Landscape architect Sara Zewde sows, and a museum reaps
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Landscape architect Sara Zewde sows, and a museum reaps
An aerial view of Dia Beacon, an art museum at the site of a former box factory in the Hudson Valley and part of a historic flood plain, in Beacon, N.Y., Oct. 20, 2020. The landscape architect Sara Zewde is challenging ideas about the legacy of the land, the art museum’s history and climate change. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

by Hilarie M. Sheets

NEW YORK, NY.- When it is introduced this year, the new and varied terrain of Dia Beacon, with its sculptural landforms, meadowlands and pathways, may surprise and delight.

Sara Zewde, the landscape architect who received the high-profile commission in 2021 to reimagine the museum’s 8 back acres, says the goal wasn’t just dressing up Dia’s buildings with attractive plants. She sees her profession as a field “that has the skill set to take ecology, to take culture, to take people and tap into something bigger.”

Her conviction that shaping land can illuminate, rather than merely beautify, places and their stories lies at the heart of Studio Zewde, the landscape and urban design firm she founded in Harlem, in Upper Manhattan, in 2018. Since then she has taught at Harvard University and is writing a book about her profession’s founding father, Frederick Law Olmsted, linking his vision of urban parks as critical to the future of democracy with his earlier travels through the antebellum South as a journalist and abolitionist.

“It doesn’t matter what project we’re doing, if it’s a parking lot or a museum landscape, there’s an opportunity to mobilize and provoke,” said Zewde (pronounced ZO-dee), who at 37 is one of a small number of Black women in the field and is paving the way for others.

Zewde doesn’t arrive with a singular aesthetic, and that isn’t always a good fit for those impatient to know what a project will look like. “We often don’t work well with those clients,” she said wryly in a video interview from Brazil. But her layered process was the selling point for the leadership at Dia Beacon.

Situated in the sprawling former Nabisco box printing factory on 32 acres in the Hudson Valley, adjacent to the river and part of its historic flood plain, the museum in the city of Beacon houses the Dia Art Foundation’s collection of monumental works by conceptual, minimalist and land artists.

“We were really looking to optimize an outdoor experience as well as the indoor one, but we weren’t quite sure what this could be,” Jessica Morgan, Dia’s director, said. Since opening in 2003, the museum has suffered with a vast, soggy landscape south of the building that has been inaccessible and uninviting to the public — a source of particular frustration to Morgan, especially when the galleries were closed early in the pandemic.

Zewde and her team took a deep dive into Dia’s archives and the history of the site and region, holding discussions with museum staff members at every level, with community and Indigenous organizations around Beacon and with artist Robert Irwin before his death last October. Irwin designed the original landscape framing the arrival to the museum. Studio Zewde’s plan for the other side of the building acknowledges the past — and prepares for the future.

Currently, Dia Beacon’s backyard is a huge, flat lawn flanked by two north-south running grass berms: one the site of former train tracks that connected the Nabisco factory with the High Line in Manhattan (parallel to the active Metro-North Railroad tracks between Dia and the river), the other a swale.

“The topography of the site is this kind of bathtub, a function of its chapter as a brickyard and then the Nabisco building,” Zewde said. Her design scheme introduces several rising curvilinear earthworks angled across the lawn that gesture to Dia Beacon’s preindustrial and Indigenous history: The property, at one of the narrowest points of the Hudson River, was once an important crossing point for the Lenape people.

“This series of sculptural landforms east to west is a way to talk about that movement across the river historically, but also to serve as basins that protect against storm events with the Hudson River backflow,” Zewde said. She worked with Sherwood Design Engineers to pipe water away from the building and retain it in these basins during sea level rise. (Dia’s basement took on a small amount of water during Hurricane Sandy, but no artworks were damaged.)

She also collaborated with Larry Weaner Landscape Associates to craft meadowlands and wetlands with a seasonal palette of colors and textures, intermixed with the rolling topography that will include pathways leading visitors through the varied terrain. A woodland mixing more than 130 new evergreen and deciduous trees will “hold the space and create a snow globe effect as you look out into the landscape,” Zewde said.

Morgan hopes the new design encourages visitors to spend hours in the landscape — walking, sitting and picnicking.

“It will be a huge shift for us in terms of what that experience of coming to Beacon will be,” she said. Morgan is leading a $50 million capital campaign marking the Dia foundation’s 50th anniversary this year, with 80% of it earmarked for endowment and a portion of the remaining $10 million to fund the landscape project.

“Landscaping around museums tends to be a somewhat limited affair,” she added. “This will actually be something that you could come to experience in and of itself.”

Studio Zewde’s organic attitude toward the land is a striking pivot from the work of land art by Irwin to the north, commissioned for the opening of Dia Beacon. Working with its founding director, Michael Govan, Irwin, an acclaimed light and space artist, landscaped the parking lot with hawthorn trees and grasses, rhythmically dividing each bay and framing the entrance. A path to the right provides a beautiful vista through towering hedges of manicured boxwood trees.

Zewde consulted with Irwin to determine the placement of a new path leading from the parking lot along the western edge of the museum to the southern landscape. There, new hawthorns and a mosaic of grass species planted in a “connector” meadow will salute the Irwin landscape.

Dia’s board chair, Nathalie de Gunzburg, likes that people enter Dia Beacon through the imposed geometry of Irwin’s precise artwork and will be able to move more fluidly through the meadows and berms to the south.

“It’s very complementary,” she said. “Those two landscapes are not in competition.”

But for Zewde, the dialogue with Irwin’s landscape, considered an artwork in Dia’s collection, is inherently one of critique, probing the museum’s legacy of stewarding works of land art largely by white men, including Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Utah and Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” in New Mexico. She challenged the idea that there could be an “author” to the land; in her conversations with Lenape representatives, they told her that “in the Indigenous tradition, we name people after landscapes, we don’t name landscapes after people,” said Zewde, who does not consider her design an “artwork.” “We’re all just passing through.”

Gary Hilderbrand, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard’s graduate school of design, views Dia’s choice of Zewde for the project as a conscious shift.

“It is a reflection that their values as an institution simply must be updated around sustainability in every dimension and the urgency of environmental crises,” he said, “putting that on par, if not exceeding” a singular artist’s imprint on the land.

Zewde, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia, was born in Houston and grew up in Louisiana. In 2005, she watched Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast from her dorm room TV at Boston University. It clarified her future professional trajectory.

“A lot of well-meaning architects were talking about New Orleans post-Katrina, but I could see the gap in what they were bringing to the table,” she said, compared with what Black people said was important to them. Zewde studied sociology and statistics as an undergraduate and went on to get her first master’s degree in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While pursuing her second master’s degree at Harvard, she wrote her thesis on Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro, the landing spot and marketplace for approximately 900,000 enslaved Africans. Zewde’s historical analysis of the importance of the site helped it gain a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2017. She continues to work with that city, and last month convened community members from the area around the wharf, known as Pequena África (or Little Africa), to collectively envision an urban plan commemorating the neighborhood’s history and daily life. The civic desire for shade and vegetation was part of every proposal.

“I’ll be working on it for the rest of my life,” she said about Pequena África.

As a student, she struggled to see herself in the field of landscape architecture. Black people make up 13.6% of the U.S. population but only 0.8% of licensed landscape architects in the country, with Black women composing 0.3%.

“There was not a single Black person referenced in a syllabus” when she was at Harvard, she said — including her former boss and mentor, Walter Hood, who was recognized with a MacArthur award in 2019 and whose celebrated work includes the landscape for the new International African American Museum, at a former slave port in Charleston, South Carolina.

“We’re talking about land in America. Black people don’t exist in that history?” she said incredulously.

Today, Studio Zewde employs 15 people working on a variety of projects, including Graffiti Pier in Philadelphia and parks in Pittsburgh and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dia Beacon may bring a new level of visibility to Zewde’s practice.

“I’ve had a lot of very respected people in my profession along the way tell me that I’m too much of an activist to be taken seriously as a skilled designer,” she said. “I hope that projects like Dia Beacon demonstrate the two aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Earth-moving and planting is to begin this summer, and the new landscape will be open to the public free of charge.

At Dia Chelsea in Manhattan on March 27, Zewde will join architect Frida Escobedo, who is designing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new modern and contemporary wing, for a conversation on projects transforming art institutions.

To Maria Nicanor, director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Zewde’s Dia Beacon project takes a “holistic approach, looking at people, looking at an institutional legacy, looking at climate change, all of those things together.”

“Sara’s trying to demystify this idea that landscape architecture is planting pretty flowers.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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