An interview with Olmstead Scholar Sara Zewde: Cultural Preservation, Landscape Architecture, and Kanye West

Contributed by Rebecca Greenwald

At 28, Sara Zewde is something of an architectural wonderkid- part landscape architect, part urbanist, part sociologist and cultural anthropologist, and-as of this month-the Landscape Architecture Foundation's 2014 Olmstead Scholar. As the first student from Harvard's Graduate School of Design to win the award, Sara will bring her perspective examining and designing landscapes with Walter Hood/Hood Design in Oakland and Asakura Robinson in Houston to creating spaces in both New Orleans' Treme and Rio de Janeiro's Little Africa that honor and reflect some of those cities’ most challenged yet culturally influential communities. I caught Sara in between final exams to talk about her grant work, the relationship between cultural preservation and landscape design, and why Kanye West is important to the design community.

Tell us a little bit about the two projects you'll be using your grant to pursue in Rio and New Orleans

A few years ago I was working in transportation planning in Rio de Janeiro when a discovery was made of slave bones in what they believed to be the old slave wharf, Valongo, in central Rio. At the time the city government announced that they wanted to memorialize the space with a plaza to represent the black experience in that community, Pequena Africa (Little Africa). With the support of a grant I received from Harvard I examined the design process and issues in that community. The city government and community organizations advocating for the project were interested in getting me involved in the design process but had no funds at the time, so this Olmsted grant will help me go back and get involved in these design issues looking at the Pequena Africa neighborhood.

A cross-section of the city's history is visible during the construction project in Pequena Africa (2011). Source: Sara Zewde

For the New Orleans part of my research, I’ll be revisiting a topic I explored in my master’s thesis at MIT, the potential removal of the Claiborne Expressway that cuts through one of the city’s most famous historically black neighborhoods, Treme. When I wrote my thesis, the project was theoretical and then about a year afterwards the city got a federal grant to study the feasibility of removing the elevated expressway. The Olmstead grant will give me the chance to go back and reconsider what I was talking about in my thesis and get involved in developing design strategies for the corridor as the project gets realized.

What similarities do you see between the two communities, design and otherwise?

In terms of the trajectory of these cities, they’re both in a period of hyper development—New Orleans is still seeing a lot of post-Katrina redevelopment and Rio is seeing a lot of World Cup and Olympics-related development which has the put the core of both cities under a lot of pressure. Because of this, areas that were historically under-valued, largely because of infrastructural decisions like putting freeways there, are now being redeveloped and reconsidered. In the case of Rio, the elevated freeway going through Pequena Africa was removed only very recently.

Claiborne Avenue in 1955, before the construction of the elevated expressway. Source: Louisiana Historical Society

Under the overpass today (2010). Source: Sara Zewde











Both of these neighborhoods are also the homes of forms of music and culture that have formed national identities—in New Orleans Treme is the birthplace of jazz and in Rio Pequena Africa is the birthplace of Samba. Despite that, there has been a lack of understanding of how the spatial cultures of those places are able to influence their contemporary design. That’s really where the intrigue for me lies- we can say we’ve been able to honor certain aspects of these neighborhoods, but in terms of architectural and landscape design we haven’t been able to.

That thesis from your first Masters at MIT is now being used to teach students about black architecture and urbanism- an area that is not usually given critical examination, especially in academic settings. Can you detail some of the defining elements you see in this area?

For the most part, the way urbanists view black neighborhoods (and other low-income neighborhoods and communities of color) are as problems that need to be fixed. At the heart of what I want to say is what can we as urbanists learn from these neighborhoods? There are actually a lot of spatial and cultural practices that lend themselves to contemporary design. It’s not really about defining some set of physical elements that are characteristic of all of these places, but more about the way we look at them and value these people, landscapes, and neighborhoods.

For both projects, how much background research did you have to do on the history of both places and what are some of the most interesting things you learned in that process?

In both Rio and New Orleans the most important part of the research process was simply talking to people: small business owners, local residents, members of city government, and civic, cultural and spiritual leaders. These conversations were about building relationships with the members of these communities and understanding what aspects of the spaces around them are most important. One of my favorite things about design is the empathy it requires of you.

As much as possible, spending time in the area is critical as well. It is important to experience the place with a sense of curiosity and wonderment, in combination with a rootedness, in order to tap into the rhythms and energies of the place.  And you layer on the more historical, archival and current events research in understanding the issues and politics of the place. Those elements of the research are really important in understanding how to enter these projects and what my potential contribution might be to those contexts.

How has your own diverse upbringing - both of your parents moved here from Ethiopia and you spent much of your childhood between Louisiana and Houston- represented itself in your work?

Every place I’ve lived has a very distinct landscape. Even as a child moving from Louisiana to Houston I became very conscious of the change in the way things looked, in the lighting, the smells, the pace of life, the sounds- all of that melded together into landscape. It happened again when I moved to Boston and again in California and in Brazil. For me it’s overlaying all of those moves with my parents’ upbringing in Ethiopia, I’ve always been very aware of what is represented in the landscape and how it makes you feel about where and who you are, where you’re supposed to be, what people, cultures and ways of life are validated and represented, etc.

In terms of the work I’m currently pursuing, both Brazil and New Orleans exhibit elements of Africa in the Western Hemisphere. And my parents are both Africans in the West. So they present this extreme hybridity, and I guess because my own life is of a hybrid nature that’s one of the reasons why I’m drawn to both places.

You were recently one of a group of students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design who brought Kanye West in to speak and engage in conversation around design- what was the significance of that experience and what is the importance of figures like him in raising the profile of black designers?

The reason why we reached out to Kanye was because we identified with the frustration he was expressing in the media about being pigeonholed into one form of art and the feeling that he wasn’t gaining access to a lot of the design world because of this. The media didn’t seem to understand it, but we did. For us, with black people being so underrepresented in architecture, landscape architecture, and planning (for reference only 2 percent of accredited architects in the AIA are black) we could certainly relate to that frustration. We want to be part of the design world and feel like we can make a unique contribution in the same way our peers can.

Kanye and AASU photo

Having someone with Kanye’s reach and platform come to the GSD and express his thoughts on design as an agency of change and how design can save the world was very significant for us. For people of all colors and socioeconomic backgrounds to learn craft is highly empowering and will only continue to widen the range of things that are possible for design. Kanye spoke directly to that.

I have to ask since you're now an official Olmstead scholar- what influence has Olmstead had on your interest in landscape architecture and on your work?

One of Olmstead’s greatest strengths was his ability to layer ecologic, aesthetic, and social aims. I think a lot of landscape architecture today either positions itself in one of two categories- it’s either a ‘public project’ like an urban plaza or it’s an ecological restoration project aimed at saving habitat. But Olmstead’s work manages to do both really well, and he was very conscious of accomplishing both social needs and landscape aims. Olmstead was also very good at observing people and you can see that in the very delicate hand that comes through even in his large scale works—you feel like you could venture through Central or Prospect Park forever. It’s this layering effect that is so evocative and timeless and is something that can be appreciated even as populations change around them. And that is what I’m aiming to do with my work.


About Rebecca Greenwald

Rebecca Greenwald is an associate with Walter Communications and consults with companies across design, travel and sustainability. In her free time, Rebecca enjoys getting lost in new cities and in cafes, markets, bookstores and record shops. 

Top 4 Architecture and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of July 8, 2013

071413 Embracing daylight. Architect Barbie. Texas sand sculpture. Alternative outputs. Sharknado is Twitter bait.

Embracing daylight. Florence Lam, who leads Arup’s global lighting design team, discusses how daylight is critical to sustainable urban development in addition to a person’s health and well-being.

“Up until around the 1980s, architecture students were encouraged to develop an instinct for daylight and its qualities in different parts of the world. Today, I believe this part of their education has been neglected. The complex and crammed curricula of modern architectural education leave students lacking the necessary opportunity to observe, imagine and embrace daylight experience at the beginning of every design.” – Florence Lam

Via Arup Blog

Architect Barbie. Lisa Boquiren, chairwoman of the AIA SF communications committee, explores the changes needed to keep women practitioners engaged in the architecture profession which was discussed at the symposium The Missing 32%, which is the opt-out rate of women in the industry.

Boquiren looks at the advent of Architect Barbie, which was a partnership between AIA national and Mattel in which “architect” lost to “computer engineer” in 2010 for Barbie’s 125th career, eventually advising Mattel on “Architect Barbie’s” design.

Via Metropolis POV

Texas sand sculpture. Gensler’s Houston office was asked by Mayor Annise Parker to build a patriotic-themed sand sculpture for the city’s 2013 Freedom Over Texas Festival.

What emerged was a sand sculpture that included iconic American structures like the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Bell, Washington Monument and iconic Texas structures such as the Alamo and the Houston skyline. In the center of the sculpture is a star above a map of the US and flanked by the US and the Texas flags. Special elements that memorialized the teachers, students, runners, firefighters and factory workers that had lost their lives were also included: a book, an apple, a hammer, running shoes, a rose, and firefighter’s helmets.

Via Gensleron Cities

Alternative inputs. Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG writes about how UK artist Ryan Jordan led a workshop in Montréal, building musical instruments out of geological circuit boards, an experiment in terrestrial instrumentation he calls "Derelict Electronics."

Manaugh says we should “plug our cities not just into giant slurries of wood pulp, like thick soups of electricity, but also directly into the forests around us, drawing light from the energy of trunks and branches, is yet another extraordinary possibility that designers would do well to take on, imagining what such a scenario literally might look like and how it would technically function, not solely for its cool aesthetic possibilities but for the opportunity to help push our culture of gadgets toward renewable sources of power.”


Innovative Social Media

Sharknado is Twitter bait. Syfy's made-for-TV movie 'Sharknado,' which is about tornadoes that scoop up sharks from the ocean and dispense them on LA residents, inspired a feeding frenzy on social media. The show generated 318,232 tweets during broadcast and 5,000 tweets per minute at its peak.

Two key factors contributed to Sharknado’s social media success: smart buzz generation, led by Syfy's senior vice president of digital, Craig Engler, and participation by leading Twitter celebrities such as Wil Wheaton, Damon Lindelof and others.

Via Mashable


Favorite Design and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of March 10, 2013

Olin Studio considers the intersection of planning and landscape. Landscape Urbanism spots an app for street design. SWA acknowledges the designers of the Golden Gate Parks.  An interview with an HOK designer. A different model for design education in Metropolis POV. 130318

Intersection of planning and landscape. OLIN Studio hosted a symposium that explored the intricacies of the relationship between planning and landscape architecture.

Several issues were brought up, including whether design should be brought back into planning. Or should planning sensibility be folded into the world of design? How are these topics relevant today? The symposium focused on the following themes:

  1.  Projective Work
  2. Powerful Players
  3. Global Scale
  4. Education and Conversation
  5. Art and Instrumentality

Via The OLIN Studio Blog


App for street design. Sarah Kathleen Peck, editor of Landscape Urbanism, writes about an app that lets you place various street elements in different spaces and adjusts the Right-Of-Way to desired traffic levels.

The app was designed by Code for America graduates and launched to increase real-time engagement at community planning meetings and allow people to work collaboratively with one another as well as share and edit each other’s creations. The app can be tested at at StreetMix.Net.

Via Landscape Urbanism

Related: StreetMix


Designers of the Golden Gate Parks. Rene Bihan of SWA Group blogs about the important legacy left by the designers and stewards of the Golden Gate National Parks. The landscape architect is hosting a fundraiser for The Cultural Landscape Foundation in honor of these citizens next month.

“Our vibrant and tightly-packed North Beach neighborhood is offset by the not-too-far-away wide open spaces of the Golden Gate National Parks (GGNP) that hint at the what the city was like generations ago and what the landscape was like before there was a city. It is no accident that these spaces are still here. The GGNP of today is the collective result of generations of activists, environmentalists, lawyers, stewards, and designers. We owe these individuals a great deal.” – Rene Bihan

Via IdeaSWA blog

Related: You’re Invited! An Evening Honoring a Model for Stewardship Innovation and Design Excellence


Interview with HOK designer. Todd Bertsch, Design Director for HOK in Atlanta, Georgia, discusses what it’s like to be an architect in Atlanta and some of the projects he’s worked on.

“Practicing architecture is this incredible collision of solving technical problems, exploring philosophical ideas and expressing creativity. We have the opportunity to affect what our communities look like, how society operates and how people live. We can blend beauty and poetry to create these high-performance buildings that have a positive influence on the world. These challenges thrill me every day.” – Todd Bertsch

Via HOK Life


Different model for design education. Sherin Wing examines the graduate program at the Art Center College of Design’s Media Design Practices (MDP), which provides a unique foundation of theory and on-the-ground training. Advocates of the program hope the model will influence other design programs.

While “activist” design has been around for years, the Art Center model unites critical analysis with design skills. The goal is to provide useful solutions for people locally and abroad without being culturally reductive or condescending. Too often, designers try to reinvent social intervention in their haste to be in the vanguard of a “new” approach and school-based design projects. These can be equally misguided. The result can waste material resources, human capital and money, while reinforcing cultural assumptions about the “other.”

Via Metropolis Magazine POV


Favorite Design and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of February 4, 2013

Health architects an endangered species. Landscape architecture in China. Values in architecture. Tools at schools. And, social media ideas from the Girl Scouts. 130209

Health architects an endangered species. Bill Brinkman, executive vice president and marketing principal at HDR Architecture, writes on how physicians at HDR’s 5th Translational Health Science (THS) Colloquium in La Jolla, California, believe that the future of healthcare will be medical diagnostics done via wireless technology.

At the colloquium, Dr. Eric Topol said that core diagnostics typically done in a hospital can be done on a modified iPhone, which includes cardiograms and tests for blood, sweat, saliva, and urine. A microchip nanosensor smaller than a grain of sand can be put into your bloodstream and detect a heart attack a week or two before it happens -- and send a signal to your iPhone.

Via Blink Perspectives on Design


Landscape architecture in China. Landscape architecture education has come back into favor in China, and Chinese universities have established or reestablished nearly 200 landscape architecture programs in less than a decade.

Eight academics from the United States and China discuss the cultural exchange taking place between their countries and issues educators face in China as they try to build the profession there.

Via Landscape Architecture Magazine


Values in architecture. James Pfeiffer of BNIM explores themes from “Collaborating with the Public; Advocating for the Social” at Professional Practice Week in Halifax, Canada.

Pfeiffer points out some of the themes that emerged from the dialogue in Halifax:

  • Architecture is ultimately about the power of ideas to be transformative and impactful.
  • Architecture is a social driver:  its role is sometimes more about designing a social mix (the conditions within which architecture lives) rather than simply being about bricks and mortar.
  • We can’t over tailor our buildings anymore. More and more, our structures must embody the notion of “long life, loose fit.”
  • Constraints are drivers:  we take constraints, challenge them, and reinvent.
  • We design more than just buildings:  we design pieces of the city, community and the public realm.
  • Our work should be generous and regenerative.
  • Our respective practices require time and space to release moments for speculation.
  • Authorship is less important in a current practice:  ideas belong to everyone; the best ones ultimately “win” and are integrated into our projects.

We should strive for work that embodies the idea of doing “twice as much with half as much.”

Via BNIM Blog


Tools at schools. Design studio aruliden and Bernhardt Design launched an initiative to teach eighth graders the value of design as a problem-solving tool at The School at Columbia University.

The project immersed students in the entire design process, from research to ideation to 3D modeling and the launch. What began as a simple effort to get involved in the community grew into a much larger realization that design has a role in the classroom. Check out this video to see concepts and what students gained.

Via Cannon Design Blog


Innovative Social Media

Girl Scouts embrace social media. Girl Scouts celebrated their first National Girl Scout Cookie Day, embracing Twitter, food trucks and new package design. @GirlScouts will tweet the location of its Cookie Day Truck as it makes its way through New York City, staffed with Girl Scouts selling thin mints and other favorite cookies.

Via Diners Journal Blog

Related: Girl Scouts






Favorite Design and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of January 14, 2012

Who rules the earth? Peripheral vision. A new type of architectural school. Why design matters. Endowment for rural communities.  132101

Who rules the earth. Steve Prince, managing principal of HMC Architects, explores the idea of who rules the earth, stemming from interest of Paul Steinberg’s book, “Who Rules the Earth? How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives,” to be published by Oxford University Press in 2014. The book is part of The Social Rules Project, an environmental sustainability advocacy.

Prince, who connected with the project because of its environmental sustainability initiative, awarded a $5,000 grant to support the Social Rules Project, which seeks to create new and innovative ways to bridge academia and real world challenges, and to empower students to make a positive impact on the planet.

Via HMC Architects blog


On the periphery. Linnaea Tillett, an environmental psychologist, lighting designer and principal of Tillett Lighting, writes about how lighting can affect the way people feel in a room where they’ll be performing different kinds of tasks.

Tillett says this affect comes from the periphery of your vision—the “fringe of your focus”—and it determines how you feel in a particular space. People absorb much of the affect without being acutely aware that they are doing it through what we variously call the co-conscious, unconscious, or just the “noise around us”.

Via Metropolis Magazine POV


A new type of architecture school. Robert Kwolek blogs on how he would like to create his own private school of architecture, offering a complete alternative to existing programs in which the worlds of architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, and carpentry would be melded.

Kwolek says that despite having graduated from an architecture program, he still doesn’t feel significantly more capable of constructing his own building. He says that most contemporary architecture programs “are very insular, with little regard for preparing students for the real world.”

Via Sustainable Cities Collective


Why Design Matters. Tom Ito, a principal in Gensler’s Los Angeles office, blogs about how staying at the hotel Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, India, made him reflect on the power of design.

“Everything about my journey into the hotel (and approaching nirvana) was designed. It was “guest experience” planned and supported by the landscape, the architecture and the interiors for the purpose of giving me a lasting memory of this hotel and—bigger picture—the brand. It worked.” – Tom Ito

Via GenslerOn Lifestyle blog


Endowment for rural communities. The new Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD), a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Project for Public Spaces, and other organizations, is looking for proposals from rural communities who need design help. Winners will receive a $7,000 grant and technical assistance valued at $35,000.

CIRD helps rural communities with fewer than 50,000 people. Through facilitated design workshops, CIRD aims to “enhance the quality of life and economic vitality” of these places.

Via The Dirt