Pete Walker & the GSD: Nearly 70 Years of Connections

For almost 70 years, the landscape architect Pete Walker (MLA ’57) has maintained strong ties with the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), a relationship that has evolved alongside his career, from student to world-renowned designer and GSD benefactor. Since 2004, the Peter Walker & Partners Fellowship, conferred on Class Day, has supported travel for promising Landscape Architecture graduates.

A portrait of Peter Walker who is dressed in dark clothes and stands in front of a wall of green plants.
Peter Walker. Courtesy Megan Bayley.

Walker’s introduction to the GSD dates to the mid-1950s when he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, studying with the landscape architect Stanley White. After his first term, Walker asked his professor what courses to take the next semester. White’s response? “Well, you’re not going to be here,” Walker recalled. “You’re going to be at Harvard.” Indeed, White had arranged with his former student Hideo Sasaki, then a GSD faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture, for Walker’s transfer.

Encouraging Walker’s move east, White had characterized Sasaki as a mastermind—an assessment Walker would soon share. “Sasaki saw the future in a way that I had never even imagined,” Walker says. “He gave this view of the world—an incredibly dynamic postwar view, talking about transportation, expansion of education, corporate expansion, urban expansion, world trade, airplanes. . . . I had never thought of landscape in those terms, likely because no one had really described it like that. And Sasaki was just beginning to.” Walker was thus exposed, though his time at the GSD and in Sasaki’s office, to a perspective that broadened landscape architecture’s reach to an urban scale.

Walker graduated from the GSD with an MLA in 1957 and, funded by the school’s Jacob Weidenman Prize, undertook his first trip to Europe to visit the continent’s historic gardens. After returning home, he continued to work with Sasaki, cofounding Sasaki, Walker, and Associates (eventually the SWA Group), which soon added to its initial location in Watertown, Massachusetts, an office in San Francisco, with Walker at the helm. He left SWA in 1983, establishing a small practice with his then-wife and partner Martha Schwartz (currently Research Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at the GSD). Since then, the firm has undergone a series of iterations culminating in Peter Walker and Partners, which now operates as PWP Landscape Architecture.

A vintage photograph shows a girl in a white dress jumping on rocks. A fountain sprays mist on the rocks.
Tanner Fountain, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Peter Walker and the SWA Group.

In the midst of celebrated design activity—including projects such as Harvard University’s Tanner Fountain (1984) and New York’s National September 11 Memorial (2011), with architect Michael Arad, and awards like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Medal in 2004—Walker maintained a robust presence in the educational realm. While firmly ensconced at SWA in the mid-1970s, Walker returned to the GSD, initially as visiting critic and adjunct professor before serving as the acting director of the Urban Design program in 1976. (“My job was to replace myself,” Walker recalls. He succeeded, convincing his friend Moshe Safdie to become the new program head.) Walker then served as chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture from 1978 through 1981. He remained on the GSD’s faculty through 1991, after which time he moved on to UC Berkeley, his undergraduate alma mater, where he would lead the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning in the late 1990s.

Despite Walker’s move to the West Coast and the subsequent passage of time, his presence continues to resonate at the GSD, especially through his former students, three of whom have chaired the Department of Landscape Architecture: Gary Hilderbrand (MLA ’85 and current chair), Anita Berrizbeitia (MLA ’87), and George Hargreaves (MLA ’79). Contributing another layer of connection, sons David E. Walker (MLA ’92) and Jacob S. Walker (MDes ’24) have cemented Walker’s position as alumni parent.

Finally, Walker has expanded his relationship with the GSD by becoming a benefactor. In 2004, his firm established the PWP Fellowship for Landscape Architecture to provide “young landscape architecture designers [with] an opportunity to spend a concentrated period of time studying landscape design in various parts of the world.” The roots of this annual award rest in Walker’s own post-graduate experience—namely his Weidenman Prize–sponsored European travels, which exposed him firsthand to a historical component of landscape design that complemented the modern perspective introduced by Sasaki. Walker sees the PWP Fellowship as an opportunity for emerging designers to further broaden their global outlook. “For me, in a sense,” Walker says, these graduates “represent what design could mean in a changing world.” This year Walker will attend the GSD’s Class Day for the conferral of the PWP Fellowship.

A photograph of green lawns bordered by trees and other plants at the National September 11 Memorial in New York.
National September 11 Memorial, New York City, NY, 2011. Courtesy PWP Landscape Architecture.

In various capacities, Walker has witnessed—and played a discernable role in—the Harvard GSD’s evolution. And from his unique vantage point, Walker recognizes the diverse, mind-expanding views amassed at the GSD as an enduring gift for students and alumni alike, even long after they have departed campus. As Walker notes, “through family and close friends”—many former students turned colleagues—“Harvard has kept me in touch with these things.”