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Gardening. Radicalised

David Godshall is a hard man to pin down with words. Some descriptors: Irrepressible. Optimistic. Deeply intelligent. Slightly mad. Something expected: David is the studio director of Terremoto, a landscape architecture firm with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco and a staff of more than twenty. Something less expected but certainly more interesting: David Godshall and Terremoto equate garden building with civilisation building and they’re in the process of breaking landscape architecture as we know it.  

Terremoto’s latest evolution – Radical Gardens of Love and Interconnectedness – is a practice-wide transition to making gardens that respond in meaningful ways to the complexities of the world we are living in. I catch up with David to find out more, and the result is  a curious, provocative and ultimately hopeful conversation about growing a new civilisation from the ground up. From the garden. 

Georgina Reid: David, you’re the one person I really want to make a manifesto, though I know you’re not into them. Talk to me about that.

David Godshall: The moment you declare you know something with certainty or that this is your set of beliefs, you’re stuck. So I guess I would be interested in having a constantly evolving, improving manifesto. Like a manifesto that changes every day. I think that’s more interesting.

David Godshall. Photo: Daniel Shipp

GR: Yes, but then there’s something about the strength of a statement. There’s so many people engaged in some way within gardening and design, and there’s potentially so much power in that, and this is me being an idealist, but there’s something about having a really strong statement or a strong collection of ideas that people can latch onto in a way that’s easy. Sometimes statements just ring true and you say, ‘Oh fuck, of course, yes.’ Words can really galvanise people.

DS: Sure. I think people now more than ever are looking for meaning and inspiration because there’s so much bullshit in the world. I feel like part of the reason that Terremoto is doing well is that there’s very little bullshit in what we do and we’re not trying to sell you on anything.

GR: Which is why you should write a non-manifesto. Though, I guess your new project at Terremoto – Radical Gardens of Love and Interconnectedness – is a kind of living manifesto. Let’s go there now.

DG: Okay, so Radical Gardens of Love and Interconnectedness is a method of garden-making that attempts to address the brokenness of our current world. It’s a trajectory; a north star for Terremoto to evolve towards. We’re hopeful others might too.

I believe we live in a kind of eerie moment of civilisational collapse. Any person with their eyes open probably realises that the institutions in which we previously believed, or thought were guiding the world have largely been exposed as corrupt, greed-driven, fraudulent or predatory. I’m drifting away from garden design for a moment, but in the United States I’d offer that our justice system, financial systems, two-party political system, college systems, news media, food systems – I could go on forever – all of these things are broken.

I would argue that, historically speaking, landscape architecture and garden design has been perfectly and stupidly complicit in unfettered growth, in building beyond our means. Landscape architects have been obedient little doggies in over-building a world that is now in a bad way. If you’re a designer of any sort and you’re not utilising the existential dread we’re all feeling to inspire deep self-interrogation about how you practise, then you’ve lost the plot.

Climate change is here. We need to look in the mirror as practitioners, we need to acknowledge that we’ve built our cities and our nations and our gardens wrong … Interrupt me at any time, I’m going to ramble.

GR: Ramble please, I’m enjoying this.

DG: I was in downtown Los Angeles the other week, and everything felt so broken. It made me so, so sad. Outside of City Hall, half of the trees and the lawn were dead. These public open spaces were built with the assumption that they would be taken care of, that they could rely on civic and external inputs that are now unreliable. We’ve built all these incredibly fragile landscapes and the moment there’s a jolt to the system – like a heatwave, or the irrigation turns off – they immediately fail. And I’d offer that that failure speaks to poor design and, as designers, we need to improve.

Landscape Architecture with a capital L and a capital A has almost turned landscapes into machines. And machines break. Complicated is bad, complex is good.

GR: Complicated, complex, what’s the difference?

DG: I’m borrowing this language from thinkers that I admire, but how about this: A forest is complex because it’s made up of many systems that have coevolved to be resilient. Because of this complexity and the interconnectedness of these systems, when a forest burns down, it has the capacity to regrow. A house is complicated. When you burn down a house, it doesn’t regrow.

GR: Right.

DG: So, Terremoto is beginning a practice-wide transition to making complex gardens of zero negative externalities. We want to make gardens that are anti-fragile, intellectually rich, fair and just in their physical creation, and generous and kind in their ongoing ecological existences. To make gardens that are rigorously empathetic at levels both macro and micro.

Unravelling is gonna take some time. And it’s totally possible we’re going to have to live out the foreseeable future in this eerie, sad, interesting dystopian interim. Terremoto has every intention to be extremely fucking productive and prolific during this purgatory. We need to go to work, raise our children, support our parents, love our partners and feed our families.

GR: We do. And it’s hard holding it all together. The existential and the intimate. I think it’s important find a way to be with both the pain and the wonder. Even though sometimes we feel things going to shit, we see things going to shit, it’s important to also see how much goodness is here, present, every day. It sounds like Radical Gardens sits on the goodness side of the equation?

DG: Yes, absolutely.

A Radical Garden of Love and Interconnectedness by Terremoto. Photo: Supplied

GR: So, how does Radical Gardens fit into Terremoto’s existing design work?

DG: The idea is that it’s going to be a transition over the coming years – we will continue to do a certain degree of projects that don’t necessarily comply by the Radical Gardens principles. But the goal is for the practice to assertively shift towards only doing projects that ultimately comply with these principles. You’re speaking to me at the beginning of my midlife crisis, so please check in as the years go by …

GR: Okay, I will. All right, give me the principles!

DG: Number one is old plus new need to coexist. The erasure of the previous garden in service of the new one does not happen. The old thing needs to live simultaneously with the new thing and vice versa, they’re both visually present.

Number two is that existing non-invasive plants of significance should probably stay.

GR: Probably?

DG: Well, a lot of these will have grey areas because there will be nuance, nostalgia and affection or the lack thereof. ‘Do your best’ is kinda the mantra.

Three is cut and fill are balanced, no dirt should leave the site. That’s a negative externality, you’re just making your problem somebody else’s, taking it to the dump. I also believe there is a spiritual dimension to this.

GR: Wait. What? Explain.

DG: Without going too deep … I believe it to be possible that the earth, the soil, the geology that is located where it is, in situ, perhaps should remain where it is. Because its very existence and manifestation speaks to time beyond human scale.

Four. Labourers who build or maintain the garden make living wages, have health insurance and they’re credited for their work.

Five is that the client is involved in some part of the physical build of the garden. The property owner needs to have skin in the game.

Okay, number six is that the property owner is, ideally, the gardener.

GR: YES!

DG: Wholly outsourcing land care is a major source of societal malfeasance, in my opinion. You tend the land poorly when you make someone care on your behalf; that kind of thing leads to psychological disassociation from the land on which you live, and I believe that to be the root of so many of our problems.

This percentage is like constantly moving, but what I’m suggesting now for number seven is that seventy per cent of new planting is endemic or edible. Non-invasive species are allowed, but should be competitive with the native species in their water use within a couple years. Invasive species are prohibited. This one kinda builds in space for cultural expression but also sets a strong ecological undertone to the thing.

GR: The old native versus exotic debate. This will raise hackles, particularly because you’ve put a number on it. And the language! Prohibited, allowed. My decidedly non-dogmatic friend is sounding a little dogmatic …

DG: Oof, I know, tell me about it. I’m the absolute worst and the first to acknowledge it!

The eighth principle is that there is no permanent mechanical irrigation system except for hand watering. Plastic is deeply problematic, and the presence of an irrigation system speaks to a poorly designed garden. I say this while also acknowledging that I’m a guy who’s building many gardens right now with irrigation systems. Again, it’s a trajectory. But anyways, kill your fucking lawn already, it’s just like, indentured servitude.

GR: This reminds me of the way Michael Pollan described lawns in his book Second Nature. As ‘nature under totalitarian rule’.

DG: Nine is that no chemicals or non-organic herbicides can be used in either the construction or ongoing maintenance of the garden. Pretty straightforward.

Ten! All natural materials in the garden, I’m talking about wood, gravel, soil and stone, are local or reused. Try to keep it within a hundred miles or at least similar ecosystems. Our landscapes and gardens should be expressions of the very earth from which they’re coming, simply put.

Eleven. Land acknowledgement to the native peoples who previously tended the land must exist in the garden and an appropriate land tax will be paid by the property owner to the Indigenous tribe that previously tended the land.

Twelve is no filter or weed fabric. That is an entire industry that we could simply delete from the face of the earth. These myopic materials prevent insects from having the ability to move between soil horizons, this is an injustice.

Thirteen is that no leaf blowers are allowed in the maintenance of the garden. I’ll spare you the long-winded diatribe about the negative externalities that those silly machines bring to a city, but sweeping is life.

Fourteen! There is no fixed, regular lighting system in the garden. Gardens should be dark at night. When this is not possible (public space), downcast lights only.

Number fifteen is that all green waste stays on site. Space for decay, composting and decomposition should be designed into the garden. Time to close loops.

Sixteen is a tough one! The absolute minimum of concrete needed to rightly build the project is what is allowed. Concrete comes with a deeply damaging carbon footprint. The sneaky thing here is that, within this rule, swimming pools, at least in the way they’re currently built, don’t fit into Radical Gardens. And this is where it gets complicated because everyone in Southern California is obsessed with having a swimming pool in their backyard. I get it. They’re awesome, they’re lovely. It’s not about blame. If you have one in your yard, enjoy it, but moving forward, nope.

Museum Way. A Radical Garden of Love and Interconnectness by Terremoto. Photo: Caitlin Atkinson.

And seventeen is that designers of a project live reasonably locally. When this is not possible, local knowledge and expertise should be deeply relied on in an honest, collaborative way. This one kills the starchitect model outright, which is … wonderful!

GR: Oh no! No starchitects!! Who will we write about now? Okay, seriously. The point before this one, you mentioned blame. Can we go back there for a bit? I mean, you spoke earlier about how landscape architects have been complicit in making this world that is breaking. We’ve all been complicit. It’s tricky terrain, because to move forward we need to be able to see the truth of things, not the pretty picture we want to see. And this means acknowledging our mistakes, personally and culturally. It’s not an easy place to inhabit. Talk to me about navigating blame and hypocrisy.

DG: We could sit around until we’re blue in the face, calling people out, cancelling them, whatever, but that accomplishes very little and it’s not how you win people to a new mode of garden-making. I don’t want to shame anyone who has a swimming pool – it was simply a different time, our considerations were different – but now the time to change is upon us. Perhaps when I go and swim at someone’s pool and my son asks me, ‘Why don’t we have a pool, Papa?’ I’d simply answer by saying, ‘People used to build pools in their backyard, but that’s just not a thing people do anymore.’ We don’t have time to sit around cancelling the past, we’ve just got to move forward, and I’d rather do that with love than shame.

So that’s where I’m at now. It’s a start. I sincerely believe that within these principles exists great room for experimentation. That you can make gardens that abide by these rules that still look radically different from one to another. I have this terrible anxiety that Terremoto will one day have a particular style.

GR: I don’t think you need to worry.

DG: Thank you. I think you can abide by these principles and still, like, have a portfolio that’s wild and diverse, you know what I mean?

GR: Absolutely. Also maybe even more. Really tight briefs force you to consider things you might not normally think about. And especially with the rules that you’re speaking about …

DG: I’m trying to call them principles. But I guess they’re rules if I’m being honest with myself.

GR: I paused after I said rules, because I was, like, there has to be a better word. It’s not the right word for David Godshall, he doesn’t do rules …

DG: Totally. A guy who despises rules, I just read a bunch of rules basically.

GR: I’m really enjoying that about this. They’re useful, I don’t think it’s a terrible thing. You just need lots of little asterisks at the end to kind of qualify.

DG: Totally. There are things I haven’t figured out yet, too. Like where do you draw the line on making whole and perfect gardens that have no negative externalities? Technically speaking, every time I go to that job site in my old truck, I’m spewing gas, you know what I mean? So in this perfect Utopian hippy world, we’d all be riding our bikes there and we would have grown all the plants from seed at our own nursery. And this is where I think we would could ratchet it up and I’m excited to do that, but there are certain things that we can’t quite sort now because, even if I said well, electric vehicle, that’s the workaround, the lithium that we’re mining for the batteries in electric vehicles is a negative externality as well.

So anyways, this is where it gets fascinating and metaphysically dense and laborious, but I think it’s all cool shit. I don’t know.

GR: I think it’s very important just to start. It’s easy to get tangled in doing all of the right things all at once and making sure everything’s sorted but the world doesn’t work like that. I think it’s important to just start where you are. It’s really exciting to me that you’re in this space thinking about these things. So many people aren’t.

DG: It’s disenchanting to me that other people aren’t. But whatever, change is hard. But what’s exciting to me as an optimist, is this: We, as a civilization, have never been more perfectly poised for the emergence of a whole new epoch of design, you know what I mean? Our building, design and labour practices need to radically change now, so what a fucking time to be alive! And to be a part of creating a whole new mode of going about building gardens or building homes or making furniture or whatever it is you do.

I hope that one day we look back on the previous few decades of uninhibited, unfettered, ungoverned construction and sprawl and just acknowledge, like, wow, that was a terrible mistake and what a fascinating thing there will be these monuments to the moment in which we as a civilisation were living wildly beyond our means.

GR: So do I. You know, I might be an evangelical nutter, but I do actually have a sense that gardens are a really important place to start thinking about these big existential questions. I mean, for me, they touch on everything. But then some people just want a pretty tree and some grass. And that’s fine. Maybe I am putting too much weight on this space as some kind of manual for living.

DG: Maybe I am a nutter too, but just weather me for a second, what if an improved society or civilisation started through the garden? Because I intuitively don’t see where else it’s gonna start from. Yes, I know what you’re saying, most people don’t care about gardens. But maybe the fact that most people don’t care about their gardens is problem number one, right? It kind of goes back to principle number six, about the property owner being the gardener. Maybe that’s the crux of the thing. Because if we don’t take the time to tend to the land outside our house with love, it’s all downhill from there. So fuck it, the revolution begins in the garden.

Museum Way. A Radical Garden of Love and Interconnectedness by Terremoto. Photo: Caitlin Atkinson

GR: Let’s go back to the midlife crisis. I don’t think you’re allowed to have a midlife crisis yet, are you?

DG: Yeah, I’m gonna be forty in October. I’ve timed my midlife crisis perfectly, I think!

GR: I guess so, particularly if what comes from it is Radical Gardens, rather than a red convertible! And, on that, everyone has things they want to do, that are important to them. But it’s quite hard to go from idea to fuck it, I’m doing this, we’re doing this. Can you talk about that transition?

DG: I would say it was subliminally, subconsciously brewing when George Floyd was murdered and then there were the riots all over our country. COVID was at its peak. We had a few heart-to-hearts as an office where we were, like, how do we be landscape architects in all of this madness? And how is it that we improve and evolve and adapt to a world that’s rapidly changing?

They were awesome conversations. One of the outcomes of those conversations is Terremoto now gives away a solid amount of money to good causes, for example. But that’s a detail almost. To my earlier point, anyone who has their eyes open is probably experiencing some sort of sense of existential dread or, like, what’s going on in this weird moment where all these things just happen but we still have to go to work, you know what I mean?

So as a team, we were, like, okay, well, how can we do better? So, in addition to giving money to good causes, we’re also wrestling head on with the fact that landscape architecture has a labour acknowledgement problem, and that the people building gardens aren’t making living wages is only confounding these issues. This is passive systemic racism. So we’re taking that head on too.

So Terremoto is now firing on all these different fronts. I can’t take credit for all this, that’s purely team-created.

GR: It’s interesting to see that Terremoto is hitting a bunch of conventional markers of success – making lists, winning awards – and yet you’re continually positioning yourself further outside the traditional landscape architecture space. It’s a curious place to be, though it’s good to have a platform, right?

DG: It’s good to have a platform, and if our intentions are good, then by actually raising the bar and calling out bullshit, perhaps there will be less acceptance of said bullshit. And yeah, it’s a problematic position in that I take issue with some of the publications that are celebrating us in that I think that they celebrate luxury and wealth, which I feel is not the direction that we should be heading.

All I can say is I’m both simultaneously grateful that it allows us to extend our reach while also being somewhat ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I think that social media is basically a net negative on the world, so it’s a double-edged sword. Terremoto’s motivation is to do good work, not win awards. It’s almost circumstantial but I don’t want to ever sound ungrateful, because I’m not. So, yeah, it’s kind of complicated.

I guess all we can do is stay true and keep a laser-beam focus on getting better at doing the thing we do.

GR: This is hilarious, our conversation has been about rules and neither of us are particularly inclined to following such things. But I’ve found with Wonderground, for example, there’s so much angst I didn’t have to engage in because I’d already defined the values the business is bound by. It’s hard, but it’s also easier on another level. Have you found a similar thing?

DG: Yeah. It’s so much better to live life honestly. It’s better, not easier. It also makes work joyful, right? Some of my friends don’t like their jobs and I’m just like, oh, what is that, I can’t even fathom, you know what I mean?

Oh, I just thought of another rule. Twenty-one! No artificial turf! I don’t even wanna lower ourselves to actually talking about it. It’s the ultimate crystallisation of everything that is wrong with the world!

GR: Yeah, no need to go there. Let’s go somewhere more interesting. We’ve been speaking about gardens and world building and it’s all big stuff. And then the other day I read an Instagram caption by Irish nature advocate Mary Reynolds who said this: ‘I used to think gardens were beautiful. But I’ve moved so far to the other side of what that means … Gardens are part of the old world. It’s time to build a new world.’ She might have a point. Maybe our language is all wrong? Maybe we’re trying to fit a new world into an old world that’ll never quite get there? Thoughts?

DG: It’s a beautiful quote, G. I guess what I’m interested in is building a new world within the existing one, and then showing people in the existing one, ‘Hey, check this out. These gardens beat the gardens of the old world on every front. You’re invited to make these kinds of gardens too.’ That sort of thing. Because I believe that Radical Gardens of Love and Interconnectedness will simply be more beautiful, be more resilient as repositories for wildlife, be fair to the people that build them, need less water, grow better food and interconnect us as humans to land, history and time.

And I guess if I look objectively at what we’re actually trying to accomplish with Radical Gardens, maybe you’re right, G, maybe the language is failing us. What I’m in search of is perhaps less about making a garden and more developing a way of how we, as humans, interact with land in a way that’s better than how we do it now. It’s an improved mode of land care more than it is garden-making. A better way of being with the land. This is the goal.