Marquise Stillwell
Episode 3: Signe Nielsen on Architectural Storytelling and Urban Sustainability

This week I reconnected with Signe Nielson, a landscape architect and founding principal at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in NYC. She is also a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Pratt Institute and an active participant in New York City design policy and approvals. Her work focuses on the areas of green design, sustainability, and public space design. Nielsen has spent her career thinking about design and architecture as a means of telling stories and improving lives and the environment, and continually dedicates her work and practice building spaces that positively impact the environment and people who inhabit them.

Marquise: Welcome to The Sweet Flypaper podcast. My name is Marquise Stillwell. 

Neil: And I'm Neil Ramsay.

Marquise: This week we have Signe Nielson. She's an amazing landscape architect, founder and principal at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. So excited to have her. Her work, you may not always know it, but most of us have definitely walked through or picnicked at and sat at one of her extraordinary pieces of work.

Neil: Well Marquise, didn't you work with her on The Lowline? Yeah, we were recently in Miami getting The Underline.

Marquise: That's right. Yeah, no we were part of the founding board of The Lowline and spent seven plus years meandering all the different concepts and ideas. And she was extraordinary in creating what was called The Lowline Lab, where we actually brought the concept inside Essex Market on the Lower East Side. So that was an amazing project.

Neil: As you know and an advocate for design, not just in the built environment, but for the power of design, which, you know, social practice and various other forms. But also, it could be a strong sentiment from my side, but I'll say it anyway. Looking around the built environment, design for profit, I call it a slow urban genocide. 

Marquise: Yes. 

Neil: And that we really need to start thinking about designing for people and the places and the community engagement in these projects. It's significant. It's fantastic to see.

Marquise: You think about what's going on on the commercial side, development within cities. I think this is the opportunity to think about the landscape, right? Do we need the buildings? Do we need as many buildings and we certainly don't need as much concrete and parking. And I think that too many times the landscape is added as finishing, like hey let's just add some trees, and it'd be nice for us to start thinking more deeply about what is our relationship between us and the land that we walk through and enjoy. 

Neil: Recently, I just posed the question to a landscape architect just from a very sort of humble and very naive point of view. But even in my experience in the development world, as you know, one of the things I've been really thinking about, and I spoke to him about this and I said, you know, I think we really have this backwards. I think we should be designing and looking at the landscape first and then placing buildings once it's been optimized from a landscape architect point of view. They loved the idea. 

Marquise: Yeah? 

Neil: But from the development side, I know that was just I was laughed out of town. You know, like now coming back to that future thinking, I think that these are ways that we can look at other approaches and look to see alternatives of how things are done. 

Marquise: Absolutely.

Neil: And I think that's really important. I think that's one of them, because landscape architecture... Well, we'll hear speak. 

Marquise: Yeah. So let's jump right in. Signe Nielson. 

Marquise: ​So, Signe, it’s so wonderful to be speaking with you. Thanks for joining me today.

Signe: ​It's absolutely my pleasure.

Marquise: ​I've had the pleasure of knowing you for a few years now, working with you on The Lowline​ was a pleasure, and just seeing you in action and from watching you, I know that you list yourself as a landscape architect, but I know that you do so many things in just the way you think. So why don't you describe what you do and who you are. Beyond just checking the box, I'd love to hear how you describe yourself.

Signe: ​Well, I am officially a landscape architect, but over the years that I've been doing this, I've come to realize that some of the things that I did early in my life—in college, for example, where I was a political science major, the upbringing I had from my parents who were deeply involved in social causes and racial justice... that these have come back very powerfully in my mind. In addition to living through the 60’s in New York city, I feel as if many things have sort of coalesced. So a very strong part of who I am as a person and who I am and a design leader of the firm—I'm one of three partners, the founding partners—is to embark on advocacy whenever there is an opportunity.And it doesn't have to be a very obvious opportunity. 

We can make them up too, but it's really to encourage our clients to think about community engagement, for example, in a much more deeply meaningful way. Most scopes of work have some community engagement as part of it, but it's more like checking the boxes, as you just said. And so, that's something that we really try to do and explain what it means to have people at the table with us, not just talking at people, not just presenting to people, but having them as part of the process. So, that's certainly one of our firm's core values, something I believe in deeply. And then that will oftentimes fold into where I see the need for advocacy on a specific project.

I don't start a project and go, ‘a ha! I'm going to use this project to change this.’ No, that's not the way it works. The way it works is that it's an evolutionary process of listening to people and learning about this site and then realizing how we could make a difference and then what needs to change in order for us to make that difference.

Marquise: ​Yeah. That’s amazing. Through your experience, I mean, I've seen you in meeting sand it's amazing to watch how convincing you can be with your perspective and your experience. To those who are just starting their career, what advice do you give to them to hold developers and others accountable for this type of work that you do?

Signe: ​It's interesting that you ask that question because yesterday was my last lecture— you probably know, I teach at Pratt Institute in the School of Architecture, so it was my last class, to them, and I said, you know, it's actually been a very good semester, I think in spite of the virtual format, and I said, I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. And one of them was what it means to be an architect when you leave school, and that it’s much more than form...and that, never forget who you're designing for, and that is for the people.You're not designing just to make yourself happy. You're not designing to come up with some new form that's never been invented before. 

At the end of the day, if people aren't int he forefront of your thinking and the forefront of the way you can see the space, then you are really not living up to your potential as an architect. If you want to be a theoretical architect or, you know, whatever, that's fine. But if you're going to be a practicing architect that builds things, please keep people in mind. So that was one of my things that I would just say to anyone starting out is, your education has probably not focused so much on people—it's probably focused more on design and form and technical issues, but open the door wider and let the world of ideas and people's opinions come in. That's one thing.

The other thing, I guess, is it's a challenging moment to enter the design field, but I do feel as if we are on the cusp of all kinds of change. And I think if we can learn some lessons, there are many lessons to have been learned in the past... At least one year. Let’s keep those in perspective, let's not overreact and assume that henceforth we have to stay six feet away from each other, but let's think about... what are the ramifications of a more, diverse and open society, one that really invites diversity, puts equity in the forefront. These are things now that I'm hearing among the faculty, that comes up in all the faculty meetings, it's changed a lot of the types of projects that the students have been engaged in...

So I feel as if it's a pivotal moment and it needs to continue. And when I talked about the 60’s before, I talked about it with regret, when I saw what happened. This summer in particular, after the murders of George Floyd and others, it brought back to me, what happened and what I observed in the 60’s. And in so many ways, I felt, I feel... that many things haven't changed and that, that makes me very sorrowful. And I hope that the fact that so many people seem to have been galvanized by the situation, including just observing my staff, you know? So, in 30 something people... it gave me great hope that if we penetrate deeper into society, that there will be change forthcoming.

Marquise: ​Yeah. No, that's beautiful. Yeah. I think that this summer has brought about... you know, summer 2020 brought about a lot of change, a lot of awakening. And as designers and architects, you know, we've all been trying to go deeper in our practice and understanding what is our responsibility. When it comes to public space, which you do a lot of work on, what does that mean? I mean, from your experience through the sixties and all the way up to this time, you know, public space has been this contentious space sometimes, you know, from protestors, from who owns that property, who has a right to that. How from a design standpoint, do you think about, again, this idea of advocacy and the work that you do when you're creating public space?

Signe: ​That's a lot of questions I see there. [Laughter] One thing I'll say is that I feel as if one of the lessons learned from the past year is the importance of public space.It's not a, I mean, what I'm very happy to see is that many people are recognizing that it's not just landscape architects whose business is to design a public space, but now we're seeing developers...people of all kinds recognizing the value... politicians, other designers, recognizing the value of public space. And of course the public is recognizing the value of public space, using it in ways that perhaps we had not thought about in a while. So for example, places where people can gather in times of stress, where they can communicate with each other in an environment that is more helpful, where they can recreate, where they can protest. These are things that we haven't seen happen in public space in a long time.

They've happened before. And then, as I said, they certainly happened in the sixties and seventies, but not in, probably a generation or two... have we seen public space take on seeing importance, I think, that it has... both from a health standpoint as well as from apolitical expression standpoint.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Yeah. I know, in working with you and being on a board with you at The Lowline, we talked a lot about public space that allowed for communities to gather... for people to actually convene. And one thing that we were always talking about and I want to frame it in a different way than maybe what we have talked about in the past, is his idea of evidence... of communities seeing themselves in the work.I'm couching it as this idea of evidence of existence, because I think that Black Lives Matter, and others. It's pretty much what they're asking, right? 

They're asking, Hey, I want you to recognize me. it's what women are asking—you know, look at me... In a way that you see who I am as a person, and how, when we're designing public space, and the work that we're doing, how can we weave storytelling? I know that a lot of the work that I've seen that you've done, it's definitely... I can see the stories. When you're working through a project and you're working with so many different people, developers and other people that are in the architect space, how do you actually think about storytelling?

Signe: ​One of the things that is very true about me is that I do not arrive at a project with a concept. I arrive as a... somewhat of a blank slate, I would say. And I immerse myself to the best that I can in the place and the people who occupy that place, or even may occupy that place in the future...and in the history of the place. I was a liberal arts major in college and big student of history and love history. So that's important—and that history may be a natural history, it may be a social history. So I try to dig deep and then I try to see what of those stories still resonate. Sometimes, I mean, I've worked in neighborhoods where...let's just say it has a certain “cultural overlay,” but over time that culture has been replaced by another culture.

And so I remember being asked, specifically on that project, to promote the culture that really doesn't exist any longer in that neighborhood. It does economically, but it doesn't really from the standpoint of the people who reside there. And I found that to be a conflict that was hard to work around.In other words, I did not want to put all kinds of national—it's hard to say this without identifying the cultures,

[Marquise: No, no, I get it.]

But the beauty of New York is that it changes all the time. And many cities change all the time, but waves of newcomers are changing neighborhoods all the time. So for me, it's a mistake to lock a place into a particular cultural narrative.Sometimes we are asked to do that, however, and for me, it has to resonate over a period of time. And with people who currently occupy the neighborhood, and who may occupy it in the future.

Marquise: ​So how do you do that? Because you're, I mean, you've always been a straight shooter, which is, I love why you say it, how it is and how do you actually navigate that? Because you had to push back. And I know that you've had to push back on a number of your projects. And what is that word that you say to your students and other people who are listening...what advice would you give them to say, ‘Hey, here's the integrity line. This is where you stand.’

Signe: ​It's much easier, in my mind, to weave a story around physical history or environmental history. I make a case for those histories because I do believe that they are enduring, and they can resonate... and try to speak about that as the glue of a place. I'll give you an example. We're working on a wonderful project on the Lower East Side in Chinatown, ​Pier 42​. The community is very heavily Asian, but there also is a large Latino population as well. And it has, of course, changed over the years. My grandparents, when they came from Russia, that's where they moved into. So it's a place of transition, always has been. And so, when we were coming up with our various design alternatives, some of them were very, kind of, culturally specific, some of them were very sort of white-centric, in terms of certain kinds of sports, for example.

And at the end of the day, the community...and I mean this very, very broadly...we spoke to all the folks who live in the public housing, we spoke to the Chinese American community. We spoke to the community board schools, et cetera. At the end of the day, what everyone could agree on was the notion that the park speak to the ecology of the site, speak to resilience because that neighborhood has been very badly traumatized by Hurricane Sandy. And so, in other words, what I did was offer another narrative to get off of the, sort of culturally specific narrative.

Marquise: Yeah. And uniting that, you know, I think that this is when I go back to Evidence because there are certain neighborhoods that may not have material evidence of their existence. They may not have anything that speaks to the fact that they've been there. Even the renaming of, you know, certain neighborhoods, whether it's Harlem, you know, South Harlem...we've been going through this changing of the tide. How have you thought about that, in reference to, like, in public space, how people are existing, how people are exchanging those spaces, when there may not be any physical or environmental place-making that actually said that, ‘Hey, I'm here and I've been here for awhile...’ and we don't, we don't want to stereotype say, ‘Hey, let's put some graffiti up. Let's do something that almost puts it into more of a caricature. Right? 

But I've seen how you've looked at projects and woven in, again, some of these ideas of story. Even when it comes to treatment of how people are sitting, how plants are planted, making sure that people feel invited... those are some of the aspects that I really love about your work. But again, I'd love to hear more when it comes to you having to fight for some of those moments, how have you been able to actually say, ‘Hey, here's a project I can be proud of,’ because you were able to hold that space. Do you have examples of some of those projects that went right? Some of those projects that maybe wrong?

Signe: ​Well, I think you started out actually speaking to something that is a little different than what I was speaking about before. ‘Cause I was really speaking about a contemporary cultural situation you're speaking about. I think something that I've been reading a great deal about, which is. People who lived in a place, occupied a place, whether they're NativeAmericans or whether they are Black slaves who had a huge impact on a place, but have now been erased.

Marquise: ​Yes. Yes.

Signe: ​That is another story. Yes. And that's not about, kind of, current waves of cultural change. That's very, very different. It's bringing forth with meaning. So we are working on a project right now, actually at my Alma mater, in which the Native American students have brought to the fore successfully, the fact that the site of the college was Native American land. And that they were thrown off of it and murdered by colonists in the 1700’s.So we are in the process of trying to figure out how to recommend—we're obviously not going to design anything, I just want you to know that—we are in the process of figuring out away, how we can recommend that the Native American history be acknowledged. So there are, with some of the Native students, in addition to some Tribal elders who still exist largely in New Hampshire and Vermont—my Alma mater is in Massachusetts—but those tribal elders exist.

And for them to work together, To decide what they feel is appropriate. Some of the things that we've talked about or they've talked about, and we've also suggested, are perhaps a garden of some kind that would be a place of reflection, a place where those students could go and engage in certain rituals and spiritual practices where they have some level of, at least visual privacy so that they feel able and unconstrained. That's one idea.Another idea is to make it more overt, if you will—where students of all cultures across the campus are—I don't mean this in a negative way, but are confronted, in fact—with the realization that the college is occupying Native land. And that may mean, for example, putting certain sayings on every single building. It may mean having a certain kind of agriculture. There's a lot of history that is still extant. Mind you, what we have come to realize is that that history has all been written by white people. And so, it's made me deeply recognize that this is something that I can read, but I can't, or don't want to, it's not appropriate... for me to dictate. So we're trying to set up the mechanisms, create the opportunities for these spaces on campus, whatever they might end up being...and to really, I would say, put into motion the fact that the college must act on this. This is not something that they can brush under the rug.This is a 20-year master plan. And so we're essentially doing is setting up a process,

Marquise: ​Wow. That’s an amazing project. Yeah. That's what I was speaking of. And I've seen, and I've heard you, in conversations, think about that level of integrity...that's definitely a word when I think of you, and the work... and seeing you in meetings, you've always held this space for integrity, and knowing when a project is something that you do, something someone else should do. 

How, again, I go back to the listeners and students. You've had time to be able to reflect and learn how to do that. What would you say is the future of this field, of landscape architecture, of design...What do you believe is the future? When you talk to your students, what do you see? What are you hoping that they aspire to become, and the work that you'll see from them?

Signe: ​Well, I guess one thing I say to students is that an architectural, or a landscape architectural education is a great education. It teaches you and exposes you to so many different aspects of culture and history and natural science and physics—it's just this wonderful combination. And then on top of all of that is design, how you put these various pieces together, and of course, how you put them together with regard to a program and/or a site. So I want to give students the hope that not everybody is going to be the next great architects of the world. 

Those people are few and far between, but there are many, many ways that you can use this broad education in other ways. And that it is a beautiful, expansive education that you can continue to learn every single day. You'll never repeat the same steps you took before, and that's honestly what keeps me going... is that no two jobs are alike, no two sites are alike, no two clients...everything. So for me, that's what makes it fascinating. What I want to encourage students to realize is that there are many avenues that they can take, if in fact, they find that either working in an office doesn't really appeal to them or that they find themselves... perhaps they're not as good a designer as they had the hoped.

And so what else could they do that? There are lots of fields. So that's one of the things I say to my students, but in terms of where I think the profession, or the design fields are going right now... I think we have a moment to see here, and I would hope that we move forward as designers with a much bigger basket of issues that we are folding into our design thinking. Too often, you see people limiting the number of influences on their design. So that comes out as this kind of pure thing that they had hoped. And sometimes that's driven by the client and sometimes it's driven by the designer, but I just feel like some doors... there's lots of doors and we have to keep those doors open as long as possible to make sure that we have included all of the influences and that includes historical influences, cultural, et cetera, etcetera. Influences.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Well, Sydney, I always love talking with you and I really appreciate you taking the time to hang and talk and, you know, drop knowledge as you always do.

Signe: ​Oh, it's my pleasure. Just hearing your voice makes me calm, I want you to know.

Marquise: ​[Laughter] I try. I can't wait till we can collaborate. I'm really looking forward to that day, ‘cause I admire everything that you do and really appreciate it. So thanks again for being here, really appreciate the time that you took to hang out and you dropped a lot of good knowledge.

Signe: ​Always a pleasure to speak with you, Marquise. Thank you for those great questions. There were many ideas in a bottle.