Landscape Architecture Magazine discusses “Dismantling the Design Syllabus” with GSD’s Sara Zewde, Anita Berrizbeitia

Amid a year of design introspection on issues of race, culture, identity, and equity, Landscape Architecture Magazine’s November 2020 issue takes up “Dismantling the Design Syllabus,” presenting faculty from various landscape architecture programs and their thoughts on what an anti-racist pedagogy looks like. The magazine spoke with, among others, Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Sara Zewde (MLA ’15), Assistant Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture, and Anita Berrizbeitia (MLA ’87), Professor of Landscape Architecture & Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture.

Upon her GSD faculty appointment this past summer, Zewde became the first tenure-track Black woman professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture (According to the magazine, Zewde is one of 19 Black landscape architecture professors at accredited programs in the United States).

As reporter Zach Mortice writes, landscape architecture programs across the United States are confronting questions of race and social justice that have been deepened in the months following the May murder of George Floyd by police, and months of protests thereafter. With discussions and dialogue around structural racism shifting toward questions and reassessments of design curricula and reading lists—in landscape architecture programs and throughout design schools—Zewde tells the magazine, “I have never seen this kind of conversation around the actual curriculum, and that’s what excites me.”

In the feature, Berrizbeitia offers additional observations on ways the landscape architecture field can and should continue to evolve in light of recent cultural dialogue. Mortice observes that the field’s broad focus on ecological frameworks is evermore relevant, but that without equivalent focus and attention given to social considerations, including community, economics, and culture, landscape architecture can encourage gentrification and displacement.

“By focusing so much on ecological practices, [landscape architects have] put these ecological practices where the money is, rather than where the money is not,” Berrizbeitia says. “The field has not understood that ecology also has social content embedded in it.”

Following reconsideration of the landscape architecture curriculum this summer, Berrizbeitia committed the Department of Landscape Architecture to a close, introspective look at issues of race and justice, including the introduction of intra-departmental facilitated discussions on race and gender and a departmental diversity committee. Within the curriculum, faculty committed to re-centering disciplinary questions throughout core and elective courses by expanding precedents and situating projects within a broader set of discussions in order to more carefully interrogate and address these concerns and issues.

In this summer’s GSD series Architecture, Design, Action, Berrizbeitia offered further expansion on these plans.

“To demonstrate the relevance of the field, we often boast of the multivalence of landscape architecture, how it touches on all aspects of the natural and the social spheres,” she said. “Yet as often as we explain the many ways that landscape relates to everything, we neglect to explain what landscape hides behind its physical manifestation, its appearance. We do not as often discuss the histories, processes, and practices that have led to the present state of landscape, to the climate crisis in all its manifestations, to pandemics, and to social injustice and exclusionary public realms.”

Zewde is founding principal of Studio Zewde, a design firm practicing landscape architecture, urbanism, and public art. Her practice and research start from her contention that the discipline of landscape architecture is tightly bound by precedents and typologies rooted in specific traditions that must be challenged, and her projects exemplify how sensitivities to culture, ecology, and craft can serve as creative departures for expanding design traditions.

In 2014, while a GSD degree candidate, Zewde was named the annual National Olmsted Scholar by the Landscape Architecture Foundation, among other awards and honors. Returning to the GSD as a member of the faculty, she is currently leading the GSD option studio “Cotton Kingdom, Now” and teaching in the landscape architecture core sequence.

Presently the chair of the GSD’s Department of Landscape Architecture, Berrizbeitia—who, like Zewde, earned her MLA from the GSD—focuses research on design theories of modern and contemporary landscape architecture, the productive aspects of landscapes, and Latin American cities and landscapes.

“Landscape architecture, landscape, land itself—this is where, simply put, life and all of its conflicts takes place,” Berrizbeitia said in the GSD’s Architecture, Design, Action. “This means that, as long as the capitalist spatial mode prevails, landscape is always a contested ground.”