Walter Hood Discusses His Telegraph Hill Rooftop Garden

Natural light illuminates the sculptural "fog" stairway cover

Landscape architect Walter Hood, principal of Oakland-based Hood Design, is a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award winner, a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and former Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, where he is currently a professor. Hood, who is also working on landscapes for a range of institutions—from the nonprofit Kapor Center in Oakland to the Cooper Hewitt in New York to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, spoke to SFC&G about a more modest, but no less artful, project in Telegraph Hill that features his signature orchestration of conceptualism, landscape and habitation. 

SFC&G: This rooftop space seems equal parts garden and art installation. Is that how you envision a space?

Walter Hood: I actually don’t see it as a dichotomy; I see gardens as installations. My firm tries to bring a multidimensional approach to our work. It is not always about the earth or the flora, it can be more phenomenological—about the sensorial and temporal relationships, the constantly changing light, texture, smell and tactility. Here, for example, we included a photograph of California redwoods and a fog-like stairway structure. The more we use different elements like light and images, the more we reinforce the experiential aspect. 

The garden's sculptural sensibility extends to the seating

You’re playing with geometries here—there are great angular, idiosyncratic structures. How did you arrive at these shapes?

I’m very conscious when I look at a deck that it’s not just two by-four boards, it’s a surface. I think of a lot of the geometries in more of a verb tense—something Richard Serra invented—and here you can see lifting, molding, creasing, doubling. Particularly in the seating you can see bending and folding. John Maniscalco, the architect on the project, created the white paving, which feels like an active cut versus just a planter, and it sets the garden up perfectly. Even the view toward the Bay is not just a wall, it leans. 

The photograph of redwoods is a brilliant stroke.

The client didn’t want to see the big box warehouse buildings of the Embarcadero! With the photographic panel, the foreground is taken away, and the eye immediately goes to Treasure Island. We also intentionally scaled the image to the view. The idea is that the garden is small, but the landscape context is huge. 

A photo of California redwoods integrates with the view beyond

How does the garden reflect the client’s personality?

The client has a wonderful art collection, and he also has a very daring personality. He’s very inventive, a thinker. Working with someone like that gives you the freedom to be inventive yourself. I think taking a small garden and making it feel bigger is emblematic of his spirit. 

Where in the Bay Area do you head to for inspiration?

The Bay Area has had a strong influence on me. When I moved here, it was the first time I was able to see a landscape in a very clear way. All of the ecological zones are just very coherent. For example, from my studio, I see the ridgeland, and then if I turn left, I don’t see landscape, so I know the Bay is there. Seeing how landscapes go together has given my imagination a lot of fodder in terms of how to create those relationships. I’m constantly aware of place.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2014 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Atmosphere and Environment.