A Waltz with Thomas Woltz

It’s funny how people drop into your life. They’re just a name on an email, a note in a calendar, then they’re not. They appear and something shifts; A story is shared, connections are made, an opening appears. This is the case with my recent encounter with New York based landscape architect Thomas Woltz, except he didn’t appear, and then he did, in the most unlikely of locations.

Thomas and I have an interview scheduled at 2pm on a Friday afternoon at a café in the Sydney CBD. I appear. Thomas doesn’t. We exchange emails – he’s mortified to have forgotten our meeting. Then Sunday arrives. I’m in the garden at our house on the river, dressed in work boots, dirty jeans and a flannelette shirt. My secateurs are in a holster around my hips and my work gloves are on. I haven’t showered and I stink. Badly.

Now, people don’t accidentally stumble across our part of the river. There’s just 40 houses, most of them are weekenders, and access is only by boat. Out of nowhere, however, Thomas Woltz appears. A quick google image search of Thomas will reveal a very, very, well-dressed character. Usually photographed with a tie, waistcoat and shiny shoes, the man oozes style. It’s now my turn for horror, as I push my dirty hair back behind my ears and attempt to cover my odour with rose geranium oil (also good for repelling ticks and mosquitos). We end up watching the sunset over the river discussing landscape, stories, and our shared love of Robert Pogue Harrison’s book Gardening: An Essay on the Human Condition. All previous mortifications on both sides are forgotten as the sun fades to grey and the hills retreat into the twilight.

Thomas Woltz.
Medlock Ames Winery, California

We meet again a few nights later to continue our conversation, launching straight into discussing the metabolism of cities and how an awareness (or perhaps a collective remembering?) of the interconnectedness of all life can change the way humans interact with the world around them. Thomas reckons the food movement has a lot to do with this. “People are caring more and more about what they eat and are longing for the story behind what’s on their plate. It’s a surprising portal, as opposed to enjoyment of public parks, for example, or watching as species die out as a result of climate change and environmental shifts,” Thomas suggests.

This tether back to farmland from the plate is very important and powerful. I think food is just one way that people start caring for the environment and realise the interconnectedness of all life.”

Thomas Woltz has been pondering questions of connection, creation, culture, agriculture, design and ecology for over 20 years now. He’s the owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, was named Design Innovator of the Year by the Wall Street Journal in 2013 and is a fellow of the American Council of Landscape Architects. He and his team at NBW have designed hundreds of parks, farms, residential gardens and public memorials and have a list of awards a few kilometres long.

It seems to me that much of NBW’s work is about gently stripping back landscapes in an attempt to uncover the beauty of what is already there, telling the story of the land and the richness of the site’s cultural history. Not landscape architecture as decoration but landscape architecture as storytelling. “What we want to do is to get to know land so intimately that whatever alteration we make is an expression of a quality that is deeply embedded in that land.” Thomas tells me. He says he’s always trying to convince new clients to give him enough time to do the right amount of research. To learn enough to understand the site comprehensively. This can often mean going back a few million years or more, to the geological formation of a site, because “sometimes there are clues in the geology that shaped a piece of land as to why a certain culture emerged.” These clues then shape the design outcomes of the project.

It’s clear that the preservation and sharing of the geological, ecological and cultural stories of public landscapes excites Thomas enormously. The opposite of this, a painting of patterns over the terrain of a city doesn’t. “When graphic landscape architectures are painted across a city, layers and layers of how the city was made, why it was made, and how it’s character developed in a unique way are concealed.” Each project the NBW team works on, Thomas tells me, is about communicating and respecting the culture and ecology of the site.

Orongo Station, New Zealand.
Duke University water reclamation pond, North Carolina
Seven Ponds Farm, Virginia
Medlock Ames Winery, California
Medlock Ames Winery, California
Orongo Station, New Zealand.

The principles of research, deep respect and storytelling inform another aspect of Thomas Woltz’s work, one that excites both of us greatly – conservation agriculture.

“The big news when I finished graduate school around 20 years ago was that agriculture is the largest contributor to non-point source pollution in America,” Thomas tells me. “This knowledge is what led to the the conservation agriculture studio in our firm – I wondered whether anyone would ever hire us to apply our toolkit as designers to the agricultural landscape.” It’s an obvious, yet strangely uncommon idea. Landscape architecture as a discipline is generally seen as a beast of the city – public parks, open spaces, streetscapes, urban masterplans and residential gardens are the usual haunts of the profession. It’s not often spoken about in the same sentence as agriculture yet, as Thomas points out, landscape architects have an increasingly relevant and useful skill-set that can be applied to the agricultural landscape to great effect.

He should know, too. Over the last 20 years Thomas and the NBW studio have transformed over 85 000 acres of American farmland, helping to preserve the cultural landscape of agriculture, rebuilding ecological connectivity and biodiversity, and helping farmers grow healthier and more sustainable food. It’s a hybrid model they’ve developed – sitting somewhere between agriculture and conservation.

If you take a farm and convert it to a reserve, that’s 100% conservation. If you farm the hell out of it you get 100% agriculture, but if you get 60% conservation value and around 60-70% agricultural production you’ve interwoven the two and made a giant win.”

One of the most ambitious of NBW’s conservation agriculture studio projects is Orongo Station, on the North Island of New Zealand. The 3000-acre project, which began in 2002, weaves together the restoration of a highly degraded landscape with a working sheep farm, whilst celebrating the rich cultural heritage of the site – it was the landing point for the Great Migration of Maori people in 1100, and again for Captain Cook and crew in 1769. NBW collaborated with a huge team of local ornithologists, conservation biologists and cultural experts to devise and implement a masterplan for the property. In the last decade over 500 000 trees have been planted, 75 acres of wetlands have been restored, and many Maori cultural sites and traditions have been restored and preserved.

It’s a phenomenal scale and story, and has won Thomas and his team plenty of awards, international recognition and commissions of a similar scale – including a new conservation agriculture project in Tasmania. He can’t tell me much more about it yet, but he’s buzzing. He shows me a pile of books he’s just purchased on Australian Aboriginal culture. “I get so excited,” he says. “This is why I get up every morning,” he tells me. “To work on projects like this.”

What Thomas Woltz and his team at NBW are doing is incredibly important; firstly, through their work respecting and celebrating the ancient and modern stories of existence through their work designing public spaces, parks and residential gardens; and secondly, transforming the way we think about the relationship between agriculture, conservation and art.

I’m so happy Thomas Woltz turned up.

Check out Nelson Byrd Woltz’s WEBSITE / Watch Thomas’s TedX talk, focusing on NBW’s work at Orongo Station in New Zealand.

All images are of NBW projects, supplied by NBW.

Aga Kahn landscape masterplan, Alberta, Canada
Aga Khan Garden, Alberta. Image by NBW.