A Conversation with Peter Walker, FASLA
Kevin W. Sloan, ASLA
On August 23rd, 2011, I had the privilege of interviewing Peter Walker, FASLA for a writing assignment I was given by Texas Architect Magazine. Although the focus of the telephone interview was to discuss his recently completed project at the University of Texas – Dallas, the hour-long conversation expanded into much broader discussion about contemporary culture, current design practice and host of other issues.
I transcribed the interview and it is offered without abridgement. Only minor refinements were made where the spontaneity of the spoken word, deserved clarification for reading.
Interview Conducted: August 23rd
Transcript Completed: September 2nd, 2011
Transcription by: Kevin Sloan
Regarding; The PWP Project at the University of Texas Dallas
Assignment: Texas Architect Magazine
Copyrighted: Kevin Sloan Studio
All rights reserved. No reproductions without written consent
KWS: Hello Peter. Kevin Sloan calling.
PW: Hi, How are you?
KWS: I’m fine. Good afternoon and thanks for taking my call. I’m absolutely delighted you’ve got a moment to talk about UT-Dallas.
PW: Me too. I’m always eager to talk about UT-Dallas.
KWS: Wonderful, wonderful. I understand from Chris that you’re out all next month. More work in China or is it the 9/11 anniversary?
PW: No, I’m going to Sidney tomorrow night for a long week. And then I come back and then I’ve got two days. And then I actually go down to Dallas for a meeting and then I go on the 6th or 7th I have to be in New York and that runs through the 12th and then I’m going toEurope.
KWS: Sounds demanding.
PW: It’s a bunch of stuff and takes a lot of time. (Laughing)
KWS: Well if you ever have an idle moment, I’d love to meet you for coffee at the Nasher.
PW: I’d love to do that too.
KWS: I don’t know how much Chris shared with you, but I’m a freelance writer for Texas Architect Magazine, which is the monthly publication of the AIA. It’s a publication that’s largely interested in explanatory articles.
Know you knew David Dillon, right?
PW: Very well. He was a dear friend.
KWS: He was to many….
PW: He wrote books for us.
KWS: That’s right….We miss him terribly. He was a very close personal friend and mentor of mine. In fact, ten years ago he nominated me for a Loeb Fellowship (at Harvard)
PW: Did you go?
KWS: Unfortunately, I was a bridesmaid. I made it all the way to the final interview but wasn’t selected. But David was always encouraging me to take another try at the Loeb or even the Rome Prize.
PW: Well you know I’ve been on both of those juries from time to time. And you do have to keep trying. The juries vary each year. Their sensibilities and attitudes vary each year.
When we put a project in for an AIA or ASLA award we figure three years because, you never know what the jury is going to be or who you’re going to be up against.
KWS: You know when I did my master of architecture I won a fellowship through Syracuse University to live in Florence and I’ve always wanted to go back, like there was little bit more to do.
PW: I was just there in May.
I go to the Academy every year at the end of their year. It’s not commencement exactly but it’s like that. At the end of the academic year and it’s when they have open studios and all the fellows show what they’ve done for that year and they take the trustee’s around which is really interesting and you go with the fellows and you go with the residents. And those are people that really know a lot by then about various things. And they take you places and they tell you things you would never hear otherwise. My wife and I do that each year and it’s always a very interesting time.
KWS: Well I feel an urge that I’m due for another trip to Italy and I think my wife and I may go over for Christmas.
PW: We always have the urge. We used to have a house in Pietrasanta.
We have a place in Mendocino up on the north coast of California I always have an urge to go up there too but I don’t go to Italy as much I’d like even though I’ve been there a couple a weeks this year.
KWS: We could take all of your time and just talk about Tuscany and Villa Gamberaia.
PW: Act on your urge.
KWS: We will. Based on your encouragement, I’ll tell my wife to book the flights after this discussion.
PW: So how are you looking at this problem? What would you like to know?
KWS: I’ve mapped out several questions. As I mentioned to Chris and why I brought up David (Dillon,) I’m not going to write about UT-Dallas as David might with a critical viewpoint.
Texas Architect largely prefers explanatory articles. So my task and my charge is really to convey the designers intention to the readers which is largely an architectural audience.
So it’s really about you and big picture issues. Not so much about details.
I should mention it’s just you, me, the speakerphone and a digital recorder, so I won’t miss anything or lose time backtracking.
How’s all that sound?
KWS: You’ve done quite a number of projects in DFW. How has your conception about Texas evolved as you moved from one commission to the next. Texas as a place to build. Texas as an environment and ecology. Texas as cultural context?
PW: Well you know I’ve been working in Texas for forty years. Not 15 or 20. I was down there first for Gerald Hines, when Gerry was still practicing and still running his firm. And then we did a lot of work for Trammell Crow and for Lincoln. We did a lot of housing for them. So I’ve been in Texas a long, long time and doing things, which were development and sales-oriented all the way up to institutional works.
My view of Texas was not one of shock or surprise because I really can remember when the airport was put in and what a huge difference that made from flying into Love Field.
So anyway, I don’t remember my attitude about Texas changing or evolving.
What I do remember, when we first went down there it was a boom place like southern California. Everything was about commercial stuff. Shopping centers and housing and cluster housing all sorts of commercial things.
And then the second round, which started maybe thirty years ago, was we went down to Fort Worth and worked on Burnet Park there. We were working for Ann (her name escapes me) and that was a project which was done in the remembrance of her grandfather. It was a park that he had built that was kind of falling apart and it was interesting because the park was…(falling apart)…the stone falling apart, the concrete was falling apart, the fountains didn’t work, but the trees had been growing for twenty five or thirty years and so we did a scheme that was built around those trees. And I remember that. And I remember talking to Ann when we did it and she said, — They’d done a little competition– “You’re the only one that focused on the trees.”
You always think that stone lasts forever but trees are actually more hardy unless somebody kills them.
So, that was the first institutional job I did in Texas.
And that was about the same time that Philip Johnson was doing the Water Gardens (in Fort Worth) and all of that stuff. So it was part of a whole series of institutions things — you know Louie Kahn had just built the museum.
So I had a very strong view of Texas from the beginning.
My second round there was very high minded. It was with people who were trying to bring Texas up and to make Texas a much more sophisticated and cosmopolitan kind of place.
And then of course the Nasher came along and it was right next to what Dan Kiley had done at the museum (DMA) that I’m sure you’re familiar with, and also what he had done at Fountain Place.
So my view of Texas was of a rather ambitious, culturally oriented place. And the people who were being flown in were asked to do, is give form to that impulse.
So when Margaret (McDermott) came along and she and her husband had founded this university — they went out and bought a cotton field and started a university. And it was a kind of adjunct of Texas Instrument. Eugene McDermott was one of the founding partners of Texas Instrument.
And there was another couple who were also partners at Texas Instrument.
They started the university because they couldn’t get engineers and the engineering schools at UT-Austin were not as sophisticated as they are now. Their idea was to build an academy that was something more like Cal-Tech or more like MIT, than the large university’s like Texas A&M and UTA.
These were people of a very high-mind and Margaret and her husband gave a tremendous amount of money, first to the museum (DMA) and you go through the museum and every other thing is essentially Margaret’s gift to the museum. But they were also very active in trying to develop engineers and working in education. They gave a tremendous amount of money to MIT over the years in the form of fellowships there, as they do at UT-D.
And Ray (Nasher) was on the group (selection committee) and I’d known him for years but I’d worked for him on the museum. (Nasher Sculpture Center)
These weren’t, you know, country bumpkins. These are very sophisticated people. As sophisticated as anyone I’ve worked for anywhere in the world.
So my view of Texas is not jaundiced at all because I’ve dealt with such terrific people. And we’ve always had wonderful architects to work with. It was the highest level of my practice.
The only stuff in my whole practice that is any better at a consistent level wasJapan, which, you know is a case unto itself.
So my view of Texas was not anything except very high minded — very ambitious and determined people. These were people who were giving money or building something because they thought they wanted to really bring Texas up.
I never knew any ‘down,’ I only saw the ‘up’ part.
That was my view of it.
Margaret came to us along with Ray and a few other people on the committee. And I remember when we interviewed we had to go around the campus. The campus was really kind of ‘bland,’ concrete and dark glass. It sort of looked like an industrial park that hadn’t been planned. They’d just built some buildings and kept building more.
They showed me a master plan they hadn’t been following that was basically a master plan of roads. Where do you park and how many roads can you get in? All that kind of stuff.
So we were asked to do a master plan at the same time we were asked to do this sort of transformative thing. Margaret said to us, “Look, this is my husband’s and my life’s work, And we want – and she’s a hundred now – this was about eight or nine years ago, we want to leave this campus in as first class order as we can.
They’ve done a tremendous amount; they’re very high in the academic standing the engineers that graduate there. It’s interesting because they have as many night students as they have day students. So it’s sort of like a junior college, except it’s a very sophisticated engineering school – primarily an engineering school.
They brought in cultural people. John Cane. When I was teaching at Harvard, he was chairman in planning at the GSD and I was chairman in landscape so we were colleagues. They brought all these kind of really sophisticated people down there.
But it didn’t look like anything.
So Margaret said, “We want to do something. We want a garden…or we want a plaza or something like that but we want it to be transformative.”
We want the students not to just come here and get an education and then….You know I went to a junior college in an old Kaiser shipyard in California and my memory of that was wonderful in terms of my student friends and some faculty and so forth. But my memory of it physically, I couldn’t even draw you a little plan of it anymore.
It had no presence at all.
So that’s what she (Margaret) wanted. And she said, that I don’t know how much this is going to cost, I don’t know what it should be, but I want you to make some suggestions.
So we did a Master Plan which is a very interesting way of looking at a campus, and it give you an idea of what seems to be working, because there’s always something in a campus that’s working and what really wasn’t working and why the place looked the way it did.
And so when I went back to her after we had done this little Master Plan study and I said, “You know Margaret, if we could do three things, we can transform this place. But what’s important is that we have to take a visitor, or a student, or whomever; we have to take them from Campbell Road all the way up into the heart of the Campus and that whole sequence of events has to be thought of in theatrical, processional terms.
It’s more like when you come in to Harvard Square and you walk across the square and then you walk in the yard and then you go over to the GSD. That whole sequence was missing. There wasn’t anything memorable about walking around — or driving around for that matter.
And I said, “If we’re going to this. This is a kind of linear thing that’s a series of events that build up into something and then into a sense of arrival. You’ve got to go through this process and then you’ve got to get there. And then you’ve got to turn around and go out and go out to Campbell Road again.
Now the thing about the campus which I found interesting is that the neighborhoods around the campus which are just tract housing, have been planted for years and they were beautiful. They were nice places middle class, not upper middle class, but they were leafy, green, you know Texas.
You know everyone thinks of Dallas as the freeways, but when you get into the neighborhoods and especially if you get into the wealthy neighborhoods, they are some of the most beautiful places.
KWS: You know if you get up on a second or third floor of a Dallas building, all you see is the tree canopy; it completely disguises the buildings and the scale of the city.
PW: Oh that’s funny because you don’t see any of them when you drive through the freeways because all you see are tire shops and car dealers and sex video places.
PW + KWS: (Laughing together)
PW: So I said okay, let’s deal with each of these things. We don’t have endless amounts of money. And one of the things we found out in the master plan is that these were just old cotton fields. Dead level. Didn’t have any character, but there were originally three creeks that went through this place.
And one of them over on the east side is still in place.
And another one was made into a parkway where they grassed the whole creek and there was a portion of the creek again which runs through the campus again, on the east side which they’ve taken down all the trees and grassed it and made a really ugly place in there.
And then, of course they had this awful road that went in and dead-ended and it was a ditch. It was a kind of drainage channel that they’d made into a big road going in.
So I said, why don’t we think about the campus as these three creeks, which give you character and a back-up and let’s not build anything in the front of the campus, let’s leave it in play fields because when you drive in you see people out playing. Not just the campus people but the people from the town play out there. It’s a big park for everybody. And then you arrive somewhere and you get out of your car, you’re not allowed to drive in anymore. You get out of your car and then you walk in.
First there’s a kind of majestic thing made out of trees and water and so forth. That sort of institutional place and then you arrive at a plaza, which is lively and full of students and has a fountain and benches and you know, has all that kind of stuff because it’s between the student center and the library. So it’s the busiest place – the busiest pedestrian place in the whole campus.
We’ll make that into something and then we’ll make it in such a way that none of these parts are like anything any other university has. We’ll make a real effort to not make it look like any other university. Not the University of Texas. Not the University of Illinois. We will develop a vocabulary that is unique to the whole school.
And that was the whole deal.
KWS: Peter, I would like to use your nomenclature when describing the project. For example I don’t want to refer to the monumental entry piece as an exedra if you were thinking of it as a crescent. Take me through the sequence of landscape types and give me some proper names to describe them. For example, the majestic piece you were describing, reads like a French garden.
PW: It is a garden. It’s an Imperial Garden. It’s a garden like the Alhambra. It’s a garden like Versailles. You know, if you go back to the ‘Great White City,’ what they were doing was basically rebuilding European Capitols. They put the dome on the buildings, made the great water space, they were building these great civic places.
I’m a modernist but I’m a great fan of Le Notre. And I think taking command of these big spaces and making them exhibit that grandeur. That is one of the things that you can do and it’s pretty cheap if you do it with landscape, which is a lot cheaper than trying to do it with buildings and architecture.
KWS: I want to talk about the Main Axis. It’s such a striking and insistent kind of condition in the overall concept and it allows for comparison with other great axes in the landscape history. Villa Lante, French Gardens, the US Capital Mall.
And there maybe an interesting corollary with Jefferson and UVA– come along with me for a moment.
Apparently, Jefferson originally designed the UVA quad with the axis open at both ends as a metaphor of connecting the city with the Blue Ridge Mountains. He showed it to LaTrobe who thought it was irresolute and he convinced Jefferson to close one end with the library.
PW: And then McKim did the other end.
KWS: That’s right.
PW: Do you know the University of Washington? That was an Olmstedian garden.
KWS: Oh right.
PW: He made the mall, but he made it like it would be in the north woods because when he went out there Seattle was a really rough place and so he made this allee and the end of it were the mountains. He succeeded where I thinkJefferson….I think those moves were wrong. I think Jefferson was probably better off; he shouldn’t have been persuaded and stuck to his guns.
But I think that’s a great observation. Great idea.
The idea that things are open at both ends is interesting to me.
KWS: As purely a discussion of formal strategy, put the UTD axis – into a broader historical context of other great axial constructions. And the fact that your project has this kind of wonderful open ended quality, that while there are elements that terminate the axis, the mound, the fountain – it seems, at least to me, that it’s an axis that seems to go on forever.
PW: Well the mound isn’t termination. Because as the trees grow up on the creek, that planting will gradually get higher than the mound. So as you look down the axis you seen this green object, you’ll see behind it, this creek that leads up from Campbell Road.
And there’s one other thing here.
The reason I mention LeNotre. LeNotre was always dealing with flatland. With farmland. A lot of LeNotre’s strategies if you think of Sceaux. A lot of LeNotre’s strategies were how to deal with these great, vast, flat areas.
So I don’t think at all of UTD as at all Italianate. I see it as very French.
When I first saw the French Gardens – I’m a collector of minimal art – and when I went over there, I’d been trying for a long time to figure out how to make gardens out of these minimal devices. Like Carl Andre or like the insistent thing you have with Judd. Very carefully calibrated series and sets of elements.
And I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I give a lecture on this.
I just couldn’t figure out how to take Judd and Andre and these people and make spaces out of them.
And the summer after I started doing this I took some students I was teaching at Harvard at the time, to France. And I was sitting at Vaux and I was sitting up at the steps looking down the major axis, and there were Judd’s ! — only they were gumdrops… they were little topiaries and he was doing everything that the modernists were doing. He was even doing Mies. Suddenly I just realized it was not just great because it was big, it was great because it was modern.
It had changed the game.
It was no longer the English Garden. It was no longer the locks and rills and the romantic this and that’s. It was a completely different vocabulary, which is what I pretty much use all the time, one way or another.
So you’re exactly right. That’s where it comes from…
And then the other thing about LeNotre, which I think is so important, is that he’s shown that you can take vast spaces and bring them into scale.
Now I’m a great fan of Dan Kiley. Dan on a couple of projects, perhaps the Miller Garden is the best one, he was able to make, in very simple terms – Miller is not an elaborate garden in terms of high finishes and things like that. – but it is platted and placed in such a way it is the equal of any of the villas.
Dan saw that as modern. And I see that as modern.
KWS: There’s also Dan’s marvelous work at the Nelson Atkins in Kansas City.
PW: Isn’t it incredible?
KWS: What strikes me about it, somewhat like the interior spaces of the Kimball, is how it’s pre-modern in the axial direction and modern in the other.
It’s presents itself like a classic A-B-A organization but especially in how Steven Holl’s addresses it, slithering down the side, you see it’s modernity open up as a system of elements.
PW: Harry Cobb gives a wonderful lecture. He says all great architecture is ambiguous. You think it’s one thing. But it could also be another.
It’s a little like writing.
It may be objective and here are some people going to a village but there’s something else going on in there too. And they often are not on the same track, they intertwine and that’s what makes novels, I think.
I think architecture is a lot like that too. People who say, well, it’s an axis, it’s so simple.
It’s not simple. Look at the way they play it out. Particularly in ones that are spare…..likeChantilly. Those gardens, they have no means…they are there and there’s no stuff.
Their scale is perfect. It’s majestic. That’s really the highest form of this kind of stuff.
KWS: Peter, let’s go off script for a moment, because listening to you reminds me of something one of my architectural mentors, Werner Seligman and occasionally Colin Rowe who would visit taught me.
That architecture and by logical extension, landscape architecture is a “knowledge-based activity.”
The way you are talking about your work in relationship directly or indirectly to other seminal places seems to come from the same sympathy…
PW: There are two kinds of knowledge. The first one is historic knowledge. You have to know the history of your own art…If you’re an artist and you don’t know the history of art you’re bound to repeat it and in a not very interesting way. If you think you’ve discovered something; in fact it was already there. So you’re a fool.
So you need historic knowledge, but you also need the knowledge of craft. It’s where those two knowledge lines come together, that I think you have your real operation.
It has nothing to do with fancy materials. Mies did just as well with brick and steel as he did with bronze. He wasn’t limited by those things.
But it’s where those two lines come together.
Mies knew his history and of course, he was a great craftsman. Put those two together and you have…(unintelligible) You have to know about proportion and other things or else it doesn’t turn out so well. But I think you take those two and it is knowledge based and it’s something you can think about but you also have to be very careful that you’re feeling about it also.
KWS: I heard at a lecture by another prominent landscape architect (MVV) declare that in his view, contemporary landscape works are either, “Too architectural, or too artistic.” It left me wondering, “What’s left?”
I preface that by saying that also by adding that one of my architectural colleagues at Princeton, observes that landscape architecture seems to be losing its’ ability to make form – to make space and to make a good place.
He went on to say that after we lost Dan Kiley, his words, “Peter Walker is the only landscape architect that can make a decent form and space on the land.”
PW: You know Olmsted coined the phrase “Landscape Architect,” and he didn’t put architect on that name because he wanted it to be like architecture. He put it on because he wanted it to be like art. He couldn’t say “Landscape Artist,” because it sounds like a group that ‘s painting landscapes like the Hudson River School. Which he was very influenced by.
But he insisted that it was an art.
If you think of something, say gardening as an activity, if you think about it as romance, this notion that you’re not supposed to see the hand of man, is a real trap.
KWS: Agreed. Indeed. I think it comes from a suspicion that the hand of man – which is a useful phrase – can only produce a deleterious effect to the environment. So words like “natural,” seemed favored over….
PW: Well, “naturalistic” is fine. Natural is not fine. The landscape architect is not trying to be natural.
Olmsted did beautiful things that were biomorphic, but they were naturalistic and he made that clear.
KWS: A good distinction that I’m not sure many really understand.
PW: This is a work of art. This is not “real” nature.
KWS: Changing directions, Paul Venable Turner wrote a wonderful book, “Campus.”
KWS: …and he established several classifications. There’s the “Academical Village,” that’s Jefferson’s view: The University as City Beautiful. The Monastic Quadrangle.
Your project at UT-Dallas, using landscape as an organizing force to identify a campus and make a place that wasn’t in the process of becoming, seems like a new kind of category.
Does it also have broader applications to sprawling cities that may never have the resources to remake themselves with architecture and figure/ground?
PW: I think it has application because that’s what I do. I think the history of the universities and university design is one thing inAmerica and another thing elsewhere.
We have this Beaux Arts tradition. We have the Great Mall’s stemming from Jefferson. It was a Georgian thing at first, and then it became Beaux Arts,
These vast spaces, which I think, are really wonderful. A lot of times the garden was put down first and the buildings were trained to be around them, which forced them not to be random or careless.
Part of our strategy, even though we came after the buildings; we took the buildings that were there but we also provided some spatial guidance where the next buildings should be. You don’t make the space recognizable or…you know people don’t see it as something versus nothing and therefore you can’t put anything in it. But if you can make it a space that isn’t empty – it may be entirely spatial – like the University of Illinois, or some of those. Just a great space. But it’s not empty.
You need to put something in it. People say, “Why are you putting something in it?” It’s like the mall in Washington. There’s always this battle that if some architect or sculptor would love to be in the mall. That battle has been resisted pretty much over the years and that’s why the US Capitol Mall is still intact.
I remember telling Michael Arad this, these voids he was doing…these Michael Heizer-like voids he was doing…I said you know our job is to convince a lot of people that nothing is really something. And that’s a lot of what modern art is about, that‘s a lot what dance is all about.
There are a whole series of things where you sort of weave a tapestry where nothing takes on very strong form and it hits you culturally. And that’s the game.
KWS: Robert Campbell and I once spoke about the Rose Kennedy Greenway. In his view and in a similar way to UT-Dallas, landscapes came in afterward to mend an urban or architectural problem and establish an identity. In Robert’s view the unfinished problem yet to be solved at the Boston project, is the jagged urban fabric made by the freeway, which remains.
How important was your master plan and the addition of the Visitors Center and the new Student Center on the western edge of the axis to establish a more proper figure ground and spatial definition for your landscape?
PW: Honestly, we’ll just have to wait and see. The people who run the university are not rocket scientists. Some of them see what’s there and some of them don’t. A lot of them will come and say, “Oh, it’s just wonderful Pete.” And then they’ll suggest putting something smack in the middle of it. So clearly you’re hoping that people will love it enough that people won’t ruin it.
But on the other count there are a lot of other kinds of space. You’ve been to Cordova, the great mosque?
KWS: Yes. Right…..
PW: It’s full of stuff. It’s like a forest in there. That’s what is so great about it. It’s not just space, but a kind of space.
Oh course, that’s what the memorial is. You know. Unlike the project in Dallas, which is sort of carved out, the memorial is filled. But it is filled in order to make a plane from which these voids drop.
That’s a very complex thing. It seems kind of simple when you go there. But it’s a very complex thing.
The way the Le Notre would handle something like this, he’d go into the woods and cut a hole and if you want to contrast or make the woods read, cut a hole in it and let the sun in so that you can see the woods.
Look at the Tuilleries, you walk down the Tuilleries, and the strongest place in the Tuilleries is not the axis, it’s the spaces along the side where they’ve placed sculpture and other things. Those rooms which are made by light coming all the way to the ground and every place else is canopied and shadow is everywhere and the light comes down. That’s powerful stuff.
KWS: Love your analogy of landscape and the Cordova mosque. It’s a good segue to talk about your hypostyle of columnar trees.
Obviously we’ve had a lot of heat and drought lately – Time Magazine just did a feature article about the Texas drought – I’m asking this because I’m anticipating the readers may ask, “Why did Peter use a columnar tree versus a canopy tree?” Say in the same way as the axis at SMU, which is also an A-B-A basilica of trees. It’s one of the other memorable places in Dallas and it’s largely a landscape.
PW: Have you read, ‘The Poetics of Space?”
KWS: Sure. But I’ve not re-read it recently or enough.
PW: There is a large part of it that’s about archetype. It’s taking the archetypical thing that all of us have.
We’re all different and our psychologies are different but the symbols within the psychology are shared. And he conjectures it’s imbedded in our DNA. We’re born with it. Maybe monkeys have it also. Who the hell knows?
KWS: Right. Because our hard wiring is all the same, we understand and recognize patterns more or less the same…
PW: So that’s what I think. I think tunnels are wonderful. I think colonnades are wonderful. I think regular shadows are wonderful. Columns themselves are wonderful.
And we used that because we were using water. And water works when you get light on it. So if you have a tunnel and you have water in the tunnel it’s like putting it indoors. It never has the kind of light and liveliness it needs. You’ve got to get light onto the water.
And then I was looking for columnar tree and I didn’t want to use the same one that Kiley used at Fountain Place the cypress because they grow so fast and they really do need more care than other kinds of trees.
But also Margaret (McDermott) loves flowers. And god, I thought if we could use columnar trees that would come out and flower, that would be different than anything else anywhere. I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen cypress used that way. I’ve seen many of the cedars grow up that way. People also use poplars for this, that’s LeNotre.
Have you ever been to Sceaux?
KWS: I’ve drawn and analyzed Versailles and Vaux. Hopefully Sceaux is next and sometime soon.
PW: One of the great gardens. He used them along these great canals. You not only get the shadows going across but you get the reflections going down in the water. So the trees look like they’re up and down, like they look along a river.
He abstracted all of that.
So I thought we could probably get something out of that in doing it with Magnolias, which is a very southern kind of thing. Most everyone uses magnolias as canopies. So it was a chance to turn the thing around.
KWS: I’m sitting here looking at photo’s on my computer of the UTD project, there’s this remarkable quality that when you stand right on the axis the magnolias act like the columnar peristyle of a Greek temple. They visually close as they recede into perspective, and open as they advance to the foreground.
In this view I took, which will not be published, Stephen Sharpe the editor is likely to get photos from your office or the magazine may take their own – anyway, when you look down the axis you’re largely unaware of the buildings. It’s a fabulous transformation.
PW: You know if you expect a campus to have all great architects and all great buildings, …you’re really going to be sad.
KWS: (Laughing out loud) So this was a contingency plan?
PW: When you get a Paul Cret for a whole section of a campus, you can get that. You can get a composition that’s complete. Let’s face it, in the US, we build campuses very fast and you’d be lucky to get a few good one’s out of twenty.
And so, something else has to hold this all together.
And I would just correct you. You know the hyperstyle (sic) was a representation of trees.
KWS: (interjecting)…of course.
PW: … trees are not a representation of the hyperstyle. It’s the other way around.
Even on the Corinthian ones, at the top, they put leaves from the trees.
KWS: …and Laughier’s primitive hut came first…
PW: …that’s right….and they were logs first…
KWS: …and the hypostyle was the multiplication of the tree, column and hut into a field condition….
PW: Yes. The key is the trees came before the buildings.
KWS: You’ve been very generous with your time. A couple more questions as we move to close.
- How do you want this particular work to be seen in your larger body of accomplishment?
- How does it sit within your many accomplishments?
- Was it in your office at a time with other projects that segue to what you’re doing now?
- As we write this article and it becomes a historical marker of your thoughts about the UTD project, how do you want the UTD project, to sit within your larger body of work?
PW: We do these projects that are based on flatness and vertical repetition, which this garden is one. But, we also do other things.
Like for instance, when you come up the main drive (UT-Dallas) you’re going through a creek.
You’re going through a kind of naturalistic landscape – it’s very man made – but it’s also like driving along a creek.
You ever, as a kid, walk down a creek? It’s that kind of experience.
And then you come out and the other thing becomes very architectonic. We do these kinds of things also.
Sasaki used to say that landscape architecture is one of the few art forms where it is both biomorphic and architectural. Where you get your most impact is when you compare or contrast one with the other.
Sometimes, for instance you’re doing very formal and then you use informal trees to go out and join with the surrounding landscape. Sometimes it’s the reverse, the formal goes into the natural.
Think of the NY Times building, where you build this tremendous edifice, like is made out of toothpicks and so refined and then there’s this little courtyard with a bunch of birch, that completely reverses it.
And that’s a very powerful thing to do.
It’s a different kind of perfection to have something that’s just doing it’s own thing.
I think it’s those contrasts. We’re always playing one against the other in different ways. We do it often. We always play one thing against the other. Sometimes it’s a sequence, sometimes it’s working the way I was saying, the inside and the outside playing against each outside.
But that’s very consistent with what we do. I think, this piece of work is not that different in the spirit with a lot of other things we do.
However, Judd’s line of, “A designer leaves function at his peril.” You have to keep in mind this is design and not art. And so, each project is quite different, not just because it is in a different climate and has different plants and things like that. But quite different, because the functions are different.
So if you look at Mies’ work superficially, “Well you know, there’s always this module of five feet, he builds with steel, always turns the corner this way, and a lot of that is true.” But each building is different. You go to IIT and every building is distinct unto its function. He never forgot the role of function is shaping his architecture.
He talked about universal space but he wasn’t talking about universal buildings.
And I think that is a distinction that I try and keep in mind.
So I don’t see these things…you know…sometimes we’re progressing in that way. Sometimes we’re regressing (laughing)…it doesn’t always work. I think that it’s all part of the same general area of inquiry which has been going on ever since I went back and started teaching and that’s pretty much when I left development architecture or landscape architecture and went to institutional landscape architecture.
So of the last twenty five years or so, since I’ve been teaching at Harvard it began with experiments with my students, and you know, George Hargreaves was a student, Martha Schwartz was a student, I worked with at a very experimental level when we were in classes together.
And then we’ve all gone on to try and accomplish these things. I think each of these things, no matter what they’re worth, are very consistent in terms of kind of things that are trying to be done and grasping possibilities that are inherent in the function or inherent in the climate. Whatever it is they hold a practice together. And the variety comes out of that interchange.
Now as you were saying, it’s this continuum of knowledge – the historical knowledge – and you’re going along with your own history too, and then your development of craft and you develop the craft job by job.
KWS: The idea that architecture is a knowledge-based activity had a tremendous impact on me coming from my landscape architectural background. I don’t mind sharing that as a young upstart, going back to graduate school for my Master of Architecture one of my first pin-ups Werner Seligman, my studio critic remarked – I think to come to my defense – “Mr. Sloan comes to us from a background in landscape architecture.” So Werner pulls out his fountain pen, removes the cap slowly, and in front of 80 some people in the main jury room, asks me to draw a diagram of Versailles.
And I stumbled. I drew something that looked more like a graphic than a diagram explaining the plan arrangement. Handed the pen back to him and he said.
“How can you call yourself a landscape architect, when you don’t know the most famous garden in the world?”
That moment back in August 1988 was a really tough lesson but it lead to shelf after shelf of sketchbooks filled with diagrams, measurements and views of the great world places.
KWS: With each one, I quietly think, “How am I doing Werner?” Many more to go, I know.
I think that’s really missing in landscape architecture right now.
PW: Well that’s a kind of craft too. You see a really good architect draw and he has a kind of precision. Sometimes his hand is shaking deliberately for all sorts of things, maybe to make a drawing more casual. But there is an inherent precision in those things that has to do with the way he’s thinking.
KWS: Do you time have time to draw in your practice?
PW: Oh, I draw all the time. I go around with a gridded tablet so I can be in scale. I can make a line and say this is ten feet. I try always to stay in scale.
I always draw like this because most of my students and my employees are all on computers and they have no scale. I’m very conscious of that .
But, yeah I do draw. But I always draw with a kind of precision – not an elegant precision -but one where I know the scale, I know how high things are, I know how deep they are, how many of something there are.
I think of these things in plan and in elevation and then the other thing in our office, I think, that’s fairly unique, we make models of every single project.
We’re very much like an architect’s office.
KWS: That’s absolutely apparent in your work. Do you have three-dimensional printers and laser cutters? They’re quite the technology to have these days.
PW: We don’t. We can’t afford those things. They’re very expensive. What we’re doing is putting all the digital information in and making three-dimensional models in the computer. I find them even better than the built models that we’ve been doing for years because you can walk around in them.
And they’re a tremendous tool and by no means are we deep into this yet, but I have a couple of guys who are really good at it and we’re learning and it’s changing how we do things.
KWS: Well I’ve noticed that many of your competition submittals, recently the Gateway Arch competition, that your perspectival drawings are done by hand.
Michael McCann, the renowned architectural watercolorist and also the official illustrator of the US Capitol Planning Commission – he and I became colleagues while doing the Bush Library Planning at SMU, and he continues to do illustrations for my office – he once made the most interesting remark.
Anyway, he said the difference between the digital drawings and (his) watercolors is like the difference between television and radio.
PW: That’s a great line!
KWS: Michael (McCann) thinks, and Peter this is the part that floored me, he thinks the digital drawings are paradoxically, too subjective. They require such precise description, they only leave the observer one response and that’s to react subjectively. For example, here’s a view of a several hundred million dollar master plan and what’s the first comment? “We can’t afford granite bollards.”
Whereas, watercolor suspends all that and invites the observer to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. The observer participates.
PW: That’s what abstraction does. Abstraction teaches you the nature of things. Whereas, photographs teach you what they look like. They’re different.
Great photographs do the same thing, but most photographs are just showing you the outside of stuff.
KWS: Peter I couldn’t imagine getting an hour with you until now. You’ve been tremendously generous with your time.
I typically like to circulate any quotations back to the author so they can review them and even tune them up, or revise in case I missed something.
PW: That’s kind of you. I don’t expect that generally.
KWS: Well. My goal, my strategic objective for this article is to fill it with as many of your quotations as the editor will allow. Like I said at the outset, it ‘s an opportunity, especially in the digital world we now live in, to put a piece out there where someone down the line might wonder, “What was on Peter’s mind when he did the campus at UT-Dallas?” AND here this article will be.
Hopefully this will be one of several resources like that.
PW: You know one of the things that I find that’s very interesting because I do a lot of dictation, I do a lot of lecturing, and when I listen to it, it’s one thing, and when I see the transcription it’s another.
KWS: So true !
PW: My wife is a writer. She’s a Ph.D from Yale. She says, you know it’s a lot harder to write clearly, than it is to even draw clearly.
PW: …or to speak clearly. I think it’s true. I always pass everything I’m writing to her because of that. Because a lot of times I find myself not saying what I’m writing. Not saying what I want to say.
KWS: You know. David (Dillon) when he was mentoring me, especially during the Loeb process – I mean, imagine sitting down to have David Dillon review your writing and Loeb application – and he said, “Why is it that you architects think that architecture applies to everything?”
He said, “When you write, you need to write like a writer, not like an architect.”
PW: (Interjecting) That’s true.
KWS: I kept on,”What do you mean by that?” “I need a bigger hint.” He said architects write deductively, which is the same way they think when making buildings. Here’s point A, here’s point B, here’s point C, and the sum equals point D – a wonderful idea.
He said, you have to flip it around. Put the essential nut of the idea in the first ‘graph – the “nutgraph” as he called it – and then let the deductive follow suit accordingly.
PW: That’s a journalistic principle too. Journalism today drive me nuts because I expect, and I used to be a journalist. I expect it (the idea) in the first paragraph and when it’s not even on the page. You know, you have to plow through the information and then turn to the next section to get it. In journalism, I find that maddening. The New York Times does it all the time.
They always start off with something, “So and so, they were a couple, then they ran into a car.” You can’t get any sense of what in the hell is this about.’’
KWS: Oh, I know. They’ll take off on some kind of Kafka-esque journey leaving you to wonder, where are we going, are we going to get to the story any time soon?
PW: On the other hand, I think architects and I try to write as much as we can, because I think, you know, one of the things about writing, whether it’s literature or whether it’s exposition, is that it clarifies.
There’s a danger in just “feeling.” Look at Arcosante. You know there are things that just go off the rails because they’re so rich in feeling. And they don’t have any meaning finally. They’re just a kind of doodling.
And architecture is the reverse of all of that. Architecture is always organizational. You’re always thinking in ideas and it gets, I was going to say earlier, but it comes up again.
Working with Renzo is really interesting because Renzo will say, “Well we could put a wall here and so forth. And we could put another wall here and the wall has a certain height and that forms a double square.” He’s thinking in organized terms.
And it was fun for me to follow that because I do exactly the same thing. Not as well as he does. But certainly it is the nature of architecture and it’s the nature of painting. It’s the nature of a lot of things.
PW: It’s always fun to hear your self talk. (PW laughing)
KWS: This was delightful. Time flies when you’re talking about ideas, especially when you’re talking with someone that really thinks. Time stops.
You talk a lot about design becoming memory. Memory has a lot to do with conversation.
PW: A condition of intellectualism is that you love ideas.
If you’re just making buildings and you don’t love ideas, then what is it? What is that? Shelterrrr???
KWS: I love your notion that architecture lives in drawings and also in words. Words can communicate that drawings can’t and vice versa.
LeCorbusier had a great potential for that.
PW: That’s why the culture of design is potentially rich. It’s also why the culture is rarely rich.