By Carter B. Horsley
Peter Walker is one of the great design poets
of the 20th Century as the more than 280 color illustrations and
photographs in this large and handsome paperback testify. More
than 30 of Walker's projects are presented in considerable detail.
Both his own essay and an accompanying essay
and project notes by Leah Levy illuminate much of the artistic,
philosophic and intellectual foundations of his designs, but the
illustrations really need little exposition. Walker's projects
are brilliant integrations of the natural and man-made environments
that are distinctly modern and abstract, at times mysterious and
"Minimalist" is an inappropriate
adjective to describe this work for it is far too rich in beauty
and power to be less than grand.
But one must respect the artist's own interpretation
and here Walker is wonderfully incisive, not only about his own
oeuvre, but about much of modern architecture and, in particular,
the "Minimalist" era/school.
While none of the projects are in New York,
almost all offer exciting clues to the thrilling potential cityscapes
that can and should be wrought.
Any intelligent mayor should appoint Walker
as the city's "Master Designer," with powers over all
development and planning.
Walker, of course, is not the only great environmental
designer. Others are Martha Schwartz and Michael Heizer.
In her essay on Walker's work, Levy finds traces
of the Nazca Lines in Peru and Stonehenge in England in some of
his work "an awareness of and quest for connection with earthly
and celestial mysteries": "There are many instances
when the work focuses on the enigmatic qualities of nature represented
by the sound of water, the stasis and weight of stone, rustling
changes by the wind, blocks and patterns of shifting color, shimmering
and magical mists, and elusive light."
She also finds that "the classical order
of seventeenth century French gardens, especially those of Andre
Le Notre, serves as strong precedent to individual elements of
Walker's approach," adding that "His intuitive as well
as intellectual affinity with patterns, rhythms , and order, and
a to a kind of Cartesian synthesis, is apparent throughout his
Not surprisingly, also she finds the influence
of Zen gardens: "An underlying philosophical distillation
of the complex to achieve the simple is evidence in both distinct
components and the unifying wholeness of many of his gardens…The
work of garden makers of the mid-twentieth century, especially
Thomas Church and Isamu Noguchi, was particularly inspiring to
Walker in his formative years."
Her brief but pithy essay tries to place Walker
in his proper and self-proclaimed "minimalist" niche:
"Since its most crucial years in the 1960's, minimalism,
arguably the first truly American art, has become a loosely used
catchall term absorbed into the culture to refer to styles that
are non-figurative, non-referential, geometric, or merely of few
and simple parts. But the term minimal art was coined to
refer to and identify a very specific point in time, approximately
1963-1968, and a small collection of individual artists working
primarily in New York City…"
Levy proceeds to relate some of Walker's work
to that of such artists as Gordon Matta-Clark, Christo, Richard
Serra, Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson, Maya Lin, Siah Armanjani
Walker's own essay is much more rewarding for
its provocative insights into Modern architecture and the Minimalist
"As a late second-generation modernist
trained in the 1950's. I was denied, along with a generation of
my peers in the design disciplines, an integrated view of architectural
history because our professors, including Gropius and Giedion
and their followers, did not present the full historic information
that they themselves had been given by their teachers, and thus
did not grant us the opportunity to make our own ideological choices.
I have, therefore, not had the historic perspective that the educated
professional of a hundred years ago might reasonably expect….Until
recently little debate or theoretical refinement had occurred
in modernism, leaving the legitimate ideas of modernism unseparated
from those that perhaps should have been discarded. Most criticism
related to modernism has come in the form of denunciation from
postmodernists. Abstraction had removed most of the expressive
content and narrative from modernists design, and references to
nature were generally missing from 'internationalist' thinking.
Social, democratic, or economic purpose had largely replaced metaphor,
though how a dialogue with the users would be achieved was not
clear. Without this dialogue, or even an agreed-upon language,
what 'democratic design' might mean is a question whose answer
still escapes me."
Explaining that his primary interests have
been exploring "the extension of the building form to create
a setting (read pedestal) for the precious object, the
building, and the transition from this setting to the surrounding
existing landscape, Walker maintains that the 1960''s work of
the artists, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd,
Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, and other seemed to me to analytically
reaffirm and revive the simplicity, formal strength, and clarity
that had been the best part of my educational entrance intro modernism."
However, Walker continues, "Modernism
has yet to develop an articulate body of landscape theory, though
one can see in the few masterworks explorations of various formal
approaches dawn from the several artistic styles or combinations
of them, such as constructivism or surrealism…[and de Stijl,
Bauhaus and CIAM] viewed open space and nature as quantitative
and 'empty' space in which to set buildings, rather than objects
qualitative design acts [and its function was considered to be]
a neutral environment."
For Walker, minimalism in the landscape "continues
to imply an approach that rejects any attempt to intellectually,
technically, or industrially overcome the forces of nature."
"It suggests," Walker insists, "a conceptual order
and the reality of changing natural systems with geometry narrative,
rhythm, gesture, and other devices that can imbue space with a
sense of unique place that lives in memory."
Minimalism in landscape architecture, Walker
continues, "opens a line of inquiry that can illuminate and
guide us through some of the difficult transitions of our time":
"the simplification or loss of craft, transitions from traditional
natural materials to synthetics, and extensions of human scale
to the large scale, in both space and time, of our mechanically
aided modern life. And minimalism in this context suggests an
artistically successful approach to dealing with two of the most
critical environmental problems we currently face: mounting waste
and dwindling resources."
"Fragmentation, marginalization, and discontinuity"
prevail in the modern landscape, but Walker wishes to apply "reduction
and focus" with the ultimate goal of achieving "mystery
rather than irony."
"Open space is equally important, or perhaps
even more crucial to civic, cultural, and modern social life than
interior space. The designed landscape can be as capable of commemorative
expression or mystery as any facade or other architectural form
or dimension. It is the public open space formed for function
only, filled with purposeful but artistically bereft roads, parking,
and service spaces, for instance, that carries the message of
indifferent ugliness, thereby tarnishing the hopes of modernism
to the degree that modernism is felt to have in fact failed. A
large part of that failure lies in site planning and open space
areas, the public realm of cities and towns.
"Open space us a very complex medium to
influence, subject as it is to the constant multiple changes of
daily, seasonal, and maturing cycles and complicated by sound,
odor, temperature, and precipitation. Of all the arts, it most
nearly compares with the complexity of human life.
Is the landscape too wild for man to conquer,
or cope with? Walker believes it is not and points to the work
of Luis Barragan, Isamu Noguchi, Roberto Burle Marx, Dan Kiley
and Lawrence Halprin as significant landscape artists.
Walker has collaborated with many major architects
such as Frank Gehry at the Herman Miller Inc. facility in Rockland,
Calif., Cesar Pelli at the Plaza Tower and Town Center in Costa
Mesa, Calif., Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Leandro V. Locsin
at the Ayala Triangle in the Makati District in Manila, The Philippines,
Murphy/Jahn at the Hotel Kempinksi at the Munich Airport Center,
Moshe Safdie at the Cambridge (Mass.) Center Roof Garden, Ricardo
Legorreta and Mitchell/Giurgola at IBM Solana at Westlake and
Southlake, Texas, and Arata Isozaki at the Center for the Advanced
Science and Technology in the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan.
His design for a mist generating monument at
IBM Solana is one of his finest, a broad yellow mound of layered
flagstone that looks like half of a large onion on which some
god has begun chopping, expertly, of course.
His stainless steel circular fountain at the
Plaza Tower and Town Center in Costa Mesa in 1991, shown below, is
supremely elegant and cool and the interrupted ripple treatment
of the pavement is echoed somewhat in his handsome design of the
expanded quarters of the Principal Mutual Life Insurance Company
in Des Moines, Iowa, one of several projects with Murphy/Jahn
Indeed, perhaps his finest design, shown below, is
for the Sony Center Berlin, a boldly patterned and colored multi-level
scheme that is very, very strong, another Murphy/Jahn collaboration.
Walker appears not to have a "signature"
style. Some works merely are beautiful but slightly ajar, while
others are simple, but very subtle. What is consistent, however,
is the graceful harmony and the authoritative liberties.
When Walker's designs are off-kilter and askew,
they are so lyrically. One senses happenstance.