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After withdrawing from its Baltimore project, West 8 tells its side of the story

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After withdrawing from its Baltimore project, West 8 tells its side of the story

West 8’s plan for the 11-mile-long Middle Branch waterfront would have seen new outdoor performance and gathering spaces added. (Courtesy West 8)

Rotterdam-based landscape architect and urban designer Adriaan Geuze first visited Baltimore in the 1980s as part of a cultural exchange program to learn about the American city’s success at revitalizing its Inner Harbor shoreline. Rotterdam and Baltimore are Sister Cities, and they regularly sent representatives back and forth to learn from each other.

Last year, the firm that Geuze founded in 1987, West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, was selected to lead an effort to build on the Inner Harbor’s success and rejuvenate an even-longer stretch of Baltimore’s waterfront, 11 miles of shoreline framing the Middle Branch of the Patapsco ‘River, south of the downtown business district. Memories of his earlier visit to Baltimore helped prompt the noted Dutch designer to enter an international competition to provide a vision for the Middle Branch waterfront, and his team won.

But West 8’s involvement in the effort didn’t last long. Less than two months after the city approved a $325,000 contract for the winning team to start the first phase of planning, with West 8’s New York City office in charge, the firm withdrew from the project.

An anonymous tipster, known only as “Middle Branch citizen,” in late June sent city officials an email photo of a holiday party in West 8’s Rotterdam office in 2012 showing three people in blackface. The photo was sent to other stakeholders in the Middle Branch renewal effort, which includes several mostly African-American neighborhoods, and that prompted community leaders to ask the city to take West 8 off the project.

The three people in blackface in 2012 were white children of a West 8 employee at the time. The employee left the company several years later, long before West 8 entered the Baltimore competition, and never had a connection to West 8’s New York City office or the Middle Branch project. The individuals in blackface were minors.

West 8’s managers and principals, including Geuze, did not organize or attend the party, did not know that anyone would be in blackface, and were mortified when they found out afterward. Still, the party took place in West 8’s offices, after business hours, and the subject couldn’t be avoided because the photo had been circulated.

In resigning from their Baltimore commission on July 3, Geuze recommended that the rest of the team assembled by West 8, including the Baltimore-based landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, be allowed to continue working on the project. To that end, West 8 has agreed to give up ownership of all the work it did during the competition and the first phase, so the project can continue without delay. It also offered to be available for assistance during a 30-day transition period, if the city wants. Officials in Baltimore have not indicated whether they will accept West 8’s recommendations and offers.

Geuze, 59, spoke with The Architects’ Newspaper by phone from Rotterdam last week to give his side of the story. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Edward Gunts: Why did you feel you needed to resign? Was there no other option?

Adriaan Geuze: First of all, in our history being landscape architects and urban designers, we are consultants. We advise, we help, we make bridges, we help solve problems, we want to deliver. And part of that is also, because we work in the public realm, it is always related to communities, to different leaders, to politicians, to stakeholders. So, we are not Picasso.

So, for the competition, we organized 15 firms to collaborate, many of these from Baltimore. We found a narrative for the future development of the Middle Branch, connecting communities and also allowing different people to have access to the water… These were the aspirations, so we made a vision for that. Then, suddenly, there was an anonymous accusation by emailto us and the client team. Part of that was a photograph that was taken in our office in Rotterdam, nothing to do with our New York office, in 2012. The photo was taken on St. Nicholas Day, in Holland, at a children’s party.

A diagram of Baltimore's swampy waterfront
An overview of West 8’s potentially-shelved plan. Diagram showing the dredge-filled marshland and artificial islands in the bay (in light green) as well as the trail and connecting bridges (in yellow). (Courtesy West 8)

St. Nicholas Day?

It’s December 5. It’s similar, as an idea, to Santa Claus who arrives in a sleigh and gives presents to children. St. Nicholas arrives and gives presents to children. St. Nicholas Day is a very old tradition, a 19th-century tradition. St. Nicholas is assisted by Pete, and Pete, in the 19th century, from colonial origin, is [wearing] blackface.

So, in 2012, some of our office staff organized the St. Nicholas party. They all had children. The others who did not have children were not at the party. And, after office hours, St. Nicholas was there to bring the presents. And one of the parents took children in a blackface outfit.

The three children in the photo that was circulated?

Yes, they are on the photo. So, there is a photo, which was sent anonymously by email, and the photo shows St. Nicholas, which is one of the employees, and three children of an employee. We don’t want to mention any name of course because the children are unrelated to this subject.

This was very unacceptable. We banned the St. Nicholas party since then. We condemned it. This blackface character doesn’t fit in Dutch culture. It is very racist and super bad. So we feel really sorry that happened, and it is unfortunate that happened in our office, and we banned it and forbid it.

Now, suddenly, the picture showing St. Nicholas and these three children in blackface was sent to us and the client team. As a consultant, you deal with a situation. There is a client team, there is the Baltimore mayor, there are a lot of communities involved, our project is related to the port authorities, environmentalists, we work with a large team of consultants.

So [the] anonymous accusation that West 8 is a racist office because of this photo, we could not deal with within the team. As a consultant in our consultant industry, you make a check and you think, well, let’s call our client. We step out. We [were] transparent that we condemn this photo 100 percent. We are not racist. This [Pete] is a racist character. Not allowed in any office. It is bad. It doesn’t work. It is not of our time. We are not dealing with this in our multi-cultural office. We have more than 18 nations represented in our office, people of all cultural backgrounds, people of color. So this is very, very sad also.

We told the client, we don’t want to let the project slow down. If there are questions about this photograph, we can deal with these questions but not within the team. It should be separate from the client team, the communities. And if we are, let’s say, out of the team, we can deal with it. So last week, we sent a formal letter of resignation, which was accepted by the city this week. So that’s the story.

The good news is that we also were in touch with our team. The project started and the city now is free to continue the project, and this is best for the project and for the Middle Branch communities. We are not bigger than the project. That’s what you are. You are a consultant.

Were the principals of West 8 involved in organizing this party? Was the employee fired because of the blackface incident in 2012?

In most businesses, the employee committee organizes a St. Nicholas day party for the children of the employees. This is not what the management does. It is what the employee committee does. Only the employees who have children and [observe] the St. Nicholas tradition, We have a very international office. Our employees who are German and Korean and from Madrid, they didn’t go to that party. They don’t have a St. Nicholas party because it is a [Dutch] thing.

So, five, six families, together they are there, and St. Nicholas arrives with presents. One of the employees brought his children in blackface unnanounced… So what you normally say is, we are not amused. This is really bad. It is very racist. And as an office, we declared there will never be St. Nicholas [party] in our office because some people I will never mention names—they take this tradition seriously, and then most people in Holland, they hate the tradition. They like St. Nicholas but they don’t need the blackface character. The colonial racist component of St. Nicholas’ assistant is very controversial. Today, things are changing in Holland too slowly, but the taboo about the racism of this character is very large.

You weren’t there? You learned about it after the party was over?

I wasn’t there. We learned there was blackface, and our office management was terrified and we decided there will never be a St. Nicholas party allowed at all. With or without blackface. It was over. We don’t want this.

Do you know who circulated the blackface photo? And why now, eight years later?

No. This was an anonymous photo.

Had you seen the photo before?

Not before last week.

How did they get the photo?

Somebody took the photo and then there was an anonymous release and in between, I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate on that because that’s not the subject now.

Could a competitor of yours have done this?

There is a lot of speculation, but I don’t want to go there. You know, life is not easy in our profession. In America, there is a winner-and-loser mentality. Maybe we have to understand it in this way. I don’t know. We couldn’t understand the source of the email.

Have you done much work on the Middle Branch project?

Yes. As you might know, there was a very serious international competition, so we brought together the team and we did research. We more or less formulated the vision. The vision was about connectivity, connectivity, connectivity, and building with nature through dredging, which is also very relevant because we have a lot of experience in that from the Netherlands. We were organizing, more of the stakeholder group. We started partnering with Morgan State University. We also were speculating about the brief for the project, what could be the phasing. Basically, we started Phase One. We were not finished with Phase One.

When was Phase One supposed to be done?

This summer. Phase One normally is about [defining the] brief, what are the stakeholders, how to organize the process, organizing for the outreach.

As part of your resignation letter, you said to keep the project moving forward “West 8 authorizes the use of all Middle Branch design products and ideas from the awarded design competition to the city of Baltimore.”

And Phase One, of course.

So that means you give up all ownership of the ideas you put forward, the rights to your ideas?

I appreciate you asking. This is a little bit of an American legal phrase, as you phrased your question. I would formulate it differently. We had a great team with 15 professional consultants working together. We brainstormed and worked together and formulated the vision and then we started to organize the project with the client team and with all of us. I think it is fair to say that we brought a spirit and an approach and there was the start of a direction and we feel absolutely proud that the city—we are no longer related—that they [will] find a way to the future, including if they would like to use options we brought on the table. That is how we see it. It is very rational.

You said in your resignation letter that “we recommend, for a seamless transition, that the work be continued by the expert consultants on the Middle Branch Master Plan Project Team,” led by Mahan Rykiel Associates of Baltimore.

That is, of course, the logic, because we were a team. We do so many projects and in none of these projects do you work alone. There are always very large teams. Specialists, engineers, traffic people, advisors, civic outreach, you have even scientists and advisors on call, and during projects, these teams are always in transformation. One comes, the other goes, there is a new specialism, there is no money for this because the money comes from that.

In my industry, the teams are adapting to reality all the time. In this particular circumstance, we think as a professional advisor in the field of landscape architecture and urban design, the best thing we could do—given the fact that it was an anonymous photograph which cannot be easily understood or explained, and which is very much showing a racist character who was not working at West 8, nor working in America in our office, never been in Baltimore so it is disconnected from our work—you have to keep the spirit of the project and keep your team and the client out of the debate. So we passed the baton to the others. And the logic is that there is another [landscape architect]. We were with Mahan Rykiel. They are very talented. They can do this. They can lead this type of advisory easily.

The Hills at Governors Island
West 8 and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects were also responsible for overhauling the back half of Governors Island in 2016, adding new lightweight hills. (Timothy Schenck)

 Do they know that you recommended that they carry on without you?

Of course. They are a team member so we work together and we keep each informed, and of course, they know that.

And the other team members know what you recommended and are on board with it?

Yes, we informed the other team [members]. I repeat, we talked with the client team, the city of Baltimore, and we analyzed the situation after we offered our resignation. As you might learn, there was a sort of collective statement of positions and I more or less summarized this, and yes I also made a recommendation, which was not the city’s but is mine, and the recommendation is that the team is able to continue. West 8 is not the team. West 8 is not the project. The project is larger than West 8 . And I think in our industry, it is [logical.] There is a mutation in the team. It happens all the time, and this time the reason is very clear: Because we didn’t want, given the circumstances of the anonymous accusation, to have this debate [cause a delay in] the project. We had to step out.

You have a statement on your company’s website voicing West 8’s strong support for civil rights and efforts to fight racism. Has that been up for a long time?

[Editor’s note: The statement in question was added to West 8’s website in June 2020. The following answer is more about the firm’s overall philosophy and approach.]

Yes. Working in North America and also in Europe and internationally, we work in public space everywhere, we deal with communities. Our office has a very strong business statement about making public space inclusive, democratic, accessible for every user group, to step out of sort-of commercialized public spaces or public spaces which are only for one purpose or one user-group. Our office has a long tradition of campaigning for that.

That’s not a recent message?

No. You could read this for 25 years. This is part of our office strategy. And then the Black Lives Matter [movement] exploded. It came immediately to Europe, to London, to Paris. Half a week later it was in Berlin, in Amsterdam. It is very important. And we, from the beginning, have sympathy with Black Lives Matter. We think we have to fight for the 21st-Century society being diverse, where people of color, people from Black communities, native people, have access also to our industry. It’s another statement we thought is very relevant.

And last but not least, I think the profession of landscape architecture, for good reason, has very strong sources from the Renaissance, landscape from Italy and France and the Baroque, from the English style. But [these] references for landscape architecture are actually very related to Western, white ideals. They are not inclusive. They are not. So we also think that within the profession, academically, we should debate how we can tap from more sources… You know, these kinds of things, if you analyze it with the eyes of today, are pretty non-inclusive.

Would you ever work in Baltimore again?

This is a very complex question to answer because, first of all, we are dealing with a situation now and that is what we do. I think it is very important that we in our industry also work together to make actions of change and build a more inclusive attitude in practice, in business, in how we deal with subjects. And I think in these points of action, that is where the next step is.

But if there were another competition in Baltimore, would you participate?

This is a question I cannot answer. It’s too much speculation. I’m sorry.

You have said this is very painful, very hurtful.

The whole St. Nicholas [tradition of blackface] is painful.

But what about the way this anonymous complaint targeted you? That sounds hurtful too.

But that is not the subject. The subject is that being a consultant, when an anonymous email with a photo becomes public, as a consultant, you are professional. The consequence of this is that this has too much potential danger for undermining the integrity of the client. That was the reason we stepped out and passed the baton.

Do you know why they were going after you?

This is not the subject. The subject is that there is a photograph and it shows West 8. None of the persons [in blackface] worked in West 8. None of them are employees. They are not me. They are not part of the management. They are not in the New York office. Nothing to do with it. However, the picture was taken at a party in our office and I deal with this as a consultant the only way you can deal with it. You think, if it could theoretically undermine the dignity and integrity of your client and the place you work, then you have to take action and that’s what we did.

I am a professional. I work as a consultant. I work for a client. I work within a public realm politically, socially, for communities. If something potentially could endanger the integrity of one of our partners, then as a professional you have to take action. We thought this photo could. If you don’t understand the photo or cannot explain the photo or justify the photo—and as you might know, blackface cannot be explained because it is absolutely fundamentally wrong and racist—then the only way you view it is that you deal with it outside the client team and the group you work with. Change the project or the project slows down. So this is what we did. We didn’t want to let the project slow down. If they want to write an article about blackface, they might do that in relation to us, but not in relation to the client team. That’s the reason we stepped away.

Why did you pursue this project in the first place?

That’s an interesting question. As you might know, the city of Rotterdam, my city, and the city of Baltimore have a long relationship as Sister Cities. I knew the city [of Baltimore] from my late student years by an exchange program. We saw the competition was about creating a new connectivity between southern districts of Baltimore and the center, divided by water and infrastructure and an area of decay, so we saw connectivity as a theme we much very much like and we have a lot of experience with. The other thing is that the Middle Branch offers the opportunity to build with nature. Our office has an enormous portfolio and experience in building with nature, and that triggered us as well. For those two reasons, we thought this is a really interesting project.

As you might know, we work from the New York office, so this project was run by our New York office and not by the Dutch office. So it’s very sad that the New York office of course now is in the turmoil of this blackface photo because they have no relationship with it. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the situation.

The interesting thing is, we also thought let’s make a team that is able to link to communities and to make a project which is introducing a narrative and also a nice program and themes which bring together other communities to the waterfront as well. That was the aspiration.

What does the name West 8 mean?

Actually, we were looking for a name that covered the ideology that we are a team, a family, and not one person, which is the 19th-century office, you know, with one leader. And so we chose West 8 as a sort of weather report; wind from the west with a Force 8. It was also a pragmatic name because we thought it is a short name and you can remember it and it can be used in both languages. The Dutch language is not the best if you want to work internationally. So the word ‘west’ is equal in Holland and in English.

When this sort of controversy occurs, can you ever repair it? Is there any way to recover?

I don’t want to talk about it because there are more stories [going on]. We live in a tough world. The world is very competitive. Things happen. If you want to be in business, that is the nature of the game, you know? Do I like this? I feel extraordinarily sorry. This is really sad. I can’t say different. I disagree with the accusations as well, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant. I’m a professional. I have to deal with it. And the future is built also on actions in relation to diversity and inclusion. There’s a long way to go and we have to work hard together, standing strong together. That’s what we’re going to do. And based on that, you can make new alliances and projects, and that’s our focus.

You’ve clearly given this project a lot of thought.

 This is not so relevant. The competition is on paper. You have to make a project with everyone together, and it requires community input. It’s a step-by-step approach. These kinds of waterfront projects take easily 10 years. And then this anonymous photo. Professionally… you have to take action, and that’s what we did.

Do you think the city will follow your recommendations?

We don’t know how the project will proceed. We had a great team. Instead of 15, there’s 14 now. And maybe the strength and the intelligence of the team is not lost and they might proceed. I don’t know. There could be a chance. Maybe yes, maybe no. The city will think about these things as well.