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Architect for Charleston's African American Museum awarded national 'Genius' grant

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International African American Museum (copy)

Landscape architect Walter Hood (right, foreground) explains the landscape design plans at the International African American Museum site. Hood was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship grant this week. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Where many people saw a stretch of grass, Walter Hood saw a landscape that was "charged."

The landscape architect and public artist was tapped to design the grounds surrounding Charleston's International African American Museum. The site, which looks out onto Charleston Harbor, was once part of Gadsdens Wharf, one of the main ports of entry for slave ships in the U.S.

This week, Hood was one of 26 people to be named MacArthur Fellows, an award often referred to as the "Genius Grant." Each recipient gets a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, paid out in quarterly installments over five years. 

The fellowship describes the award as an "investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential." The criteria include "exceptional creativity" and a promising track record of work. 

Other fellows this year include classicist Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate Homer's "The Odyssey" into English; scholar Saidiya Hartman whose work explores the "afterlife of slavery" in modern American life; and a visual artist, Jeffrey Gibson, who is changing perceptions about Native American art. Scientists, musicians, writers, legal advocates and others are also among this year's fellows.

Hood and his firm, Hood Design Studio, are based in Oakland, Calif., but Hood is a native of the Carolinas. He grew up in the Charlotte area and earned his undergraduate degree from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. 

His past projects include the walkways at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the gardens of the M. H. de Young Museum in Golden State Park and the Splash Pad Park in Oakland. 

In 2018, Hood gave a TED presentation that has since been viewed nearly 1.4 million times online. In it, he explains what he's learned in his career about how public spaces can preserve history and build community.  

He referenced several of his past projects, including a community garden in Queens he created with Bette Midler and the rapper 50 Cent and a structure at the University of Virginia that marked the former home of a free black woman who purchased property there in the 1800s.

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Renderings show what the IAAM's visitors will see as they approach the waterfront. File/Provided/International African American Museum.

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The presentation ended with a look at Hood's renderings for the African Ancestors Memorial Garden at the IAAM. 

Though visitors will have to purchase tickets to the museum, the grounds will be free and open to the public. 

The museum building, which is a long rectangular shape supported by pillars, essentially floats above the ground. 

"The building is silent, but the landscape is charged," Hood said of his designs at a museum site tour he held in June. 

Parts of the ground will be raised up in small undulating mounds. Native plants will grow in a Lowcountry Garden. A pool where water will ebb and flow reveals figures that resemble an image Hood first saw at the Charleston Museum of enslaved people packed onto the slave ship Brookes.

Hood's design also interprets a warehouse that had been located on the museum grounds. Hundreds of enslaved people died there while awaiting the slave market. Through a complex of granite mirrors and kneeling statues, Hood said he created a place where people would have to come face-to-face with that history. 

Creating a space that deals with these things head on but still offers a place for people to reconcile with the history has been the "hardest part" of the project, Hood told The Post and Courier

"Projects like this are really scary," Hood said at his June tour of the site. "This has to be amazing, no doubt about it." 

Construction work began at the IAAM's waterfront site last month, just a few weeks after the museum's contracts for the first phase of construction were OK'd by Charleston City Council. 

An official groundbreaking ceremony will held at the museum site on Oct. 25. More details will be announced closer to the date of the event, museum officials said. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly podcast Understand SC.

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