(This interview was originally posted to Homeis.ge.)

Nino: Sarah, tell us about your background. When did you first become interested in architecture? And how did you come to the point where you are today?

Sarah: Like many landscape architects, I came to the discipline after working in different occupations. Initially, I studied drawing, sculpture, and metalwork at CCAC, an art school in Oakland, California. Environmental artist Poshu Wang introduced me to site-specific art practice, artists like Nancy Holt and Mary Miss, and critics Lucy Lippard and Miwon Kwon. In the 1990s, worked in many jobs in San Francisco: animation assistant, knitwear production, multimedia designers, bicycle messenger. 

Sarah at the Arsenal Oasis, Tbilisi Architecture Biennial. Photo: George Kolbaia.

As a bicycle messenger, I interacted with the city in fine detail- the people, plants, parks, topography; the daily rhythms, and weather. I remember delivering drawings for landscape architects, and later, seeing those projects under construction around the city. This was an exciting time to witness when many military and industrial sites were being redeveloped as urban parks. 

At age 31 I enrolled in Harvard’s Master of Landscape Architecture program in Cambridge. Our faculty included many of the leading practitioners, such as Martha Schwartz, Michael Van Valkenburgh, Gary Hilderbrand, and George Hargreaves. 

After receiving my MLA I worked with Tom Leader—a great teacher and brilliant designer—on a university tech hub and consulate in China, and parks and urban design in San Francisco Bay Area. At the same time, I developed my research interests in ruderal plants and urban ecology.  

In 2007, I took a year-long fellowship in research and teaching at Knowlton School in Ohio and then worked as an assistant professor for several years. In 2010, Lydia Matthews, my art history professor from CCAC, invited me to Tbilisi to exhibit work in Artesterium. Like many artists, I found Georgia’s landscape enchanting—the history, ecology, and rapid changes of the 2000s. With Lasha Mamaladze, I developed a master plan for Garikula Art Villa. Later, I returned as a Fulbright scholar and taught classes in landscape interpretation and design. I continue to draw and paint landscapes around Georgia. 

Concept sketch for Garikula Art Villa Sustainability Plan.

Nino: As we understand, you specialize in landscape architecture. Tell us about the specificities of this field.  

Sarah: In short, it is a design discipline focused on interventions in the land. It is a material practice, in that we alter topography, water flow, cut down dead and diseased trees, and plant new ones. We work at many scales: from a planting pocket in a street, to a residential garden; we design master-planned housing and work across borders of nations. Skilled at working among different disciplines, we elevate the work of wildlife biologists, social and gender specialists, architects, urban designers, planners, and civil engineers, among others.

Landscape architects draw from many eras of site history; like archaeologists, we visit sites and review historic maps to understand the patterns, occupations, and impacts that form the land we see today. We identify traces of roads, gardens, croplands, and rivers. This way of seeing and interpreting landscapes is fundamental to how we work. 

Landscape architects are trained in the history and theory of the discipline; in design and process, topographic design, drawing and representation, and natural systems. And of course, plants—their qualities and habitats. There are currently no programs in Georgia that offer this level of integrated study, so students must study in the US, Asia, or Europe. 

Nino: When and how was Ruderal created? 

Sarah: Ruderal means “that which grows after/or is adapted to disturbance”. In other words, it is about a spirit of resilience and invention after a crisis or change. For many years, Ruderal was my research, teaching, and exhibition vehicle. Tbilisi provided the right environment to start the studio practice. It all started with our projects and the people involved, including my partners Giorgi Nishnianidze and Benjamin Hackenberger, and David Mamaladze who helped us build out the studio. This is the most energizing part of the practice—the intelligence of a studio is powerful, where we teach one another new skills and perspectives, and the work evolves beyond one person's particular skills or vision. 

We started Ruderal with a master plan for Veli, a project in Kakheti led by two brilliant women: Mariam Kalandadze, an artist and curator, and Mariam Megvine, founder of Haraki, and publisher of DeNostalgia Magazine. They had a long-term, landscape vision to create a cultural hub integrating art, ecology, and conviviality.  We designed gardens to integrate the new architecture into the existing, historic landscape, and structural plantings to provide a long-term identity for the project.

Notably, Ruderal started with the lockdown in Tbilisi, and that’s had a major impact on the direction of the studio. We had more time to develop our principles and working methods, but the isolation limited our exposure to the development community.

Ruderal team in the studio, developing the Arsenal Oasis project. L-R: Christian Moore, Elia Katamadze, Giorgi Nishnianidze, David Mamaladze, Giorgi Vardiashvili, Nuliko, Benjamin Hackenberger.


Nino: How would you evaluate Georgia’s urban planning system? What are the main challenges in this area in the country? And what kind of solution do you see in addressing them?

Sarah: One aspect that lacks attention in urban planning in Tbilisi is the current and future impact of suburban development. As an American designer, I’m quite familiar with the social, planning, and ecological problems—and potentials—of suburbs.

Tbilisi’s growing suburbs—especially those at higher elevations—mean more traffic, pollution, and parking problems in the city center. I live in Bagebi, where there are no sidewalks or parks, and dangerous, heavy traffic to and from expanding Tsqneti. City Hall is building a new road and bridge by Maglivi, but in time, it will be at capacity. The same issues are at play due to rapid development in Lisi, Tabakmela/Shindisi and Saguramo. 

The suburbs lack infrastructure, from roads, schools parks, sidewalks, and transport to civic, health care, employment, and retail centers, so people are forced to travel to the city for basic needs. And the increase in impermeable surfaces from this development means greater risk for flooding in Tbilisi. 

At Ruderal, we’re excited to work in suburbs and peri-urban areas, on issues such as reviving the interurban rail and cycling networks, and rebuilding smaller city centers and adjacent brownfields (former industrial sites), and “Transit-Oriented Developments” (TODs). We’d like to work with residents, developers, and municipal leaders to enact planning guidelines in the suburbs and rural areas to retain essential landscape character– like forests, meadows, trails, and waterways that are often erased by haphazard development, and to integrate water management into long-term planning to improve habitat and decrease flood risk. 

Tabakhmela Residence. A sculpted topography tailors the site to the steep slope of the lot and meets the surrounding forest.

The Mtatsminda Urban Forest is a great example of how landscape architects integrate the analytical, ecological, and aesthetic aspects of terrain to create healthier environments for both humans and wildlife. We’d love to find more opportunities to do this kind of high-impact project in Georgia—and beyond.

Nino: You are working on a Tbilisi Urban Forest project. Tell us more about forest design. What is your strategy (maybe tools) for enhancing biodiversity and mitigating climate change (in general and also in this project specifically)? 

Sarah: In the 1960s, Soviet planners covered the hills around Tbilisi with vast monocultures of Pinus nigra, the Black Pine, to provide tree cover to cool Tbilisi and reduce dust. Today, those pines are dying from various diseases, pests, and climate change. 

In 2020, we began work with a team of experts, led by the Development and Environment Fund to design a new forest for Mtatsminda to replace the pines. The desire to plant and protect urban forests is driven as much by cultural value as it is by ecological value. For this project, we developed a digital workflow to incorporate ecological and aesthetic principles into our proposed planting plans. The project is currently under construction on Narikala Ridge and in Okrokana.

The first phase of the project included data collection and interpretation by geologists and wildlife biologists.  These specialists collected traditional spatial data and provided a qualitative analysis of habitat and recent trends in environmental change. We then compared this data against our own field observations of plant communities on territories with similar environmental qualities.

We distilled this qualitative analysis into typical forest conditions and used the geospatial (GIS) data to identify “plantable areas” where the forest is most likely to succeed. We then matched typical forest conditions to these plantable areas, which became the centers of the new forest under principles of applied nucleation. The core of our work involved translating large-scale analytical information to design tree and shrub “patches”, and eventually, precise locations of new trees. 

Each patch contains a unique mix and positioning of species. Some patches such as the ‘Fruit Grove’ and ‘Almond Grove’ will produce bright displays of flowers in the spring followed by an abundance of fruit in the summer and fall. Others, like the ‘Ravine Forest’ and ‘Acer Scrub’ will exploit specific moisture gradients and create important ecotones—ecological transition zones—between the different forest patches and areas of open steppe. Each patch is richly layered with different forest strata and varying species to provide four seasons of visual interest. 

With Grasshopper, a parametric modeling tool,  we created an abstract model of species competition over different time frames. While the density of forest cover is held constant, the composition of the forest will change over time.

A rules-based approach to planting and simulation allows us to rapidly generate and evaluate planting plans through ecological and aesthetic parameters. The rules of the planting plan reflect the behaviors and preferences of plants and plant communities as well as the preexisting geological conditions on the territory. Rather than “painting” the ridge with clumps of species to achieve a picturesque image, we generated and manipulated the actual composition of the proposed patches to achieve ecological and aesthetic diversity.

Once a desired “mosaic” is achieved across the ridge, we reverse-engineer the simulation to produce a planting plan that can be easily executed by planting teams in the field. Thus, the “code” of the forest is imbued with an ecological, aesthetic, and logistical intelligence that can be adapted and amplified through future interventions.

Nino: Let’s speak about your projects in Georgia. Which ones would you single out? Why? 

Sarah: We’re lucky to work with forward-thinking landowners who want to invest in their land–and in the country at large–for the next generation. It is costly to invest in the necessary planning, engineering, and investigative work for a successful, long-term landscape project. 

One example is the Bodbe Hotel in Sighnaghi, where we spent almost two years on the engineering of the ridgeline site, creating a new topography to host recreation, exploration, and garden areas. A few years after the plantings are established, people will think they are in a natural Kakhetian landscape—all the engineering will be hidden by a rich carpet of trees and shrubs. 

Bodbe Hotel, site plan.

Arsenal Oasis, developed for the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial, is a project that built our studio’s creative reputation. It’s centered around a broken water pipe on the Arsenal open space in Avlabari. We excavated land around that stream of water to create a new public space and wildlife habitat in the military wasteland. This project will continue to evolve as a labor of love, and hopefully, have more “offspring” projects around the city’s wild urban landscapes over time.  

We have many challenges as a new practice on the market: including the lack of knowledge about the profession-most people don’t know that this profession even exists. It is difficult to staff our studio, as we have to train architects in the technical and poetic aspects of landscape design.  The third is the supply chain- there are very few nurseries supplying the species or forms we use in our projects. Georgia has great land and water for hardwood trees and shrub nurseries, but there’s not yet enough demand, but we hope to change that reality.

Our work is about generating new Georgian landscape ideas - those that integrate local, endemic species and cultural practices, whether the project is on the Black Sea coast or the mountains of Racha. We look to old photographs and archives to see what was planted in the middle of the century, to reinvent the plantings and program areas for today.  Fine art is another resource for landscape references, like mid-century Georgian landscape painters Elene Akhvlediani and David Kakabadze, who depict the interface between culture and nature, the rich patterns, spaces, textures, and colors that define rural Georgian landscape. Most of all, we look to contemporary artists and architects with a critical and inventive eye towards the urban and rural landscape, like Nana Tchitchoua, Gio Sumbadze, Mamuka Japharidze, Gigi Shukakidze, Vano Ksnelashvili, Natela Grigashvili and Mariam Natroshvil and Detu Jincharadze

Site plan, Arsenal Oasis. The dark areas show the path of water through the site, through impoundments and wetlands.

Ultimately, Ruderal is a practice focused on reconnecting fragmented cultural and ecological relationships, and building new futures together. 

Photo credits

Sarah Cowles: George Kolbaia: https://www.facebook.com/gyolba

Ruderal: Sera Dzneladze https://www.facebook.com/seradzneladze

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