The series "Taking Form" explores our studio and field design methods. Within this series, “Thick Talk” delves into the site analysis and iterative processes employed in designing the Marani Thicket Garden at the Veli Campus in Bakurtsikhe, Georgia. Part One, "Strange Pockets," introduces the Veli Campus, the architect Fabrizio Carola and author of the domes complex at Veli, and how we transform these strange pockets of larger landscapes into gardens.

In 2017, visual artist Mariam Kalandadze and Haraki Theatre founder Mariam Megvine created The Veli campus project in Bakurtsikhe, Kakheti. The 17-hectare site features a former technikum (a Soviet agricultural-technical college), the historic Sarajishvili residence and Marani (wine cellar), and several hectares of vineyards. The Veli site includes larger-scale landscape zones surrounding significant structures: a 200-meter landmark cypress allee; pastures and vineyards; roads and paths, and various leftover “strange pockets” of debris piles, thickets, demolished buildings, and fallow plots.

Students tending test plots at the Bakurtsikhe Technikum, now part of the Veli Site. Circa 1980.

Kalandadze and Megvine conceived Veli as a place of both revival and invention of new ways of interacting with land and conviviality. They planned to adapt existing buildings to include an artist’s residency, a restaurant, workshops, a farm center, a gallery, a library, festival spaces, and a resort hotel, and build a new complex of stone and brick domes designed by architect Fabrizio Carola. The compound would include a large Marani and host local “productions” from wine and cheese making to plays and concerts.

Fabrizio Carola and the Domes

Kalandadze planned a community workshop for the 2018 Tbilisi Triennial, within the theme of Microclimate/Education, to test the building techniques of architect Fabrizio Carola (1931-2019). Carola revived vernacular, low-cost, and community-based dome-building methods adapted from the work of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. Carola saw “the construction site as a place of production and dissemination."1, which resonated with Kalandadze and Megvine’s “hands-on” educational vision for Veli. 

Carola’s best-known projects, such as the Kaeidi Regional Hospital, rise from the plains as scenographic landscapes: collections of domes with arched corridors and terraces. Kalandadze and Megvine imagined a similar picturesque complex of brick and stone domes for Veli, distanced from other structures. We suggested siting the domes complex within an extensive garden, differentiated from the surroundings by topography and planting.  

Carola demonstrates the Nubian Compass, which allows building domes without wooden centering.
Drone image of the Marani Thicket Garden area. The image revealed the old road that connects the historic Sarajishvili home to the Kakheti Highway.

Siting the Complex

We chose a site near the end of the cypress allée and edge of a thicket for the Triennial dome-building workshop. Thickets of acacia and raspberry surround three sides of the intersection of the allée and Teknikum lane. In the southwest quadrant is a brick cistern.

Drone images revealed a trace of a road extending from the allée, following a contour cutting through the thicket, and descending from a promontory into the Chalabubniskhevi ravine. We speculated this trace was the original entrance to the Sarajishvili estate from the Kakheti Highway that connects Bakurtsikhe to Tbilisi. We proposed reviving this entry road, which includes sweeping views over the Alazani Valley to the high Caucasus mountains as it climbs out of the wash. The new road and domes complex would form a gateway to Veli, with the 9-meter high Marani Dome visible from the Kakheti Highway. The road trace and the cistern anchor the dome complex to site history and archeology.

A thicket parallels the cypress allée

The Marani Thicket Garden

A thicket is a dense tangle of plants in areas resistant to cultivation. Thickets form in tight topographic folds, at forest edges, and where soils differ from the surroundings. Like landscape’s “poché”, they create an insulating volume that absorbs light and is dense with the surface area of twigs and branches. We proposed an interpretation of the existing thicket for the dome complex planting. The textural differences and volume would define the garden within the larger landscape, and the rough character of the planting would complement the rustic materials of the domes. 

Initial sketch illustrating the rough character and complementary colors of the amplified thicket.

The first sketches of the Marani Thicket grew through a dialog between generative representations, including hard pencil marks in bold colors and photo collages. We selected thicket species for their habitat potential, form, sound, and color. Woody shrubs provide perches and cover, and the fruits, berries, and seeds offer year-round forage for wildlife. We considered the aural landscape of the thicket, where bold seed heads, dry leaves, and pods would shake, scrape, and rattle in the wind, complemented by bird calls. We paired species in groups of complementary colors and shapes: Cotinus coggygria with yucca, Juniper and Diospyros kaki, Punica and Hippophae rhamnoides, and Sorbus and Spartium.  

Agricultural landscapes are often punctuated with strange pockets: places too wet, too steep, too rocky, and too shaded to be productive, with microclimates and ecosystems unto themselves. These idiosyncratic moments are opportunities to create gardens, waypoints, and programmed spaces.

These first Marani Thicket Garden studies drove our approach to the other “strange pockets” within the Veli Campus. Agricultural landscapes like Veli are often punctuated with strange pockets: places too wet, too steep, too rocky, and too shaded to be productive, with microclimates and ecosystems unto themselves. These idiosyncratic moments are opportunities to create gardens, waypoints, and programmed spaces.

During the master planning phase, we discovered the compacted, damp, damaged, rocky, and twisted pockets around the Veli territory. We planned new buildings and parking lots on former building sites; a savannah for a grove of dying pines, an overlook for a rocky cliff, and a gathering area under a shaded grove of walnut trees.

The strange pocket approach balances coarse and abstract site analysis methods. It is a means to create singular gardens that contrast with their surroundings and evolve with internal logics. Unpacking these moments is slow, on-the-ground work that gathers sensory and material clues to guide concept and design.

 In many historic estates, "problem areas” - such as The Venus Vale in Rousham—were reinvented with the help of engineering and site work as unique focal points in a larger territory. Ruderal intern Tilly Rigby overlooks The Venus Vale, 2022.

Arsenal Oasis is another strange pocket. We first discovered a broken water pipe that made a wetland on the dry, rubbled army base. There we created an evolving wetland garden for the 2020 Tbilisi Architecture Biennial. We removed concrete, impounded and redirected the flow to create new wetland and pools. We emphasized the remnant foundations of the barracks by clearing paths and extending the field of the intervention within the larger territory. This intervention spreads and redirects this accidental irrigation system, creating more habitat, biodiversity, and microclimatic conditions each year.

Arsenal Oasis, Sycamore Pool, 2021

Today, the Veli project is paused. Yet its educational mission is already in play for us, as it gave us a new approach to garden design. In its present condition and ambition, Veli is our “reference site”. Each time we revisit the site through the seasons and discover new perspectives on its particular pockets. It remains a meaningful terrain of imagination and projection, a well to draw from for years. 

More to come: 

In Thick Talk: Part Two, we discuss how the perspectival space of Georgian landscape painting informed our compositional approach to the Marani Thicket Garden.


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