Doing things differently is at the heart of landscape designer Thomas Woltz’s success. Amid all the high-profile projects, he explains the guiding ethos that keeps his firm grounded.
It is early on a warm May morning when US landscape architect Thomas Woltz takes a seat in the shade at the Brooklyn Naval Cemetery Park in New York, which he and his firm Nelson Byrd Woltz designed in 2010 (it was completed last year). This little green space, a former cemetery, is now a meadow of plants and sapling cherry trees. They are designed to attract the pollinating wildlife that serves kitchen gardens, community spaces, flowerbeds and vegetable patches dotted around the surrounding neighbourhoods.
A handsome raised wooden walkway that curves through tufts of greenery echoes the creek that once ran through the site, and which was rerouted by city planners in the 19th century to make way for the burial ground that gave the park its name. As a former resting place for the dead, Woltz says, the park was conceived as a place where life could now thrive.
“We have this odd idea that there’s wilderness and there’s city,” says Woltz, immaculately decked out in a three-piece blue suit and raising his voice slightly to overcome the rush-hour din of the highway that hugs the tree-ringed park to the east. “We need to start seeing these things as interwoven and understand that the metabolism of a city is like a living body. It’s not just the park part and the built part: it’s from the rooftops to the green space, to the streets, to the gutters, to the infrastructure beneath the city all the way to the river above that. When we start to think about it that way, we start to break down this nature-city divide. Revealing that through design is, I think, very important.”
Woltz reaches beneath the bench on which we’re sitting and pulls out a little yellow journal that’s tucked away in a small, weatherproof compartment under the seat. Within this guestbook of sorts, which was incorporated into the park’s design by Woltz and his team, are the thoughts and reflections of some of those who have used it since it reopened. They have strolled, run, walked the dog, taken a morning yoga class or simply escaped the bustle of this corner of Brooklyn for a moment or two.
The entries, each initialled by their author at the end, include musings on this welcome haven, the wonder of a jogger stumbling upon the park for the first time and a parent marking her first Mother’s Day here with her one-year-old daughter. One entry in a blue scrawl describes the anonymous author’s path out of substance addiction and the role the park played in the recovery process. “As I find my footing, natural spaces such as this one bring me comfort from what can sometimes be an all-consuming metropolis,” it reads. “I think it is time for me to leave this city that has taken so much from me. All the same, I do find comfort in watching the lives of strangers unfold around me. It gives me hope that one day I can escape the chaos addiction creates and lead a normal life.”
To Woltz, this entry cuts to the heart of what landscape architecture should be. “I think one of the things that gives us the greatest sense of quality of life is connectivity,” he says. “Connectivity to place and to one another. And the way to give that connectivity context is not simply through aesthetics; a beautiful park is important but that’s not enough. So it’s about creating a public space that offers the opportunity for you and me to sit down together on a bench or meet casually or have a birthday party. For daily life to unfold in a way that you feel safe and connected to your community, open to all.” The guestbook seeks to document and detail that daily life.
Woltz has made telling stories, and creating settings in which they can unfold, central to his practice. The firm was launched in 1985 in Charlottesville, Virginia, by his former university tutor and mentor Warren T Byrd Jr and Byrd’s wife Susan Nelson. Woltz joined after he graduated and took over the reins in 2011. The commissions range widely in both scale and budget. There was the landmark Citygarden sculpture park in downtown St Louis, completed in 2009, and the national memorial park in Pennsylvania commemorating the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 (the fourth plane to be hijacked on 11 September, 2001). There has also been a university campus in Virginia, a children’s hospital in Philadelphia and major agricultural projects in California and New Zealand.
Still, the starting point for each is consistent. “The process remains the same and the energy is as exhilarating in a two-acre site as the Brooklyn Naval Cemetery and the 6000 acres (2428 hectares) in Tasmania that we’re currently working on,” says Woltz. That process begins with research: unearthing the story of the site, its geology and its cultural heritage.
It’s an unconventional approach in American landscape design, which has struggled to find its place between agriculture and architecture since it started to be formalised in the 18th century.
“Landscape design is often reduced today to pattern making – stripes and banding that could be inspired by anything someone thinks of; some pattern that they’ve seen, and they just map it out on the landscape,” says Woltz, back at Nelson Byrd Woltz’s studio in Manhattan’s Midtown. “I think the results are so different when you start with all of these stories of the site and the character of the place – not, say, something I saw in Kentucky and have decided we’re going to do in Venice. I’m not saying I have it right; I’m just saying we do things differently to the status quo.”
It is an ethos that is instilled into each of Nelson Byrd Woltz’s 45 staff, who are split between studios in Virginia and New York. “This is not at all the sort of starchitect firm where some genius on a high throne throws down a sketch and says, ‘Go and build this,’” says Woltz. “It’s a very iterative process, back and forth with a big team of fecund minds, working hard and energised to layer ideas upon ideas. So everyone is involved in the research, everyone is involved in the design, and it becomes a job of editing to distil the park or the project down to its essence and build the right thing.”
The approach is sometimes a tough sell to a developer or a public with vested interests in a plot of land earmarked for redevelopment. “We’ve found that it might start as a slightly adversarial situation but when we start our process they get very excited about it and they become really energised telling those stories themselves.”
Still, the biggest test of Woltz’s approach and the firm’s highest-profile urban-design commission to date is an ongoing project: the landscape design for Hudson Yards in Manhattan, currently the largest redevelopment in the US. The former railyard was earmarked by then mayor Michael Bloomberg for the city’s failed 2012 Olympics bid. At the moment it’s a building site but the plans that have been released look stunning.
True to form, Woltz is not too worried about the impact the project might have on his reputation, nor that of his practice. “My ambition is not that Nelson Byrd Woltz lives on as it is into eternity,” he says. “But rather that its methodology – that respect for culture and ecology – might influence the practice of landscape architecture. That’s what I would most want to see go on.”
Orongo Station, New Zealand:
This 1,200-hectare sheep station was revitalised with half a million trees and 30 hectares of fresh and saltwater wetlands established, while preserving a Maori cemetery.
Centennial Park, Nashville:
The refurbishment of the city’s landmark space, begun in 2013, will include a wildflower meadow and a permanent performance space at fabled Musicians Corner.
Bok Tower Gardens, Florida:
The regeneration of the historic Bok Tower botanical gardens aimed to shift focus to the native plant life of this verdant corner of central Florida.
Medlock Ames winery, California:
The masterplan for the site encompassed 30 hectares of vineyards, an olive grove and 150 hectares of woodland.
Seven Ponds Farm, Virginia:
Begun in 1998, this cattle farm was transformed by incorporating the farmhouse – still in use – into new botanical spaces and woodland.
- Can you describe your management style?
Collaborative but without hesitating to lead with strength when needed.
- Are tough decisions best taken by one person or by a group?
By a group.
- Do you want to be liked or respected?
Respected, absolutely. No matter how long I’m in this profession I feel I need to re-earn that respect daily.
- Do you read management books?
No, never. I read science, history, fiction and cocktail-recipe books.
- Do you have a run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with colleagues?
I practise yoga and calisthenics, and run every so often. I never have wine with lunch but I often dine with someone from my office; I work with some of my closest friends.
- Who do you go to for guidance?
A Maryland green-roof farmer, a coffee roaster in Virginia and my first conservation-agriculture client from 20 years ago.
- What do you find the most difficult part of your job?
Responding to correspondence with all the people I care about and still getting the work done.
- Is it OK for employees to disagree with you?
They should express directly if they disagree with me and present their reasoning. I have the same obligation to them to support my opinions.
- Have you ever made a mistake you wish you could take back?
I’ve made many mistakes but I don’t want to take any back. They are life’s course correction and without them I would never have risked anything.
- If you could fix one thing about your company, what would it be?
We have offices in Virginia, New York and Melbourne but we get together for several days a year to dream about future directions. I wish we could do that more often.