Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thomas Woltz at Lewis Ginter

Guest speaker Thomas Woltz, ASLA, gave the talk Narratives of Ecology in Public and Private Contemporary Design at the this year's Gillette Forum at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Along with Warren Byrd, Woltz is a partner in the 30 person firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, and travels between offices in Charlottesville, Virginia and New York City. Woltz also teaches at the University of Virginia and serves on the board of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. I know Thomas and Warren from my days at the University of Virgina, Thomas was a year ahead of me, and Warren, who was an excellent teacher, was my professor for several courses.

Woltz began by his talk by questioning the standard idea of beauty. Showing a picture of a rose, he brought up all the factors that went into growing it: resource-intensive growing conditions, big transportation costs, and the poor health of workers who produce the roses while exposed to pesticides. "Knowing all this, would you still consider the rose beautiful?", he asked. He compared the roses to a photograph of monarda in bloom, adapted to it's climate and growing freely without chemical treatment. This comparison characterizes Nelson Byrd Woltz's approach to landscape design, emphasizing sustainabilty, consideration of the natural environment, and designs that might not always be considered conventionally beautiful. During the talk, Woltz took us through several impressive projects which I'll briefly summerize:

West of Richmond, the firm designed the Luckstone mineral garden for the Charles Luck Stone Center. Inside, the company showroom feels more like an upscale Pottery Barn than the typical rough and tumble stoneyard. When I took the pictures above, I didn't know the garden had been designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz, but I was immediately struck by the beauty of the design. The walls and pylons are not only poetic, but they beautifully show off the company's products. The garden also uses native plants as a way to show potential clients what they might use to complement their new stonework. Woltz pointed out that instead of a typical sign at the entrance to the stone yard, they convinced the company to go with a distinctive gabion-like monument (the first and last slides in the series) to mark the location of the showroom.

At the University of Virginia, Nelson Byrd Woltz designed the roof gardens and sunken gardens for Rouss Hall, a rehabilitated Stanford White building that houses the McIntyre School of Commerce. The firm wittily chose tulips, tobacco and saffron crocus to make the connection between plants and economics.

Woltz also showed us a couple of residential projects near Charlottesville. The first project was a 150 acre farm divided into 4 quadrants, each evoking a narrative about central Virginia: farm, garden, pastoral landscape, and the wild landscape. This project included extensive plantings of trees and the restoration of eroded streams, vernal ponds, and the natural undulations of the site. Woltz spoke of undoing the 'ironing' that the land had undergone. They also established new plantings of native bunch grass meadows that are controlled through burning. It was amazing how carefully thought through the design was, right down to the custom furniture. Woltz showed some images of a beautiful table based on the design of old gyroscopes. The table, designed for this one unique spot on the planet, acted as a sundial, connecting the property to the larger world and the passing of time.

For another property near Crozet, Virginia, the firm used peach orchards to recall the area's history as a top peach producing region. NBW incorporated a traditional technique of using stone walls set within the orchard to reflect heat to the delicate early blooms of the peach trees. And in another instance of making connections to the larger landscape, the walls are aligned with the area's precambrian granite extrusions which are specific to the blue ridge mountains.

Projects like these have sparked an interesting development at the firm: the Conservation Agriculture Studio, which deals with the peripheral spaces around productive lands and works with farmers to manage properties in sustainable ways. NBW currently helps manage thousands of acres in central Virginia.

As example of the studio's work, Woltz walked us through a recent project in Albemarle County in central Virginia. On this project, they were able to work with the owners from the very start. It seems an obvious way for landscape architects to work, but it's not actually that common. In order to generate some hard data to back up some of their design decisions, NBW called in a team of 20 conservation biologists to work with members of the firm for a weeklong bio-blitz of the property. The biologists analyzed the flora and fauna, but they were also asked to make design recommendations, suggesting ways of shaping the landscape to increase habitat and biodiversity.

Another interesting project of the Conservation Agriculture Studio is a large sheep farm in New Zealand. Though the farm is located in a temperate rainforest, much of the property was sheep grazing fields, and it looked more like Scotland than a rainforest. Though some people liked the look of the rolling grassy hills, Woltz's questioning of this unnatural 'beauty' led him to convince the client to try to reestablish some of the long-absent forest. NBW are currently in the process of planting 1 million trees on the property and reestablishing wetlands.

Photo by Steve and Jemma Copely

One interesting goal of the project is to reestablish a colony of tuataras, the last remaining species of an ancient lineage of reptiles. They've installed a huge fence around part of the property to keep out predators, and they eventually hope to get 30 tuataras released into the preserve. As part of their effort to restore the pre-existing landscape, they've also worked with local Maori to create earthworks evocotive of their traditions, and have engaged local nurseries to grow plants that are native to the area. The native plants were definitely not in high demand—Woltz compared it to asking a nursery here to grow mass quantities of dandelions. The main house is designed in the New Zealand Villa style and one of the gardens around the house, called the Endeavor walk, takes its plant list from the letters of explorer Joseph Banks, who first described many of the area's species.

What an amazing group of projects! Interestingly, Nelson Byrd Woltz doesn't really advertise, all its projects have come through personal contacts, word of mouth, and publications. The New Zealand project came through a chance meeting on the streets of New York with an old acquaintance of Woltz.

For more information on this year's Gillette Forum, see my posts on Doug Reed and Timothy Beatly. And here's a great post about Woltz's talk from Jonah Holland.

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