Walter Hood in his West Oakland office
In neighborhoods where redevelopment can lead to gentrification, Oakland architect Walter Hood is flipping the script.
His work redesigning Lafayette Park in Old Oakland and Splashpad Park by Lakeshore has won him international acclaim and contracts throughout the nation. His community integration approach to public spaces is helping to preserve multicultural visions and multilayered uses in the Bay Area.
"I think in any sustainable community there has to be diversity of race, class, politics," Hood says. "Any time you create a homogenous environment you have problems."
Recently, Hood's company - West Oakland-based Hood Design - was approved to help re-imagine, restore and retain the beauty of San Francisco's Bayview Opera House. Hood Design is working in partnership with both Tom Eliot Fisch and Knapp Artchitects to help update the building so that it will be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and also to fix some longstanding water-proofing problems.
Hood calls Bayview Hunters Point the sister neighborhood of West Oakland.
"Both have been marginalized through planning, politics and an economic unawareness, et cetera," he says. "Both are also going through amazing demographic transformations." Both neighborhoods have also become known for their historic buildings.
As Hood describes the project, he also recounts his conversations with the community.
"The Opera House is a late 19th century building sitting in a very contemporary urban landscape. Our first mission was to try to understand ... what does that mean?"
He discovered that city officials had often imagined uses for the site that were sometimes incongruous. The building functions as a performing arts center, but also provides non-arts after school care and a gardening program. As the architects worked to integrate these diverse functions, Hood asked both city officials and community members if other community resources could "take some of the weight off the Opera House so that it can really be a true arts center?"
In May, the San Francisco Civic Design Review Committee approved Phase I of the project, paving the way for construction of accessible bathrooms and walkways, a new commemorative plaza and outdoor stage and significant landscaping projects. According to meeting minutes "The historic bedrock of the building will be replicated under the walkway with a native planting palette referencing the natural history of the neighborhood. Trees will be removed from the front of the building to increase visibility and security, but additional street trees will be planted on elsewhere on the site."
In order to "bring the community to embrace the building" Hood and his staff designed a whole new level surface that will envelop the building. This glass walkway will surround the building and allow community members to enter from one elevation, even though the building itself sits on a typical San Francisco slope. Hood says this is a very common approach to buildings in Europe - to make the modern additions distinctively different and allow layers of history.
"The porch on the Opera House was added in the 1970s," Hood says. "There was a building on the corner, but now it's gone. We're trying to show the that this building had add ons and we're adding another piece."
It's clear why this Cal Berkeley grad is now a popular professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning. Questions about the Opera House project spark powerful words about the connections between public spaces and the people who use them. He is passionate about design that takes into consideration all elements: trees, grass, walkways, seating areas, even light fixtures and garbage cans. He calls this Bayview project, "a way to talk about culture, history, accessibility that doesn't negate the past 100 years."
Hood also connects the dots between use and misuse of design, lamenting the closure of West Oakland's Key System Train Station.
"How do we revitalize a neighborhood? Put a train station there!" he questions. Yet he cautions that design can't fix social problems. "Infrastructure has fallen out and we expect public spaces to pick up the slack."
Hood remains critical of the usual rhetoric that West Oakland is being revitalized in order to white-wash the neighborhood.
"Gentrification gets overused … When historic communities like Seventh Street in Oakland, Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, The Hill in in Pittsburg were strong, they were diverse," he says. "When you look at their heyday they were all poor working class people of different races. People want things to stay the same and cities are dynamic."