“I’m a preacher,” says Thomas Woltz and he is. Determined to spread the word about his particular approach to landscape design, he speaks in fluent, seamlessly detailed paragraphs that describe his painstaking ambition to create “high functioning biological systems designed as living paintings.” The owner of the landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, he and his designers work together with teams of conservation biologists on extraordinary projects ranging from the Virginia War Memorial to a sheep station and an arboretum in New Zealand as well as urban designs such as the landscaping of New York’s Hudson Yards and the gardens for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Scientific data along with cultural research on the history of any given site forms the base line for most projects and the resulting understanding of the site informs the design. “It’s not decorating outdoors,” he says. “We build a biological portrait of the landscape so that we can decide what is the highest and best ecological use of this land.”
I read about you and I listened to your TED talk, and the more I learned about you, the more I thought the term “landscape architect” isn’t exactly doing you a disservice but it doesn’t properly describe what you’re trying to do. It’s this idea of melding with the landscape, not imposing on it, bringing it to what it could have or should have been, or once was—it isn’t really landscape design as such … does that make any sense to you?
I really am so grateful that you thought about it enough to ask in that way because I do find that a lot of words—in English—are somewhat insufficient but they are the closest thing I have to operate in that captures to the best of its ability the breadth of what we do. It is closer to restoration ecology, civil engineering and large scale construction, hydrologic construction, re-forestation and the building of public space, which is not gardening. It’s not decorating the outdoors. It’s not really architecture but that at least evokes the fact that these are “made places”. Landscape is an insufficient word because people overuse it to simply mean “context”, “the literary landscape” for example. I appreciate the question but I do feel like a landscape architect because that’s the best I’ve got.
People don’t have an attention span. I can watch people glaze. When they say, “What do you do?” I say, “Mostly public parks.” And then they get it and say, “That’s interesting.” I realize they don’t think public parks are constructed spaces. They think they’re just the part of the city that didn’t get built on. Then I think, “Oh I’ll talk to them about conservation agriculture, so I start talking about large scale farmland conservation.” But then they look at you and see you are wearing a coat and tie and you have an office in New York and the glaze kind of comes back. So I say, “Okay, here we go!” People know about global tragedy, social tragedy, social inclusivity. There are these incredible memorials like Ground Zero, so I talk about sites of memory that we have done. You have to keep going! But then they’re confused. They say, “You do parks? You do sites of memory? You do farmland? What about gardens?” Basically nobody wants to talk to me.
Well we want to talk to you. The other thing that seemed to be very innovative is this idea of bringing scientists together with designers. The fact that you don’t resist that combination is in itself unusual—you embrace it in fact.
We created it. In fact [designers and scientists] are interdependent. We started 15 years ago doing our first collaboration with conservation biologists. There was a professor of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University called James Gibbs. He came to visit one of our sites—I was very proudly showing him the warm season grasslands we had re-established, re-forestation efforts, how we had cleaned badly eroded streams and re-built them and he was very excited about the work. Like most people he thought a landscape architect decorated around your pool with plants. He said, “This is wonderful. You must be seeing a lot more ground birds, field birds, migratory birds.” and I said, “Oh yes, lots.” And he said, “How many?” I said, “A lot … I don’t really know.” And then he said, “What about your water quality? What parts per million are you seeing of insolubles?” And I was like, “Er …” I suddenly realized that like with most good intentions, we had forgotten to do the base line biological data. And had I invested in the base line biological data, had I convinced our trusting clients to do so, I would have had great responses for him. More importantly, I would have had data that I could share publicly.
So you now design around the data, do you?
Yes. Ever since then, when we start a large conservation agriculture project, we invite a team of anywhere from 10 to 20 conservation biologists with specializations in ornithology, ichthyology, herpetology, dendrology … bats … I can’t remember the “ology” of bats … but we bring them all together with the design team and with the client team. We will camp together for up to five days.
It sounds so cool!
Oh, it’s fun! What we do is that we build a biological portrait of the landscape so that we can decide, what would be the highest and best ecological use of this land. That is what guides the design. We ask: What is the biological connectivity we can achieve across this landscape? What could we install that would enrich the biodiversity? And parallel, we look at the cultural history of a site. What are the human stories?
What are the human stories?
The first step is deeds—who has owned this land? Were they immigrants, if so from where? Did they displace native communities when they came? Did they own slaves? In the case of working farms, we look at the soils and say, what can it bear? So the design yields lush and beautiful landscapes that are composed as paintings but they are honoring at once the agricultural, the ecological and the cultural landscape.
What is the difference between what you do and what someone who only has conservation in mind does?
Your question is at the heart of why the scientists at the [Syracuse University] School of Environmental Science and Forestry were quite happy to collaborate. They said, “You realize the vast majority of the most precious lands are in private ownership.” We are a gateway to private individuals. But the difference between what we do and a restoration ecology project is they will often target an ecosystem, so they go with reforestation and put in the plants but there probably won’t be a maintenance system. They just try to jump start an ecology. Then they call it a reserve or a preserve. With a farm, they will try and cultivate every inch of it if they can. And then with a historic landscape, it risks being frozen in time. We stand at the center of these three disciplines, looking at restoration ecology, but not exclusively, farming, but not every inch of it and using the cultural landscape to infuse what we design with narrative.
And it must look lovely too?
I am committed to beauty as a tool of preservation. If you think about the landscape it’s a fragile construct. You stop caring for a garden, an orchard or a farm, it goes feral and becomes unproductive. It will often re-forest itself but probably not in the richest forest matrix. The landscape requires tending. I believe that our investment in design excellence—we can call for this conversation, “beauty”.
Do you think, then, we will—and maybe this is your mission—change our ideas of what is beautiful in terms of landscape?
That’s wonderful! You’re like completely in my head! In fact the important step is education and demonstration. For example, a really naïve example but a meaningful one, is when I speak to garden organizations, talking about changing what we see as beautiful by understanding how it functions. I start with a bouquet of red roses, global icon of beauty from Persian culture and European culture. So then I show production facilities in greenhouses in Guatemala with people in hazmat suits and I show the rates of liver cancer and gallbladder cancer in the people working in these places; then I show the carbon footprint of shipping the roses from Central America. Then I show monarda didyma, bee balm. It’s something we might call ugly because it’s a very witchy, spiky-looking red plant. And I have a photo of a garden we designed where there are spider webs strung between two blossoms of bee balm. You see a whole little ecosystem around it, the dew, the other insects, the pollen nodules on the center of the flower. I say, “To me, this is beautiful because it’s a keystone in a pollinator ecosystem. That knowledge makes it beautiful. I would only give this to a woman I love. I would never give her a rose, because I know too much.”
What about people who say, “Just leave it alone and it will go back to what it once was?”
Around the world we are discovering that a policy of benign neglect has led to untold damage of ecosystems. We have introduced so many pathogens and diseases and invasive species. We’re wiping out American forests right and left with fungal disease. You mentioned fire and we have become so pyro-averse—I don’t know if that exists—we’ve prevented forest fires for so long, when they happen they’re devastating. But if you research back to the Native American management of prairies, they burnt them regularly. Fire is a tool of ecological management. We’re now building forests that we set on fire. We have a project in New Orleans and what we will be doing is a longleaf pine forest that we will burn regularly and in between we’ll graze cattle.
That was quite a quote from Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times about your role in the Hudson Yards project. “Much will depend on Thomas Woltz … whose task it is to counteract all the glass, steel, shade, concrete, gigantism and randomness.” That’s quite a burden to place on your shoulders.
If you’ve been lately, it’s much transformed since he wrote that because there’s
28 000 trees and shrubs. I frankly would love to thank him because it was a very gracious vote for hope that the one thing that’s truly public at Hudson Yards was in good hands. I said to him, “Remember how modest our tools are. We have pavement, little water, trees and shrubs and site furnishings. That’s it.” To try to use them graciously, and also somewhat heroically, required these giant scale geometries, these massive ellipses that would be a geometric counterpoint to the spiky sharpness of the buildings. As you enter Hudson Yards, you’re always arriving along a gentle and embracing curve.
Do you see us all one day living in cities with green rooftops and no cars, that kind of glorious green future for urban living?
I see an incrementally green future. I get a little exhausted by using the materials of the landscape as decorative spinach squirted on buildings. It is not a true self-sustaining landscape.
What would you like to see?
I would love to see natural light and ventilation, buildings that breathe naturally, courtyards and roof gardens that are designed structurally to carry sufficient soil.
So it seems this work mainly offers rewards over time—are you a patient person?
To answer your first question, I have “landscape patience”. I have learned to be patient.
What’s your take on weeds?