Landscape Legend Worked for Joe Eichler

Peter Walker
Peter Walker (above), one of the nation’s most accomplished landscape architects, worked early on for Eichler Homes, before going on to do much more innovative and ambitious work. He heads PWP Landscape Architecture, with headquarters in West Berkeley. Photo by Dave Weinstein

The work of landscape architect Peter Walker for developer Joe Eichler gets little attention from historians, clients, and upcoming clients as they pore through his oeuvre, which includes early work like the enchanting Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, innovative community and campus plans worldwide, the 911 Memorial in New York, and Salesforce Park in San Francisco.

But working for Joe in the late 1950s and early 1960s did give Walker experience working with a top home builder, which helped lead to later and more interesting community design projects.

It also resulted in several beautiful landscapes, including at the Pomeroy Green coop community in Santa Clara, and the Laguna Heights coop and condo housing in San Francisco.

On top of that, Walker developed a friendship with the older man – until the friendship ended on a sour note. “He was a nice guy,” Walker said in a recent interview. “He was a bit of an autocrat.”

Foothill College
One of Walker’s earlier projects, done with Sasaki Walker, is Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, where his attractive landscaping and modest architecture by Ernest Kump produce a unified, quiet campus. Photo by Dave Weinstein/2005

Walker, whom one critic called “one of the great design poets of the 20th Century,” grew up in Berkeley and studied at Cal and then Harvard. Still, when he returned to the Bay Area as partner in a firm with his former teacher, Hideo Sasaki, work was hard to find.

He mentioned this to a friend, planner Herman Ruth, who asked in turn, “Well, what are you interested in?”

“Well, I did my thesis on housing, and I've always been interested in new towns and that kind of thing,” Walker responded.

“And he said, ‘Well, you need to talk to developers.’ And my response was, ‘What's a developer?’”

At the time, Walker says, working for home builders was looked down on in the profession – despite all the talk, a few years earlier, of the need for architects to design 'social housing' for workers.

The design for landscaping at Pomeroy Green in Santa Clara includes walkways between residences, a pool, and areas for residents to gather. Photo by Ken Kratz

Instead, the focus was on custom homes for a specific client. “You know, if you were doing production housing, you were not being an architect,” Walker said.

But Walker didn’t buy it and approached a builder in South San Francisco. “He gave me a job almost immediately, and we talked him into going from houses to row houses and clusters, you know, trying some new things,” Walker said.

His firm, Sasaki Walker, got other tract jobs. “The developers didn't really care what the fee was,” Walker said. “They cared how fast you could get drawings out, because they were in a market that was just lapping them up as fast.”

Soon Walker was working for Eichler, consulting often with Joe's architect, Claude Oakland, at first designing landscaping for model homes.

Walker also designed gardens for one or more custom-designed Eichlers in the Stanford or Palo Alto area, he recalled. And he also designed landscaping for Claude Oakland’s own home, in Marin’s Lucas Valley.

Oakland's pool
Walker befriended Eichler’s architect, Claude Oakland. When Oakland needed landscaping for his custom Eichler (above) in Marin’s Lucas Valley, Walker too sas on the job, providing a pool despite a small site. Photo by Sabrina Huang

Walker recalled that Oakland had big ambitions for a small site. A tennis court? Not enough land. A swimming pool? Well, OK. “I mean, it was just shoehorned in,” Walker said.

Sasaki Walker never laid out Eichler neighborhoods.

“We never got up to that level,” he said. “The architects were doing those. I remember [Eichler’s architects] were doing some [tracts] with circles, which is kind of stupid. It looks good from the air.” The reference is to the circular street plan of Fairmeadow in Palo Alto.

“Well, I knew Joe pretty well because it was like a family business, and we'd often meet for lunch before we'd have a meeting,” Walker said. The talk was casual, not about design or even politics.

The two Eichler projects that show off Walker’s skills best are Pomeroy, and Laguna Heights in San Francisco. Walker spoke last year to Ken Kratz, the Pomeroy Green resident who spearheaded the successful effort to put the place on the National Register, providing valuable information for the nomination.

Laguna Heights fountain
The low-rise condos of Laguna Heights in San Francisco’s Western Addition retain their original Sasaki Walker Associates landscaping, including fountains and attractive walkways. Photo by Dave Weinstein/2011

About Laguna, Walker remembered, “There was a kind of walk that went through and circles of plants.”

The landscape is beautiful to this day, but the project proved to be the undoing of Walker’s friendship with Joe. That's undoubtedly why Walker recalls the older man as as an autocrat.

Neither Claude Oakland nor Walker liked the color palette for the Laguna buildings, which had units arrayed around central courtyards.

“I don't know how they did it, but they came up with a very dark brown, which meant that when you went through them, you were in these fairly large buildings with balconies coming out – and dark brown, I mean, really dark,” Walker recalled.

Oakland, perhaps knowing Joe’s temperament, did not bring it up to his boss. But Walker did.

“So I unknowingly, as a kid, went in and said to Joe, ‘You know, could we get some lighter colors in here? It's dark. Brown is kind of depressing.’ He fired me. He really fired me over that.”

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