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.”
To read the remainder of my interview, visit my website here: PETER WALKER INTERVIEW
I currently maintain a blog which features monthly firm interviews about their firm and specific projects in the Knoxville or near Knoxville area. Readers can also find information on photography, current trends in representation, or even social equality issues.