL Yes. That historical foundation is such a powerful argument for sustainability and growth, but you know, we don’t know how to own our history. So this exhibition that Antwaun [Sargent] is doing at Gagosian is called Social Works, and I think it’s very interesting that this conversation is happening in that kind of space. Also with you and the whole group having that conversation at MoMA about architecture. It’s an amazing moment in time—but I don’t know if it’s the beginning of something, the opening up of something, or if it’s just a moment.
WH Sorry, it’s a moment.
RL Oh, Walter, man, you’re too much like me. I’m looking for that person who’s going to be like, No, this is going to open up to the world.
WH It’s a moment, because the conversations are still set in these narrow contexts. Going back to our conversation about getting out of a box, I think when more of us break out of this box, that’s going to be the moment when shit starts to happen. Because we’ll have multiple voices then, right?
RL Absolutely. We’ve talked about this before: what’s missing in the current movements is any kind of infrastructure that develops institutions that can carry things broader and longer than we as individuals can. How can we build something that’s broader than me, broader than you? Because otherwise it’s just a moment.
WH It’s unfortunate: in this country things have to be cataclysmic for people to say, I’ve got to do something. It took the cataclysmic event of George Floyd—it had to be on TV, there had to be all this infrastructure to project this thing that’s so commonplace to so many people. But we don’t want these events to keep happening so that we keep having these moments.
I do think there’s one thing we can focus on that I’m beginning to see around me now—the notion of poverty. Every day here in Oakland we have a breadline that goes like three blocks. There are Asian people in the line, there are white people in the line, there are Black people in the line. There are millions of people in this country who are just poor.
RL That’s right.
WH And I think that might be a way to somehow get to a place where we can be on the same footing. Because the thing about food is, people come together over it. I was looking at some images from North Carolina during Jim Crow. Asheboro used to have these big barbeques. They would have this long spit and a long table, and on one side is Black folk and on the other side is white folk, but they’re all eating the same fucking barbeque.
WH Those are the kinds of things that might get people to begin to see. That’s the one place where people tend to come together, around being poor, right? And I just wonder, is that a place where you could begin to kind of talk about the commonality?
RL Yes. When you talk about poverty and being poor, that’s another thing that Black people have taken an overshare of responsibility of the identity for, right?
WH We’re hallmarked.
RL Right. I mean, when people say “poor” in America, it immediately goes to Black.
WH But we have ways to help other poor people.
RL That’s right, absolutely.
WH We’ve improvised it to a point where we got good at poverty [laughs]. Our food, our dress, our music, even our artistry—it’s rooted in poverty, but with that kind of improvisational spirit, instead of always lashing out, which I think a lot of nonbrown poor people do, right?
RL Look at the difference in terms of protests.
WH Right. We’re not going to the Capitol with guns. That’s the thing: when you see these images that have been broadcast from the Midwest with these armed militias, and contrast that with us doing the same thing . . . We know what happened to the Panthers, man. Those things are deep in our consciousness.
RL That’s it. As we started the conversation saying, this is not a time to breathe easy, it’s a time when we might be able to get some progress.
WH If our work can’t get empowered now . . . Now is the time for empowerment.
Artwork © Rick Lowe Studio
Social Works: Curated by Antwaun Sargent, Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, June 24–August 13, 2021
The “Social Works” supplement also includes: “Notes on Social Works” by Antwaun Sargent; “Lauren Halsey and Mabel O. Wilson”; “The Archives of Frankie Knuckles: Organized by Theaster Gates”; “Carrie Mae Weems and Maya Phillips”; “Sir David Adjaye OBE”; “Allana Clarke and Zalika Azim”; and “Linda Goode Bryant and DeVonn Francis”