Designing Through the Lens of Culture

For Studio Zewde, the process of learning about the communities it serves is a creative act in its own right.

August 16, 2021

Studio Zewde's proposal for a Houston, Texas, memorial to Barbara Jordan, who served in the House of Representatives in the 1970s. Credit: Studio Zewde

Culture is a key concept in architecture, but understanding precisely what the term means, let alone how it should influence practice, can be a challenge. Studio Zewde, a multidisciplinary firm based in New York, has earned acclaim for its thoughtful interpretation of local culture in cities as distinct as Seattle and Rio de Janeiro.

The League’s Sarah Wesseler spoke with founding principal Sara Zewde.


What does culture mean to you in the context of your work? There are so many ways to define the concept and so many ways to think about it; how do you approach the subject?

Well, the reason why I went into design is because l grew up in Louisiana, and the first time I really engaged with planners and architects was after Katrina. I was going to community meetings and feeling like, “Oh, these are really well-meaning, good-hearted people, but they’re not getting it.” And I couldn’t understand the gap. It was frustrating to try to communicate what was important about this culture, and to hear others in the community trying to explain it as well, and then find it was difficult for designers to make something that was supportive of it. They were there to help, they wanted to do their best—but what they were drawing and then ultimately building was just not syncing.

I found this so curious, I thought, “I’ll go study design and see it from another angle.” And then when I got to design school, I realized that “good design” was thought of as something universal, and that a benevolent designer was someone who brought this good to all. There wasn’t really much in the pedagogy that presented design as something specifically crafted to culture, people, and place in a way that might challenge that universality. And it shed light on what I witnessed in post-Katrina Louisiana.

I would end up finding that are a lot of philosophers of space who talk about how a person perceives space as a function of their identity—that you perceive the world around you through a lens, through a frame. This school of thought arises in the early to mid-20th century, and it has influenced my belief that an important part of designing space involves understanding how people’s perceptions of space are shaped by how they live.

But the way we’re taught in architecture—and then, as a function of that, the way we practice—is through precedents: projects that we reference, either built or unbuilt. I think the heavy reliance on precedent limits our ideas about what’s possible. In landscape, it’s like, “A park does this, and it’s scaled like this, and its circulation does this.” But the examples we use are rooted in a pretty narrow set of cultures. So when we accept typological precedent as representative of the ways in which you can design the world, we fail to recognize that we are perpetuating a very limited and specific history of landscape architecture.

So, in a creative field that should be unbounded, there is a sort of quiet cultural hegemony. I think if we unravel culture and use observational methods to understand the ways in which people are inherently vessels of ritual, we can use that as a departure for expanding design typologies and making new ones—we can then, in other words, innovate.

Studio Zewde's proposal for the Bethel Burying Ground, a nineteenth-century African American cemetery in Philadelphia. Credit: Studio Zewde

One example I like to use is the practice of hanging out on street corners. Sidewalks are designed for movement, but what if you come from a culture where the street is a place for gathering? This is the case for a lot of traditions that come from West Africa, for instance; those remnants come through in spatial traditions of Afro-descendant people in the Americas. Hanging on the street corner has an undertone of criminality in the US, but it has a specific cultural lineage. What happens, then, if we don’t design sidewalks so that we’re just passing through, but instead design street corners and intersections of streets as a ritual, as a different typology?

That’s just an example of ways in which looking at culture as a way to design expands what we do as architects, and also helps us make places that are more resonant. Resonance really is the operative word; I think that it reflects how people are living. W.E.B. Du Bois talks about a double consciousness—that one can simultaneously feel American and not. In a way, designing for culture starts to bring that in union and make people feel like they belong, as their environment reflects and supports the ways in which they live.

So to answer your question, culture is the way we live, and designing for that is central to what we should be doing as designers. I think we limit ourselves when we don’t question the cultural assumptions inherent in the ways we work.

A temporary plaza in Africatown, Seattle, designed to showcase potential futures for a historically black community in an area being transformed by intense development pressure. Credit: Naomi Ishisaka

Your undergrad degree is in sociology and statistics. How has that training influenced how you go about trying to understand how people live? How do you apply it in your work?

Sociologists are really skilled and reflective when it comes to analyzing and synthesizing qualitative inputs about a place, and that is how we work as an office at Studio Zewde: taking in information in an observational way, then articulating that back to our clients, saying, “Here’s what we understand. Does this sync with how you understand your place?”

Another thing sociologists do really well is talk about their assumptions and methods. We put less emphasis on that in design, but having that kind of clarity of methods and assumptions is really useful when working with clients and communities. It goes a long way to be able to say, “Here’s what we understand is important. Here’s how we interpret that. Here’s how the design is a function of that”—articulating the intermediate steps as opposed to, “Here’s a design.” Doing this effectively gives people an entry point into engaging and contributing to the process of design.

Statistics is more of an art than a science. Similar to sociology, it is about identifying relationships—however, using quantitative inputs instead. And so, both sociology and statistics support a practice of identifying patterns, clearly communicating them, and then using them as a creative departure.

When you start to work on a particular site, how do you start to understand what aspects of culture are important to emphasize there?

We do a lot of research in the early stages of a project. We usually kick things off by engaging with a place, its ecology, or its people in a very open-ended manner. We go through archival materials; we’re hitting up libraries. We observe how people use the site. We allow early observations and conversations to set the tone for our work before a single line gets drawn. And again, we emphasize that reflection back to the client: “Here’s the research; here’s what’s emerging; here’s what we’ve observed; here are the conversations we’ve had; here’s what’s coming to the fore in our understanding of this place.”

So it’s a mixture of research, conversation, and observation; kind of a braid between those three.

Public engagement in Africatown, Seattle. Credit: Naomi Ishisaka

Does your process change depending on the particulars of the situation, or do you have a general template that you use across projects?

We pride ourselves on crafting a different process for every project. A rule that we hold ourselves to is to never employ the same process twice. We consider these steps part of the design process itself, so we invest significant creative energy in them.

Could you say more about how your background in sociology influences the way you shape questions for clients or the public, or the way you conduct public engagement more generally?

When we’re designing the format of engagement in our office, we aim to identify and leverage the ways in which people are already fellowshipping among themselves there. For instance, one neighborhood we were working in has a lot of block parties, so our first engagement event was in the form of a block party.

Another example is at Graffiti Pier, where we worked with graffiti writers, who thrive on anonymity as a culture. They have to, just to survive; they have day jobs and government names.

Rendering of Studio Zewde's landscape design for Graffiti Pier and the Port Richmond Waterfront in Philadelphia. Credit: Studio Zewde

So our engagement strategy took the form of a series of off-the-record conversations. We met in disparate locations; we had representatives sent to us; we had anonymous emails and phone calls. And to distribute the design ideas, we made a zine, again, tapping into the existing rituals of this particular place.

You’ve also done projects in Brazil. How does working in another part of the world affect this process of trying to understand how people live in a particular area?

In reality, rarely are designers working in their own backyard; I mean, I’m in Harlem, and when I’m designing in Brooklyn, I gotta reorient myself to the culture there, too, right? It’s a lot of the same methods no matter where you’re working, to be honest. Understanding a place that’s not your own home is a foundational skill of architecture, and we should always be challenging ourselves to do this better.


Interview edited and condensed.