A Conversation with Terremoto's David Godshall

For ten years, Terremoto has been challenging convention with their venturesome and thoughtfully minimalist landscape design. This AD100 firm fearlessly interrogates the structures and values that define their industry, with a practice guided by profound respect for the earth beneath and the people behind their work.


Photos: Caitlin Atkinson, @caitlinatkinson_photography

Part 1

origin & evolution

Can you share the backstory of how Terremoto came into being?

David Godshall: I was living in the Bay Area in 2013, working for another landscape architecture firm with my dear friend, Alain Peauroi. The firm was very much a lovely place, but we had a sinking feeling that we wanted to build projects in a way that was different and allowed us to express who we were as individuals. The timing was kind of strange, as I was in the process of relocating from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Alain made it clear to me that he had no intention of ever moving to Los Angeles, so in a wildly unplanned sort of way, we started the office in both places at the same time.

The first years were really startup mode. It was just Alain and I. We were deeply involved in every project. I would drive to the Bay Area like you would go to the supermarket. We started by building really small, scrappy residential projects because that was the only work that came to us. We used those gardens as a way of exploring the ideas that had motivated us to start the office in the first place. Something as simple as, "Can we build this entire project with stock 2 x 6’s and minimize waste?" We’d take that as a prompt and see where it led us.

How have your opportunities and areas of focus expanded over the last ten years?

DG: We slowly started to grow the team and have evolved into a 27-person office, split pretty equally between the two locations. I would say the bread-and-butter is still residential garden projects, but we’re also starting to drift into hospitality and commercial projects. We're mostly interested in the institutional commercial projects when they're kind of weird and idiosyncratic. As an office, we're interested in slightly subversive “backdoor” entrances into public work. 

The motivations that guide the team now have gotten much more refined. Part of our practice now involves labor activism, and trying to figure out how to be environmentalists in an industry that is shockingly not that ecologically grounded. It’s funny, a lot of people think, “Oh, you build gardens. You must be a very green industry,” and it's not necessarily so. We’re just trying to wrap our practice, and the way we go about building our projects, around the enormity of all these various things. It's been a wonderful evolution that I’m thankful for.

“we wanted to build projects in a way that was different and allowed us to express who we were as individuals.”

David Godshall

Part 2

Labor & land

You mentioned the company’s work in labor activism. Can you elaborate?

DG: From the early days, we photographed process and the people who built the projects. We did it as a way of setting ourselves apart, but also because we thought that the build is a beautiful thing that should be celebrated and shared. As the years passed, it became increasingly problematic to us that we were, and are, the only ones who do this. When you make the contribution of the labor invisible, you're devaluing the work and the contribution of the labor itself. 

Where we practice in California, in large part, the landscaping labor industry is Latino men. I would offer that, in a small way, the fact that their contribution isn't celebrated is a kind of passive systemic classism or racism, depending on the lens through which you view it. To refute that, we're increasingly explicit about the fact that these are the people and the communities that build our work. We have a working group within our office called “Land and Labor” through which we advocate, even in early client interactions, on behalf of the laborers. We can't snap our fingers and rectify all the issues in the industry, but it's a current–an undertone–to how we practice our craft.

What about the environmentalism component?

DG: People naturally assume that we make gardens and landscapes, so that should be sustainable. But if we interrogate the nature of the industry, it's actually not that great. We're trying to build gardens that are more than just “water wise”. By prioritizing ecology in a broader sense, we can build gardens that are useful to our clients and also to the creatures with whom we share this planet. 

Professional landscape architecture operates with pretty rich cognitive dissonance as to the fact that we build a new thing and then call it sustainable. Inherent in the act of construction is the release of carbon. So, if we are abjectly honest with ourselves, it becomes an interesting and inspiring thing to think about how we do more with less. It’s basically our approach to think about things deeply. We're not interested in complexity for the sake of complexity. We're trying to create gardens that are intellectually and ecologically sophisticated, but really low-tech, so they can be built quickly while keeping the stress they put on the environment to a sheer minimum.

“By prioritizing ecology in a broader sense, we can build gardens that are useful to our clients and also to the creatures with whom we share this planet.”

David Godshall

Part 3

First, do no harm

When your team first visits a site, what are some of the factors you consider before you begin your design work?

DG: When we come to a site, it’s already a thing. There’s no “clean slate” in landscape architecture. We try to minimize demolition and be kind to the existing conditions. We’ll consider how water moves on the site or how the sun interacts with it. We'll consider the topography, as building on hills is wildly more difficult than building on flat ground. We try to make sense of the existing planting and decide if it's good or not, (and it's never that black-and-white to say whether it's good or not). In southern California, for example, in areas of remnant undeveloped land, we are often presented with relatively intact indigenous ecosystems.

Ultimately, the design proposals that we come up with are a culmination of doing right by the land, doing right by our clients and respecting the history of the site. Having that sort of approach has allowed us to create a body of work that doesn't necessarily have a particular style. What we come up with will look wildly different from one project to the next. Beauty is diverse and broad, and it's fun to distill all that and make the proposed garden at the confluence of those various constraints.

Can you think of a specific project that illustrates your approach?

DG: We're currently working on a project 15 minutes from the office, in Mount Washington. There are coyotes and this undisturbed forest of native plants, like Juglans californica, the California Black Walnut, and Rhus integrifolia, which is Lemonade Berry. These are plants that evolved to exist in this exact place in the world and have always existed there, previous to European development. This land is, in part, functioning the way that it's meant to. Part of our job, then, is to educate our client. To show them that the existing vegetation on the site is truly what is meant to be there, and getting them to understand why it's beautiful. 

On this project, we’re doing something that we've long wanted to do, which is propagating new plants for the future garden from the existing plants that are already on site. We’re interested in getting as close to closed-loop garden making as we can. We’re also figuring out how to create a thoughtful, respectful interface between the coyotes, our clients and their dogs. Making a space that is designed and curated, while delineating boundaries so they can all safely coexist. We try to always think deeply and honestly about what the best thing to do is. How can we make our client happy and give them a garden that's beautiful and useful to them, while also making sure that it's a damn fine landscape for all the other creatures.

“the design proposals that we come up with are a culmination of doing right by the land, doing right by our clients and respecting the history of the site.”

David Godshall

Part 4

Projects & prospects

This year marks Terremoto’s 10th anniversary. Any favorite projects you’d like to mention as you reflect on your first decade?

DG: Alain Peauroi, Story Wiggins and our lovely team at the San Francisco office had the great honor of working on the lodge at Sea Ranch, a somewhat famous modernist housing community just south of Mendocino. Lawrence Halprin, arguably the most important modern landscape architect, master planned the community. The original landscape around the lodge was never really meaningfully done and didn't even comply with the principles of Sea Ranch itself. We had the impossible task of creating a new thing next to an existing, very famous building. We came up with something relatively humble and modest that deferred to the design guidelines of Sea Ranch. In a way, even though it was this loaded project that came with a lot of intellectual and philosophical gravitas, we did very little and built a landscape that feels like it was always there.

DG: Another project we’re working on with a friend and artist, David Horvitz, is called the Garden at 7th Avenue. Across from his art studio there was a vacant lot, and he got permission from the owner to build a garden. It's this beautiful, experimental case study in how a vacant lot can become useful, in the cultural and human sense–for activities, art and music shows–as well as for crows, birds, earthworms and butterflies. We built a largely native garden in a place that was essentially dust and weeds previous to our intervention. I think it goes to show how you can design gardens in a way that's improvisational, without just superimposing rigid geometries onto a landscape. The garden emerges from the community around it as well as from the land itself. It's been kind of a weird one, but one that's given us great joy and meaning.

Where do you see the industry heading in the next ten years? What do you think (or hope) you'll encounter?

DG: I'm hopeful there will be a turn towards garden making that equates a garden's usefulness to humans to its usefulness for other creatures. I'm hopeful that there's a larger turn towards using native plants and, if they're not native, plants that rely less heavily on external inputs, so gardens become less consumptive of materials and resources. The future that I yearn for is going to be low-tech, much wilder and much more ecologically resilient, while still embracing the good things about modern technology as well. It'll be this interesting hybrid of the two things.

In our practice, we believe in the patchwork ecology concept. If you reduce your view to a single garden, then maybe the impact doesn't feel that big. But if you think about yards or gardens as little islands and you start to meaningfully change them, one by one—in all of Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or wherever—then suddenly, in a much larger, more impactful way, we're rewilding our urban environment.