September 11 Memorial has refreshing touch of Lowcountry

September 8, 2011 

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Peter Walker knew what he was doing as a young man when he helped design the Sea Pines development that forever changed the history of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County.

His ideas of minimizing mankind's intrusion have stood well the test of time after more than half a century and counting.

This weekend, the clock will start on a much different creative plan by Walker.

At 79, he'll never know whether it turns out like Harbour Town or his Sea Pines cul-de-sacs that ditched conventional wisdom of the day that would have stripped in mindless rows of streets with high-rises blocking the beach.

Walker is the landscape architect for the National September 11 Memorial. His work will be seen Sunday when the nation's official ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks takes place at the memorial on the site of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Walker says his work on Hilton Head was the heady mix of a young and very adventuresome client in Charles E. Fraser, and young and very adventuresome designers in the Massachusetts firm of the late Hideo Sasaki.

In an interview last year, Walker used the Harbour Town Lighthouse to home in on the heart of design.

"It was a symbolic lighthouse," Walker told me from his office in Berkeley, Calif. "Obviously, (Fraser) didn't need a lighthouse. It was part of the imagery. It's all about fantasy. He wanted a place to play, golf, swim, ride horses. It's that fantasy of a life that's fun. If you're like Charlie was, one of the things you look for is, what is unique, exciting, symbolic? Charlie was smart enough to realize these things work with the human heart. He was always working on what makes a place better, more interesting, more beautiful. Or keeping something beautiful. Not destroying it."

Walker has won his profession's highest awards. The San Francisco Chronicle said last month: "Walker's stately minimalism dignifies spaces as varied as the Nasher Sculpture Center Garden in Dallas and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing."

In New York, Walker and his associates have waded through seven years of conflict to produce a Lowcountry-like balance in the stark memorial called "Reflecting Absence."

The landscape design features a canopy of 422 white oaks selected from 10,000 viewed in forests and fields nationwide. They will make ground zero better, more interesting, more beautiful.

Walker's design also includes a Callery pear that was found alive in the rubble of the Twin Towers and nursed back to health.

The pear tree will stand as a symbol of renewal, its new limbs sprouting where old ones were scorched. It's only a tree. It's only a design. But it will comfort the human heart.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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