Signe Nielsen, FASLA, is a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, P.C. Ms. Nielsen has practiced as a landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. Her body of work has renewed the environmental integrity and transformed the quality of spaces for those who live, work and play in the urban realm. A Fellow of the ASLA, she is the recipient of over 100 national and local design awards for public open space projects and is published extensively in national and international publications. Ms. Nielsen is a Professor of Urban Design and Landscape Architecture at Pratt Institute in both the Graduate and Undergraduate Schools of Architecture and currently serves as President for the Public Design Commission of the City of New York. Born in Paris, Ms. Nielsen holds degrees in Urban Planning from Smith College; in Landscape Architecture from City College of New York; and in and in Construction Management from Pratt Institute.
Beginnings – What attracted you to landscape architecture and how did you begin your career? Was there an influential experience, or mentor, that helped steer you toward this field?
I stumbled into the field having spent a year helping some young architects construct their innovative thesis project which tried to demonstrate that architecture can positively affect how children learn. The site was in the mountains of Colorado where I found myself overwhelmed by the power of nature. As the project neared completion I began to reflect on the significance of my experience and wanted a career that would allow me to build what I imagined. On my last hike through the Rockies, one of the architects said I should consider landscape architecture as I seemed more enamored with living things than I did of bricks and mortar. Off I went, jobless and without a professional degree to seek employment as a landscape architect. During one of my many fruitless job interviews I met Nicholas Quennell who kindly suggested I should consider getting a degree in landscape architecture. A few months later as a student, Nicholas turned out to be one of my professors and offered me an internship. Nicholas remains my close friend and mentor to this day.
What does “architecture culture” signify to you, and how do you go about contributing to, and/or changing, this culture? What are your hopes and dreams for the future of landscape architecture and the built environment?
I have to assume from this question that the intent is to differentiate the culture of architecture from the culture of landscape architecture. Architecture culture carries both positive and negative connotations to me. The negatives are those that I have experienced as a professor in an architecture program where I witness other professors urging their students to create projects that are either devoid of site context or flagrantly ignore the site character. The result is that these students emerge from architecture school carrying the same egotistical and misguided visions of landscape as their predecessors. The architectural culture I am referring to here is one in which the architect views him/herself as willfully capable of ignoring, adversely manipulating or otherwise interrupting natural systems for the benefit of a singular vision. The landscape architect is viewed, at best, as a “bush-pusher” or someone brought in after the fact to clean up the site or hide mistakes. Collaboration is not sufficiently embedded into design schools.
On the positive side, architecture culture comprises an extraordinarily rich history of achievements that are powerful and uplifting. As a landscape architect I greatly admire many works of architecture, some because of their transformative spatial qualities and some because of their details. I, as well as other landscape architects, have much to learn from this legacy.
Hopes and dreams for the future? First and foremost, that there is still a habitable planet for my grandson. Frankly, I am far more concerned about the demise of the Earth’s natural processes than I am specifically concerned about where our profession is going. Obviously I hope that landscape architects, whatever the venue for their practice, will continue to be healers of the land. I think we are beyond “first, do no harm” and we have entered the era where conscious efforts need to be made to rectify mistakes of the past. This is merely a general philosophy which can manifest itself in multiple forms, strategies, and aesthetic expressions. Landscape architects are well-positioned to be leaders in fields that influence the built environment. We need to lead with purpose in addition to whatever other personal manifestations we might choose to express.
Advice for someone interested in entering an architecture-related field?
You’ve got to love it; the pay is terrible, recognition and personal growth are hard earned. You need to develop your own sense of reward. Every day is different; one is never bored and like good red wine, you get better with age. The education is fascinating with many avenues possible thereafter. One of the most gratifying aspects of being a professor is to watch the many directions my design students take after graduation or after some years practicing “traditional” architecture.
Favorite site, place, building? Why does this particular location speak to you?
I cannot answer this question. There is something special in most every site, place or building. If I could narrow it down, my view of the world would indeed be very small.
All images are courtesy of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects.