Studio Zewde

Sara Zewde and Ana Miljački talk about alternative ways of doing landscape architecture, racial tokenism, design cyphers, and the value of architects as synthesizers.

Recorded on March 8, 2022. Read a transcript of the episode below.

About Studio Zewde

Sara Zewde is the founding principal of Studio Zewde, a landscape architecture, urban design, and public art practice based in New York City. She was the 2014 National Olmsted Scholar at the Landscape Architecture Foundation and a 2016 artist-in-residence at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and in 2018 was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s inaugural 40 Under 40 list. In 2020, Zewde was named a United States Artists fellow, and in 2021, her firm was named an Emerging Voice by The Architectural League of New York. The studio is acclaimed for its design methodology, which strives to align site interpretation and narrative with a dedication to the craft of construction.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljački: (00:20) Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljački, professor of architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab, and on behalf of the Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled I Would Prefer Not To.

I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes: refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, the topic of refusal stays hidden from public scrutiny, and is also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails, and they’re not easy to examine or learn from, and yet the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about, and decisions not to engage, are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission, or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics, inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.

My guest in this episode is Sara Zewde. Thank you for joining me, Sara.

Sara Zewde: (01:30) Thank you for having me.

Miljački: (01:32) Sara Zewde is the founding principal of Studio Zewde, a landscape architecture, urban design, and public art practice based in New York City. Sara was named the 2014 National Olmstead Scholar by the Landscape Architecture Foundation, a 2016 artist in residence of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and in 2018, she was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation inaugural 40 Under 40, and a 2020 United States Artists fellow. Named a 2021 Emerging Voice by The Architectural League of New York, the studio’s work is acclaimed for its design methodology, which strives to align site interpretation and narrative with a dedication to the craft of construction.

Studio Zewde has worked on several projects in Texas, on a prototype of the future of Africatown in Seattle, on saving the Graffiti Pier in Philadelphia. We might address today some of the recent and future work of the studio, but we will do that, or we will begin to do that, by talking about the work that is not on the boards, or in the studio’s portfolio, by discussing at what point is a commission not worth it, what kind of line gets drawn with a decision to forfeit the possibility of work, and how such decisions are made in the studio?

So Sara, let’s start with your most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission. And if that’s not yet happened, can you imagine it happening?

Zewde: (03:06) It’s a very interesting premise for a conversation, and hearing you set up this topic, and underscoring how uncomfortable of a conversation this is, really resonates with me. Because I, you know, admittedly will try to have this conversation without too much specificity so that I don’t reveal the actual characters in the dynamics.

It’s a tricky set of dynamics. For me, it’s actually something that I do a lot, probably. I approach the field with a lot of skepticism, and that plays out by, ultimately, me saying “I’d rather not” very frequently. In many instances, there are a number of different reasons, but probably the most frequent is the dynamic caused by the fact that I am one of very few black women in the field. I’m one of 13 licensed black women in landscape architecture in the United States. And, as you can imagine, there are a lot of projects and invitations and commissions that are presented that have a sense of tokenism attached to them. The way that MBE and MWBE use scoring for a lot of public commissions, for instance: They work with a point system, and so there are a lot of invitations to be a part of projects merely based on that. And a lot of times they really are actually pretty forthright about the fact that they need some requirements, they need to meet some requirements, and that, by virtue of being a black-owned business, that we offer some points for their proposals or what have you. Or there’s a sense sometimes that we get that people want a certain face to a project, but there isn’t the understanding of our work, and the specifics of the way that we approach work, and trust in our ability to do the work. When those kinds of tones are hit in a conversation—which, as I mentioned, is probably the majority of phone calls we get—we find ourselves refusing to take part in the lion’s share of work that is presented to us.

Miljački: (05:49) I know you said you want to avoid naming names, but is there a little more specificity on one of these? Like, what’s the most memorable one? Or maybe the most egregious one now that you’ve built up the answer already?

Zewde: (06:09) They’re all…well, not all, but it is very common for people to call and literally say, “We just need to meet our requirements.” It’s almost as if there’s this implicit…it’s not even implicit at that point. It’s an explicit exchange of…a tap dance or face to a project.

And it’s odd, because it’s a system that’s meant to encourage a diversity of firm ownership, and yet it really has put a lot of these businesses in a really tough position to establish a design practice, a robust design practice. I used to work for Walter Hood, who’s a landscape architect out of Oakland, California, and he used to tell me that there’s been no shortage of black people graduating from design schools and starting their own firms, but they’ve been rendered obsolete by a lot of the same programs and structures that were meant to elevate and propel them.

So the selection of projects that one does choose to accept and pursue are ultimately the way you navigate that as, ultimately, whether you can rise above the obscurity that has…the history of architecture represents in terms of people of color. And so that decision can make or break, essentially, your career, in a particular way, if you are a black-owned business.

Miljački: (07:57) It’s very important, then, to talk about whether or not you have rules of engagement, or rules of non-engagement, that correspond to that reality.

Zewde: (08:13) Design collaboration with anyone, a client or another trade, is such a delicate dance. When you are trying to determine what projects you want to pursue, understanding people’s design sensibilities, their instincts, what they value . . . There’s this dating process that you go through, to understand what’s under the covers. What’s under the hood, I should say, rather—I can’t extend that metaphor too much further. To really try to get a sense of what’s important to people.

In those conversations, there’s a set of questions you really want to be able to ask, and it’s a scene-setting that needs to happen. In those conversations, you look out, or I look out, for what a team or an entity or a client’s values are. Do they align with ours? We have a very distinct approach. It’s probably a more expanded approach to landscape architecture and the design processes, and so it’s important for us always to establish that, to be upfront about that, to be clear. And to understand if people see and recognize us as…as designers, and as people, rather than a face to a project or a name to put on a proposal.

Miljački: (09:52) Those are great answers. A question that still follows on this line is one about how you bring your team and your own studio into these conversations. Is there a set of procedures in place that you have for discussing how you run the studio and what commissions to take, which ones not to, and how to suss out the things that you just spoke about?

Zewde: (10:27) It’s a very important part of our office. I’m always pretty upfront with people in our office that this company is not just about growth; we’re not about growth. We are a boutique firm in the sense that we have a particular process and approach, so that it will never, will never be the firm that is really just working to get projects in the door to keep everybody busy. That every project that we’re working on is a project that we love, that we’re energized about, that we find meaning in and dedication to. The curation of projects in order to uphold that is very important.

I entered landscape architecture knowing that I really didn’t like the conventional practice of landscape architecture. It’s an odd position to be in to aspire to and pursue a field that you don’t really like, but it was always with a conviction that maybe I could do it, but do it differently.

That notion—the idea of doing it differently—means that we probably don’t want to be a part of most projects that come our way. I’ve always been confident in that from before I even entered the field. Before I went and pursued my education, I’ve always been side-eyed about landscape architecture and have always felt that.

It’s an incredible privilege to be able to design landscapes—that means everything that’s not a building. That’s such a liberating set of skills to have. I’ve always found the practice of landscape architecture to be quite limited in its imagination about what landscapes can be. So I guess I’ve always seen myself a little bit as an outsider. And landscape architecture is…I’ve always had a confidence that I could take that skill set and apply it in a different way. Sharing that with folks in our office, actually being upfront with them before they even accepted a position, and saying, “This is who we are, we’re not like everybody else”—it’s important that everybody understands the ways in which we’re trying to challenge the profession. “We’re not pursuing growth, we’re pursuing impact. In order to do that, these are our core values. This is the way we approach getting work and doing work.” Being upfront with them and making sure that they believe in it themselves and understand when we make business decisions, like which projects to pursue, that, that there’s a clarity of mind about why we’re navigating this. How do you square from the questions that go from growth or not growth, impact, and financial well-being of the office?

So I have a set of business consultants. Or not a set—I have one business consultant, it’s a team of them there. And every time I talk like this, they say, “Sara, what are you doing?” They say, “You don’t say no to work as a young, growing firm.” This is where I have to push back, because it’s important to me to do good work, but also to make this a good place to work, financially and otherwise. That’s a part of, of architecture that I feel we don’t talk enough about. We always celebrate the firms that…because of the work, but I think we should be celebrating firms for also making it a good place to work. That’s something that’s very important to me. Every decision about projects to take and not take, there is a calculation on that part. But our team is small, we’re seven people. I’m looking for the right balance of projects and people always that we are…everyone feels like they’re learning from each other, they love the work that they’re doing, but there’s not a lot of turnover. There’s the right kind of projects that line up with our visions and values, but also compensate us for the work that we’re doing.

Sometimes we find ourselves in love with a project that can’t necessarily compensate us, so we’ll work with clients on finding resources, on fundraising. Sometimes there are special projects that really deserve that.

This firm started from communities reaching out to me. I was just…I worked at another firm, and I used to get emails from communities and from random people saying, “Hey, I don’t know what we want, but I know that I can’t find it in the menu of landscape architecture firms that are out there.” That’s the, that’s really what propelled this firm into existence, and I will always want to honor that origin story. That’s the foundation of this practice.

And also, all of that to say, it is a balance of understanding what can compensate us and also what support, what represents an incredible opportunity to make an impact. There’s an intersection there and a balance that we’re looking for.

Miljački: (16:20) Now that you’ve invoked story—the origin story, at least—you talk in the lectures that we’ve listened to and watched about the position, or about the architect and landscape architect as a kind of storyteller. Maybe it would be good to talk about the way that you describe, not necessarily inviting everyone to design with you, but rather listening and trying to synthesize and interpret what you hear. Or how does that position and interest align with storytelling and the role that you see for the landscape architect?

Zewde: (17:03) To your point, I think it’s baked into the question. Clients that are comfortable with the process of design that we employ—understanding whether they feel comfortable not knowing what the project will be at the beginning is really one of those questions.

I just had lunch with a client. She said that when we presented at the interview, we were the only firm that came in there and said, “We don’t know what this project is going to be.” She was like, “Everybody else had beautiful images, designs, design ideas, images of built work.” From that angle, they were asking the client to pick, based on their portfolio and design ideas, which design idea they wanted. She said, “It’s because you came in there and said, ‘We don’t know what this is going to be and we have no designs, and here are our projects, and they all look very different from each other, and we don’t know what you’ll get’”—she said that made them very comfortable, because they don’t know what they want, but they do know they want a particular kind of process. Then I told her there are a lot of projects we don’t get because we don’t do that.

But to your point, what we, what we have is a process. We don’t have a design signature; we have a process. That process is, is about identifying, emerging themes that have a place in an emerging narrative. That might be through working with a community. That might be through site research, archival research, observational research—but basically calling different ways of knowing in order to amplify the, the embodied history of a site through contemporary design.

When we work with communities, that process is really…My critique about how, how architecture writes about participatory engagement, conducts it, is that it’s really rooted in the legacy of urban renewal, and a lot of guilt and shame that the discipline has, and so it takes on this paternalistic tone. I find that over the last seven years, it hasn’t really evolved to challenge itself. Our work in the office is really about owning our agency as designers—not really, not necessarily approaching communities in the sense that we’re just asking them for a laundry list of things they want to see, but we’re actually engaging with them in an interpretive process. We find that that elevates the expectations for the design from the community standpoint, from the client standpoint. That’s what we really need. As I mentioned, that’s why I entered the profession, is because I’ve always felt we could be imagining more from our landscapes. That is one of our deciding factors when we choose to take on a project.

Miljački: (20:19) I was really excited by your offering of a design cypher in place of a design charrette. I wanted to see if you could tell us a little bit more about what that sort of transformation or rethinking of the engagement process does, or how does it work? How do you conceptualize it?

Zewde: (20:46) Originally, the idea of the cypher was more of a linguistic remix. The charrette, the idea of the charrette, it’s a French word that we now use commonly in English to invoke the idea of . . . well, there are certain formats also that are associated with it, but the idea of a collaboration between architects and laypeople. It’s commonly associated with the image of the architect, and a base plan and trace, and a bunch of committee members gathered around and saying, “Oh, what if we had this here? What if we had this here?” and architects sketching it out and people watching. So, when the Africatown Committee Land Trust, which was a community that reached out to us to work on a project in Seattle, when they said, “We’ve been thinking about the idea of a cypher”—the word cypher is a term that’s rooted in hip hop. In hip hop, the way a cypher works is a group of people in a circle freestyling off the top of their head. So I might say something, and—I won’t force you to do it in this moment—but in theory, you would respond by saying something that rhymes, and we will go back and forth.

I was really taken with the idea of a cypher and said, “Let’s take that terminology and move it one step forward and actually use it as a way to refashion what a charrette is.” What we did was, we started to format the engagement such that you didn’t know who the designer, who the architect, was in the group. We would have events of hundreds of people and divide them into six, seven groups, with, with designers sprinkled throughout, and you don’t know who’s who. It is a kind of freestyle among people: it’s not designer and layperson, it’s person, person, person, and everybody is engaged in the process of negotiating priorities, so it breaks down the binary a bit.

The idea of freestyling means there’s a suggestion of a hyper-attentiveness that happens when you freestyle hip hop, and that everybody is contributing. The question of who’s going to draw is on the table, and we know that drawing isn’t a medium that’s very comfortable for people. So we have a lot of different media available: magazines, old Black magazines mixed together with Architectural Digest mixed together with random materials, found objects, what have you. There’s collaging, there’s multimedia work. So really opening up the media of expression, who gets to speak, what the roles are, and so forth.

Miljački: (23:50) That’s amazing. I was going to ask you about the props that are used in the cypher beyond language. Thank you, that’s perfect. That’s a great description.

This is related to it, but in the in the Graffiti Pier in Philly, you were talking, there was a description, or when you describe, when you present the project, there’s a description about anonymous meetings in bars, emails, and various ways of collecting knowledge from the site or feedback from the site. How do you access the culture, history that you feel you need to access? Or how do you know you have done it, and how would you describe where it eventually registers in the project?

Zewde: (24:40) Great question. The how is difficult to answer, because for us, we don’t have a set toolkit for the how, and the how has to be designed. The how is the design project itself. The how requires an understanding of the kinds of rituals and ways of fellowship that already exist in a community, and that’s the first step to designing.

In the Graffiti Pier, we learned that a lot of that communication happens underground, anonymously, because people have government names and day jobs and so forth, and because the nature of graffiti itself is criminalized. So we had to engage in a form of communication that also was anonymous and underground with respect to this, the culture of this community. It was when the pandemic hit. We tapped into the culture of zine-making that is endemic to street art and used that as a method of communicating with graffiti writers.

At Mander, where we know people have block parties—the neighborhood is known for its block parties—we didn’t have a community meeting with a slideshow and rows of chairs. We had a barbecue, a DJ, and a block party, and nobody would have known it was a quote-unquote community meeting. It’s just the way that people come together and talk to each other in this place.

What we do is, we start doing that before we draw anything, because once you tap into that and understand that, you can then start to actually think about what engagement is, and then you start to not be able to separate the design process from the engagement process. At a certain point, a lot of times, in hindsight, we’ll find that whatever engagement format we land on is actually the departure to the design, or some sort of prototype or seed to the design, because the design of landscapes is ultimately about fortifying rituals and communities and social interactions into the future. So is engagement. So in many ways, they’re the same process.

Miljački: (27:14) Could you tell us, what are the conditions in which you think you do your best work?

Zewde: (27:22) Hmm. I’m very energized when a client or a community feels that, or understands and is vocal about the significance of the place they live in, or work in, or have a relationship to, that when people are fighting for and advocating for the work themselves—that’s an energy that multiplies. It’s compounded. It just, it bolsters what design can be when you feel like you are being elevated and challenged by people. I love getting angry emails—I love that. It’s just, “You care, and that’s something that we can…let’s figure it out.” It’s never, for me, it’s never about, “Here’s the design vision” and convincing people that it’s the right thing, but it’s about finding what is resonant among the transect of people. If somebody challenges us, that’s input, that’s data, that’s something that’s generative. I very much welcome that, and those are the project. A lot of our projects are very contested contexts, and that’s where I think design can really elevate itself.

Miljački: (29:00) Do you regret not taking a commission?

Zewde: (29:05) It’s a very good question. Not yet, but it probably will happen. I think I’m comfortable with that. I’m a bit risk averse, so I’m comfortable with that potentially happening one day. Why? Because I would rather that than the opposite: Taking it, I regret taking it. A project is a years-long commitment. It also means that folks in our office would be committed to doing work that we don’t like. Imagine going to work and not liking what you do. There’s nothing worse. It’s the majority of somebody’s life. Imagine having to staff a project that I regretted taking—that’s not something I’d want to live with. I’m way more comfortable with the regret that’s probably coming my way from not taking a project than the reverse. I’ll wait for that day and I will message you. I will email you when it happens, and we can do an epilogue, and help me work through my emotions and remind me that I said this! Because I will forget it probably.

Miljački: (30:28) Your answer suggests that you don’t have any projects that you regret taking at the moment.

Zewde: (30:34) No. In some projects that I was on the fence about that we ended up not taking, I look at now, and I’m like, “Oh, I am so glad we didn’t take that.” I feel very lucky. I almost feel like saying this out loud, I’m jinxing it. There have been a number of projects where I’m like, where I see where they went, and I’m very grateful that I followed an instinct or listened to somebody in our office.

Everybody in our office, including the interns, is involved in the conversations about which projects to take and which projects not to take, and so sometimes…I’m thinking of a particular project right now, it was an entry-level person that that was like, “I don’t think so,” and I reflected on what she said and so we didn’t. And really, looking at where it’s gone and what the process has been, I’m so glad.

Miljački: (31:36) Tell us what that kind of event looks like?

Zewde: (31:40) The conversation among the office?

Miljački: Yeah.

Zewde: So we have we have a weekly meeting every Monday morning where we discuss all the active projects, and the second half is discussing potential projects. And every time they come in, everyone in the office gets sent the RFP and the correspondence. The idea is, by Monday morning, everyone will have reviewed it, done whatever research they needed—I don’t know, Googled random people involved. And everybody does a little bit of investigative work and comes prepared on Monday morning to have a conversation about it. We just go through the list Monday morning and have an open discussion and everybody puts on the table their thoughts. It’s probably the most energized part of the office meeting. It brings up debate. It’s a way for us to always come back to articulating what’s important about the office. It really is the space where we come to clarity about that all the time and always refer back to it by virtue of these decisions and whether these projects are right for us.

Miljački: (32:54) That’s great. Thank you, Sara, for spending time with me today.

Zewde: (32:59) Oh, it was a fun conversation. Thank you for including me in this.

Miljački: (33:02) Thank you, and thank you, listeners, for tuning in to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.