Q&A - Nazneen Sabavala
Designing rooms without roofs
Nazneen Sabavala, director of landscape design for Dubai’s 3 Square was born in India, raised in Dubai and educated in the Middle East and the USA.
Equipped with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, Sabavala graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) with a Master’s in Building Science (focusing on environmental design) and a mixture of optimism and ambition. But this was California. In 2001. A recession was on then, too.
After holding out for as long as she could, Sabavala grudgingly agreed to an interview with an LA-based landscape designer despite knowing very little about the profession. That interview would come to change her life.
Building on a love of nature and discovering a dormant talent for designing with organic material, Sabavala quickly found herself at the heart of the Beverly Hills landscape design community.
Whether it’s a symmetrical outdoor yoga studio, a whimsical series of water features or a perfectly rhythmic area for entertaining guests, she has provided bespoke designs to some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
By her own admission, Sabavala has loved every day of her career as a landscape designer and wouldn’t return to built architecture if the opportunity presented itself.
In 2008 she returned to Dubai to tackle a market that she considers ‘a blank slate’ in terms of landscape design. She spent 30 minutes of her time with Jeff Roberts.
How did you develop an interest in architecture & design?
NS: In the beginning, I always wanted to be an architect. I don’t know if it was the aesthetic aspect or the creative aspect or a combination.
I was born in Puna, which is very close to Mumbai. It has several beautiful buildings, mostly old relics left over from the British period, but the modern stuff is really ugly.
Something you look at everyday has the power to inspire you or disgust you. Passing that contrast of buildings everyday on the way home or to school must have subconsciously influenced me to think I could do a better job than some of the stuff that’s there. That’s where my interest in architecture began.
THE MIDDLE EAST
Tell me a bit about the state of landscaping the Middle East...
NS: In many ways it’s pretty conflicting industry. It’s very young. While some clients are very willing to try out new and crazy solutions in residential applications, most builders,
contractors and vendors have supplied the same material and used the same methods for the last 20 years and are reluctant to try something new.
It’s a very select group of contractors who will go out on a limb and trust the vision of the designer, which is crucial. Building the design is every bit as important as creating the design in the first place. Otherwise, what’s the point?
How far behind is the Middle East in terms of landscape design?
NS: Everywhere I’ve ever lived has always contained places of free entertainment; public parks with walkways or fountains for example.
That kind of social interaction space is missing here. I think Starbucks and air-conditioned hotels have replaced those points of connection to the outdoors.
A lot can be changed though. If you’re talking about building some of that space for social interaction, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a park or full botanical garden.
Creating that connection to the outdoors can be as simple as providing a young grove of trees that will flourish for the next 50 years. I think just those types of things could really help change the face of Dubai. For that to happen though, social perspective, on a very large scale, has to change in significant ways.
Why aren’t we seeing more rooftop gardens or hanging gardens here?
NS: That’s a great question. Those things could be used very extensively here. I’m actually surprised that they haven’t been done more.
Everyone is going vertically so quickly and so much of the population lives on the 40th, 50th and 60th floors, their only connection to any type of garden is through a pair of binoculars. When that void exists, I think a void in social skills and one’s ability to develop interpersonal relationships also exists.
As a landscape designer, what sepcific challenges do you deal with?
NS: For example, the principles for a civic building, public park, educational building or a single-family home are the same but the processes are quite different. Even plant palettes and considerations across large- and small-scale are very different.
You have to be careful of things that are too spiny or poisonous for public space. In residential projects, on the other hand, if a client doesn’t have pets or kids, they’ll often go for a sculptural plant that looks great but happens to be poisonous.
Also salt in the groundwater, very harsh summers and sandstorms are phenomena specific to this region and all of them represent different challenges.
Wherever you design in the world, the basic principles stay the same: It comes down to how well you know the plant and how well you intuitively use it.
Can you tell me a bit more about designing with poisonous plants?
NS: Well, in the UAE for example, oleander is a popular but toxic plant. Sago palm is often chewed or ingested but can be toxic. All philodendrons are poisonous and often result in a swollen throat or glands for those who touch it. There are a lot of plants that can be problematic. Actually, most plants are toxic to some degree.
If asked to choose one, what is the biggest challenge in a new project?
NS: Trying to read the client. You have to read the client to find out what they really want.
Every site has to reflect some of the client’s personality and the overpowering urge is to treat the site like it is your own site and to design for what you want for the site. That may not match the client’s lifestyle or budget or preference for what he/she wants to do with his/her space.
Is there a connection between designing indoors and outdoors?
NS: Yes. It’s a very close relationship. The outdoors is like a big room without a roof. People often live indoors but they strive to be connected to the outdoors.
That’s why so many people—especially in this region—want interior courtyards. The outdoors gives you a very different sensory experience than indoors. All the senses—taste, smell, sight, sound and touch—come into play. For that reason, I think the outdoors is a very natural extension of the home.
You’ve worked in California, India and Dubai. What if you had to work in Reykjavik or Calgary?
NS: It depends on your perspective. Plants that go dormant in the winter have their own sculptural beauty. Some plants actually flower in the winter and can be used specifically for how they look when they’re covered with snow.
I’d be very excited to work in a place that had to consider snow. I’m a contextualist. Every plant I specify needs to be site-specific, climate-specific and microclimate-specific.
If I were to work in a place that experiences snow and has frost and freeze cycles, I’d think of it as a great challenge. You can choose plants that look like a sculpture garden in the winter and a green garden in the summer. Plants in those climates can be very dynamic.
THE PERSON BEHIND THE PROFESSION
What are you passionate about?
NS: Animals. If I wasn’t a landscape designer, I’d probably run an animal shelter. In terms of landscaping, I’d love to open a nursery and grow my own plants. I’d like to experiment with what’s possible here.
What is something you despise?
NS: Hypocrisy—both personal and professional—is something I find very difficult to digest. When I say something, I mean it. I usually expect that from other people too.
What three words best describe you as a design professional?
NS: Spontaneous. Intuitive. Idealistic.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of landscape design in the region?
NS: Everything about landscaping makes me happy. As far as the industry here, I have very positive vibes. I think there is so much that is unexplored here.
It’s like a blank slate. For landscaping, there are hardly any laws and almost no regulations so it’s got a lot of growing to do.
What’s your favourite landscape?
NS: That’s easy. Central Park is without a doubt my favourite outdoor space.
Who inspires you?
NS: Actually, I’d consider Renzo Piano one of my biggest inspirations. Two landscape architects also really inspire me. First, there’s Sri Lanka’s Geoffrey Bawa. His work is beautiful; it’s very natural and very contextual.
The other is Roberto Burle Marx, the Brazilian landscape architect. His work is like art in landscape. His designs are very much about manmade landscapes, whereas Geoffrey Bawa’s designs are very much about natural occurring landscapes and sculpting the land.
They’re almost complete opposites but both of them are amazing landscape designers.
Why not architecture? What is special about landscapes to you?
NS: Landscapes aren’t like architecture or interior design, they’re not static. They’re always evolving and that is the part that makes them so interesting and so challenging. Often clients will ask things like, ‘That’s going to grow, right?’ and your answer to them can only be, ‘I hope so’.
You’ve got to remember, a landscape is a living, breathing thing. Getting something to grow is a combination of guess work and experience.