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Custodianship of the Earth with Thomas Woltz

A conversation with Thomas Woltz about landscape architecture. Thomas Woltz is the owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. Over the past two decades of practice Thomas and his team have infused narratives of the land into the places where people live, work, and play, engendering stewardship and inspiring connections between people and the natural […]

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That's one way to get started, not a whimper but a bang.
In title opinions, a feast of ideas for the giant family.
Our banquet table spans the earth's orb from the Arabian to the Antarctic deserts,
from the valedivian forest to the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe.
And yes, from the Dardanels to the Choctaw Ridge,
where Billy Joe McAllister, for reasons unknown,
jumped to his death of the Tallahassee Bridge.
We reach Bartleby's desk on Wall Street, the porticose of the Aga-Kans Alkazars,
as well as the mushroom gardens of the trimmed coiff goddess.
The only boundaries we don't cross are the ones in your mind
that shut out ideas and shut her up your belly button window.
In title opinions, trying to make it real compared to what?
So I'm gonna see you soon, come on!
Speaking of making it real, I'm joined today by one of America's leading landscape architects,
Thomas Waltz, who has a way of turning vision into reality of various sites around the world.
Thomas Waltz is the principal owner of the firm Nelson Bird Waltz Landscape Architecture,
which has undertaken many remarkable projects,
projects that give someone like me the unlikely hope that may be.
Just maybe we might be on the brink of a better earth.
To borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, who gave us some of the bleakest landscapes in modern literature,
and who no one can accuse of being a sappy optimist.
In the midst of the Inferno, we've created on this planet my guest seeks vestiges of the Eden.
Our earth could re-become if only we could re-imagine how to go about inhabiting it.
That re-imagining begins with the reconfiguring of our environments in its higher vocation.
Landscape architecture does precisely that.
It seeks to heal the wounds that history has inflicted on this little threshing floor that makes us so fierce,
as Dante calls our planet when he looks back at it from the heaven of the fixed stars.
It's going to take no doubt a lot of Thomas Waltz's working all around the globe to re-found our landscapes, our cities,
our wild and domestic spaces, our battered psyches, and much else besides.
But if Waltz and other like-minded practitioners of landscape design and restoration manage to prevail,
our planet just may, slowly, laboriously, and improbably, re-imparadize itself, both locally and globally,
thanks to their vocation of care.
Thomas Waltz, welcome to entitled opinions I'm glad you could join us today.
Thank you Robert, it's a pleasure to be here.
You're known for integrating a variety of disciplines in your work, art, architecture, agriculture, ecological, and cultural
and reclamation among others.
You've received a number of awards and honors over the years.
You were named designer innovator of the year by the Wall Street Journal magazine in 2013.
And I quote one of the most creative people in business by fast company in 2017.
In 2019, the Trust for Public Land honored you as their person of the year.
And in your acceptance speech on that occasion, you declared that landscape design is a kind of caretaking of the earth.
By that you met not only the soil, minerals, and bacteria of the earth, but also the cultural histories of the geographical sites you work with.
You spoke in fact of, I quote, a moral mandate to look carefully and deeply at the cultural record held silently in the land.
So can I ask you to start off with this, how do you understand the vocation of care that defines landscape architecture?
In your view of it.
Robert, I find that landscape architecture can be best defined through analogies of textiles.
In fact, it is an art of weaving, of embroidery, of weft and woof.
And I find that the grain of the ecological context in which we find ourselves is engaged in meshed with the cultural responses of civilization.
And I think for me, imagining the role of landscape architecture, I go back to the essay and gardens, essays on the human condition, and the chapter of the vocation of care.
And it came to mind when making the comments for the Trust for Public Land, as a way to really think about our role as landscape architects.
And two of the origin narratives that you included in that chapter brought keenly to mind how I would define our job.
And yes, I believe our job has a moral mandate, a moral mandate of stewardship of both culture and ecology.
But the two origin stories that I am referring to are one, Odysseus on Calypso's Island, offer a eternal life, offered paradise, offered a life of no labor, no worries.
And all he does is long for home, and for the Vita Activa that you outline.
And he wants to be in a world that makes a difference, and yes, that means he will die.
That means he will deal with the mortal coil and its terminus, but he will have engaged in the world around him.
And he longs for that engagement, that degree of engagement.
You also in that chapter outline the Eden origin story of Adam and Eve, who only understand that they have been given everything in paradise, the moment it is lost.
And I feel that the climate crisis we face globally has made very clear that we have lost the paradise that we were given.
And when you combine these two, the urge to Hannah Arendt's Vita Activa, the engagement of life with the cause of this realization that we have in fact abandoned the paradise that we were given in this miraculous planet.
That is a call to arms, and with it comes the moral mandate to tell the truth in the land.
And that is what I aspire to do, and that is what I hope many people will discover the profession of landscape architecture and join this exciting, challenging, difficult work to try to re-weave some of the tears in the tapestry.
Great, well then let me ask, in case some of our listeners will assume over hastily that your whole vision of that vocation is predicated upon some sort of subscribing to an origin story that comes from the scriptures or comes from mythology.
And that there was a paradise that was originally given to us by God and that therefore landscape architects are somehow doing the work of God.
I have a feeling that you don't mean that, not at all.
I think that what's given, what has been given, we don't know what does the giving.
As such, Ida Gris says, there is it gives, it's given, but there is no substantive noun behind the giving is just that it has...
It has been given that our planet was in many ways, as you say, a kind of earthly paradise with all of its perils and so forth.
So I want to give you a chance to respond to that.
I subscribe to no particular origin myth, but there are these constructs throughout literature and religion and philosophy that continue to resonate with people as almost a way to be.
As almost literary structures that we cling to.
So as a way to enter this conversation about this idea of stewardship of the miracle that surrounds us, whatever its origin may or may not be, I feel that in this moment in time, our duty is to work very hard for its care and stewardship.
So the idea of a loss of Eden can also just sort of even metaphorically for the work of restoration, how much of your profession and practice.
As a landscape designer is actually involved in retrieving, reclaiming, restoring vestiges of things that were present at a site and that maybe are still somehow hanging on.
So it is a work of going back and revivifying things in large part.
It can be.
We have on staff, restoration ecologists and conservation biologists, but we are not an ecological restoration firm.
We are a design practice of our just to situate that work in the context of Nelson-Burd-Wold's landscape architects.
About 60% of our work is public landscapes, public parks.
So many times those are very urban places.
Maybe 20% of our work is conservation agriculture, where we go into badly badly damaged large scale land holdings of productive agriculture, reorganize the agriculture to be more regenerative and sustainable practices while reweaving the broken or disrupted connectivity for wildlife, soil, biome, water quality, biodiversity within these productive landscapes.
And the remaining percentage are cultural institutions like university campuses, museums, places that engage people in the narratives of these remarkable cultural contexts.
So within that, yes, we do restoration ecology, but I don't aspire to some idyllic perfection, some original stasis.
I think celebrating the scar of damage, revealing the scars of what we have done to the land becomes a cautionary tale.
It's also the opportunity for great art to acknowledge what has happened in agricultural settings in urban settings and bring back what we can in a high functioning, bio-diverse and beautiful way, but using design as the moderator of that discourse, not pretending it's a paradise again.
Right. And that raises the question when I spoke about healing the wounds that history has inflicted on the planet.
I gather that when you go to a site, you are not trying to eface all these scars that history has inflicted.
You are actually in a certain sense respectful of them and want to create a cultural memory of what has happened there even in its destructiveness.
And in that sense, it's not just natural restoration, but it's also a kind of... I understand it as an operation of cultural memory as much as natural reconfiguration.
I appreciate that read on it, and I would say it is the weave of the two.
In fact, our design process that we apply to the full range of projects from the quarter acre pocket park to 10,000 acre reclamation of mining land.
These are highly designed landscapes, but they all grow from a specific process. And I'll just quickly outline that to illustrate this kind of unusual land stewardship that celebrates scars rather than a facing them.
We'll start with a deep look at the ecosystems that shape the piece of land.
Sometimes that's from the retreat of the last Ice Age. It's the geology that formed the drying up of the pancreiton sea, where the stone actually came from and how it was formed, how plant communities developed and thrived.
So we might be looking back tens of thousands of years in the ecological history of the site.
Parallel to that, we're looking for the cultural traces where humans were often in landscape drawn by some ecological thing, like falling water, leads to towns built along fall lines that have mills and manufacturing, mineral deposits that lead to the founding of cities that start to quarry these minerals.
And humans change or alter that ecosystem, that ecological mug that drew them, rich soils, for example, in agriculture.
That ecosystem changes those people. They will in turn change it again and they're begins this incredible dance between culture and ecology.
So this research-based design philosophy that I'm so engaged in and so riveted by is one where we try to uncover the dance steps of this back and forth.
And in that, find the spark of design idea of what this landscape will be.
Rather than having an idea of a pattern or a form that we want to impose on the land, we're listening deeply and carefully to the land to look for its cues and clues of what we will design in response to the brief.
And I think that's what I respond to most in your work as I see it, which is the bringing out of latent presences in a site rather than imposing upon it.
And so, I'm not really sure if I'm going to talk about our own design, but maybe we could talk about a few specifics and projects. I don't know, I mentioned Agacan and my intro. So I know that you've done the Agacan garden at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden. If that's a particular instance, you think that would be fruitful to begin with or maybe you have another project that you would like to start with.
And so, the work with his Highness, the Agacan, he is the Imam of the Ismaili people, the religious leader of the Ismailis, and has been a remarkable client for over a decade now with multiple projects, the Agacan garden in Alberta, the Agacan Center in London at Kings Cross, and now the Agacan Cultural Center in Houston, Texas.
The one in Alberta was an extraordinary experience because his Highness, when he engaged us, said he hoped that this landscape would answer a question.
And that is that the traditions of the Islamic Garden had outlined very specifically what the Garden of Paradise would be, and he said I'm interested in what a 21st century interpretation of that garden might become.
What would that garden look like? What would it be about? So, in order to discover and answer, his Highness said we had one year to think.
And in order to understand the deep history of the Islamic Garden, he sent me to Africa and India, unfortunately my travels, to Afghanistan were cancelled due to political situations.
But in looking at these ancient gardens, he wanted me to, with my body, read, temperature, smells, fragrance, stones, scale, and really metabolize this history in order to answer the question for the 21st century.
And one of the things that we were struck by was that the most ancient ruined gardens were actually the calibration of water in arid climates.
And so, the Garden of Paradise we proposed came from the gardens of survival in these climates, and then were stylized to be gardens of pleasure.
So, we've caught in the 21st century in Alberta, one of the great ecological challenges is the Tarsan's exploration, the oil sands exploration.
In the legal remediation of those sites, the native seeds are not available.
So, at this 12 acre garden in Edmonton, it's hosted by the University of Alberta and the Department of Life Sciences and the Environment.
It's a carefully calibrated garden with water and form, and we propose that a portion of it would be dedicated to the cultivation of these rare native seeds that could represent the sort of positive radiating influence of this garden into its region to start to rebuild those broken ecology.
So, the cultivation of the garden is engaged in the remediation of this environmental disaster that's within the region.
And so, the Garden of Paradise became re-envisioned through its roots as a garden of productive landscapes.
Still, physically, it has the geometry one it would expect.
But what's being grown there is something that gives back to the world.
That brings to mind Dante, I keep going back to that guy for some reason, but in Purgatory, when he gets to the Garden of Eden, he meets Mattilda, who's not a guardian, but she's a resident spirit there.
And she explains to him that all the plant life on earth has identical origins, because all of the seeds have been blown from the garden of Eden is at the top of the mountain of Purgatory.
And given the rotation of the heavenly spheres, you have this constant breeze. It's not meteorological, it's just cosmic rotation.
And that that breeze scatters the seeds from Eden and sends it down to the mountain and that all the plant life on earth therefore has this kind of origin.
So, it sounds to me like what you did there in the University of Alberta, Botanic Garden has some kind of reference to that re-identifying, not identifying, identifying, you know, the actual source of plant life on earth.
Anyway, enough of that.
That was a brilliant reconstruction. Thank you for explaining that so clearly.
There are some projects of yours that you can't go through all of them, but there's a very important one that you're engaged in in New Zealand, which really I think has challenged the multidisciplinary that you've earned a bear so that, you know, I spoke about art, architecture, agriculture, and all that.
And this is a very big project. It's not by any means, Maudus, can you explain what the Arongo Station Conservation Master Plan is all about?
Yeah, I can. We began that project 20 years ago. It was my first trip to New Zealand and upon arrival to this 3,000 acre sheep and cattle station, coastal property.
My immediate questions were not so much to the regional farmers, but to the Maori elders.
The Nato Manuhiiri is the tribe that occupies this eastern shore of the North Island.
And the property has a remarkable parallel cultural history in the Horoto Kunu from the Great Migration of Southeast Asia of the Maori people around 1300, landed at this site.
And it is also the first piece of land cited by Nicholas Young, who was the cabin boy for Captain James Cook on the ship, the Endeavor in 1779.
1769, excuse me.
So this one piece of land is the origin point of eastern and western civilization coming to this land mass that was the largest land mass on the planet uninhabited by mammals.
So it's kind of a remarkable origin story there.
And so meeting with the Maori elders, I realized that they outlined a vision for the living earth that was much more in alignment with my own than maybe where I had come from or the other farmers in the region.
The idea of a property line is like a line drawn in pencil that can be moved or erased, but the body of the earth is continuous.
And that's how, as landscape architects in our profession, we must see, where does the water come from? Where does it go?
What is our role of stewardship of animals, plants, water, sun, light, air as it moves through our work and on to other parts of the world.
And that idea that the entire body of earth with humans woven into it is when living system is very much how I see the world.
So it was a real honor to be accepted by this community and they were very generous in responding to the questions over time.
We would walk the site and their archeologist within the community would start to tell me how his ancestors had used the land, buried the dead, cultivated the ground, fishing, weaving, using flax to make decorations within their houses.
We learned a lot about the Maori traditions of the land and we then working with conservation biologists, wetlands specialists started to try to rebuild this infrastructure, this massive working landscape to reconstruct as works of art.
The wetlands forests bring back very endangered wildlife to the site. So that yielded some of the large construction projects that I think you've seen, like the 75 acre wetland, where we previous owners had drained all of the wetlands into the Pacific Ocean to maximize grazing land, which is a common practice in New Zealand for farmers.
And we felt rather than just dam it up and let it refill, let's excavate it to increase the hydrologic diversity, the plant diversity, by creating islands and rivers and channels.
But let's design it as a living painting that in the dry season, new landforms emerge in the wet season they disappear.
So it's a kind of throbbing, pulsing, living laboratory of birds and plants and soil biology in this massive constructed wetland.
I think it's artificiality is quite important. If something is breached or erodes, you fix it, you see it. It's quite evident. It's not pretending to be natural, but it's a very carefully calibrated system in service to the increased biodiversity.
The farmers managing the livestock say they've seen improved health in the animals, thanks to the context of biodiversity that they're seeing. We've planted 600,000 rainforest trees, species on the site. It's a temperate rainforest, naturally, this ecosystem.
It's an example of balancing the productive landscape and the ecological landscape while allowing greater visibility to the Maori cultural traces that shape the land.
So this is where analogies of weaving and embroidery and tapestry come to mind when I try to describe our role as landscape architects.
It's real pity that we can't hire you to just look at our planet as a whole and do exactly that for the whole globe.
As I said, it's going to take a lot of you guys. You don't need an army of you.
So from that kind of project, you also have others, like you've just been engaged in the Hudson Yards Plaza in New York City.
Now, there you're going into the very heart of the metropolis where nature has been put on the sidelines in many ways. Of course, nature is never outside of even the densest city on earth.
It's always the substructure of it. But that is a highly urban space that you have tried to design in such a way that the people's experience of being in the outdoor part of the Hudson Plaza will somehow reconnect them to a certain kind of natural phenomena of Manhattan Island. Is that correct?
That is our aspiration and the project is complete. It was finished about a year ago and is a very unusual project for our firm to have taken on.
I think we were inspired to tackle it because it's the largest public urban space in New York City in a century.
It is a tremendous piece of land that actually didn't really exist in the sense that it's the acreage over the train yards that hold the trains while they're being cleaned that feed Penn Station.
So it's between 30th and 33rd Street, 10th to 12th Avenue. So you're overlooking the Hudson River, but the trains are about on the western side, they're about 25 feet below the grade of the city.
So no one could walk there. It was just a giant hole in the city. So this pretty audacious idea to cover it and make an urban plaza came through previous administrations, mayors, and in the planning department of New York City, set for very rigorous guidelines for whatever developer would be selected to build it. And in those guidelines, we were also reassured that 50% of the entire development by law would be public space.
So at that point, we thought, "All right, this is really working for the people of the city."
It's, yes, the developers are adjacent, but this is a plaza for the people, surrounded by private development.
But in that strange hybrid ecosystem, we have about a seven foot thick sandwich of structure that is over the roofs of the train.
And remember, the trains had to be active during the years of construction of this massive project.
And so engineering the soils with the proper soil biology and soil structure and then using exclusively native plants was our vision.
And working very hard to look at the native plants of the Hudson Valley to bring this shaded urban, you know, it's a forest because of the massive skyscrapers around it.
So looking to forest ecosystems, ephemeral bulbs, spring bulbs, fall bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and trees to create a thriving ecosystem that was quite authentically New York in the middle of the city with this prospect over the palisades.
It was an exciting challenge and to bring people into a lush garden environment, much of it technologically had to be pavement because you're right over the roofs of the trains.
So that was an unusual project for us, but still trying to reconnect people to the authenticity of the place they inhabit, even in this very dense hard place of the western side of Manhattan.
Do you have any metrics, Thomas, about how successful your projects are? I mean, in the case of the Arongo Station in New Zealand, clearly if there's a regeneration of the fauna and livestock is healthier and the forests or more dense.
That is kind of a metric, but if you take the Hudson Yards Plaza project, can you tell, can it be successful from your point of view because you've achieved what you set out to do and yet get subjected to criticism for all these other reasons that we're not part of your original design?
There's a lot of criticism, there's always a lot of people that are making about one thing or another. But this one is a particular criticism.
I mean, the degree of excess that surrounds this public plaza. I don't know. I don't carry in my mind a sort of aspirational calculus of success or failure because I think not to squirm out of the Hudson Yards conversation too blatantly.
But most of the projects that we as a firm are engaged in right now, I won't live to see information of the vision.
The vision is one that goes for a century or two centuries or three, not to be a modest, but I guess it's the ultimate humility is that I won't live to see this work realize the design goals or potential.
So in a way, you have to take yourself as the designer out of the equation and make sure that you're giving the landscape the best tools to survive for centuries ahead.
So the scale of the metric of success or failure is beyond my lifetime, so it's not what I really worry about.
I do hope that the high quality of materials of granite and beautiful trees that we carefully tagged move to New York to acclimatize for five years before bringing them onto the site.
My hope is that those trees will live for a century because of the care that we brought to the construction of this project.
But the excess of the towers that surround it is not something I can really evaluate, no, we're taking responsibility for it.
I am interested in this idea of what an ecosystem will evolve into.
And I think that's why I'm so eager to encourage the next generation of stewards and landscape architects because just because we initiate a project doesn't mean it's ever finished.
And I'm hoping for the next generation of stewards to advance these issues.
And that's what Carl Chappec, the Czech author that book "The Gardeners Year", I know, it's dear to you as it is to me.
He says, "The gardener wants 500 years to see what the results of his or her labor into making the garden will yield to because the gardeners want to...
...a few people these days who think's in that kind of long term beyond the threshold of one's death.
And that is getting rare and rare to find people who can actually willfully throw themselves into projects whose full fruition will not come about in their own lifetimes.
It's strange perhaps, but I find real, calm and solace in that idea that what you're laboring intensely on in the foreground might have this kind of longevity and rather than feeling anxious about it, it brings a state of calm.
I can understand that because one of the things that we suffer from many without realizing is the kind of shrinkage of our temporal horizons so that the temporal depth that we used to take for granted, like we once took Eden for granted, the idea that the human present has deep roots in the past, a past that we're not even a conscious of, and is always projected into a future beyond our lives.
This is the way in which we inhabit a time as a kind of ocean of potentiality, and one reason or another that horizon shrinks to a kind of present, just punctual experience of the punctual nature of time as in this point right here and right now.
It's like I was reading Macfarlane as an essay in the New York Review of Books about the wayfinding. How do we find our way and the way that the GPS technology now has put in everyone's pocket a kind of thing where you are this pulsing blue dot on a screen and so you're walking through your environment with your head down on looking at the screen and not in the world anymore.
And it's just that you are here and everything is oriented around you whereas the way of being in the world for all of the previous generations was always being outside yourself and looking at trying to find your way in a much larger horizon that surrounds us.
This is what we call environment, that's what environment means, which surrounds us.
I just want to add one brief comment to that, even when we set our horizon beyond the power of our individual vision, when our horizon is that ocean, there's still, I think within this cultural moment, an urgency to row your robot very hard and fast right away because there is urgency in the immediate.
For these goals of the long term to come to fruition and one of the things that comes to mind is the power of erasure in the landscape that has happened through intent and will of people to erase the difficult, the painful, the dark stories of that our landscape does hold.
And I'm thinking in particular the history of the Native American people of this continent, the enslavement of Africans in this continent and how uncomfortable those stories are and how fragile and easily erased they are in the landscape.
So I feel a great sense of urgency to bring those stories back to the fore through our work. And that's part of this interrogation of the ecosystem, the ecology and culture that shape a piece of land, when you can find those stories and bring an authentic kind of mnemonic device through design to offer a place to revisit and honor those stories.
And that's how we begin to heal is when we can tell the truth in the land.
And I hate to keep having these associations that aren't directly related, but what you describe just reminds me of it evokes from me the Greek word fusis, which is usually translated as nature, but fusis is a word that really means a process of emerging into presence.
You bring something from out of concealment into a realm where it becomes present, maybe provatively present, maybe fully present.
And your practice sounds like you do that, that you're helping the, you know, what may remain latent and hidden, you know, to come fuller into a kind of view.
It's certainly a visual view, but even experiential, some other kind of sensory sort of access to it.
And the research process, I can't extoll the virtues of that enough, because that is where you find the authentic fragment, the authentic remain.
An example is Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee, where we just one piece of the park.
We did a master plan for the park and then began construction on different phases that are ongoing for the past 10 years.
But one of them was the cockro-spring, and we had heard that this early pioneer woman, the first woman to own land, free and clear, title indeed, west of the Appalachian Mountains in Colonial America, had also started the first school in Nashville.
Her brother was the founder of Nashville, and she had a farm.
And this her private farm was what was now Centennial Park.
And so we looked at records of cholera mapping, where rivers and streams were put into tunnels to prevent a cholera from spreading through the city.
And through a lot of research we found where we thought her spring might have been.
And we began excavation.
We discovered the spring that had been buried in 1870, and brought it to daylight on the site that travelers had written for generations.
I knew I was home to Nashville when I tasted the fresh cool waters of cockro-spring.
We're the hell this cockro-spring. We've got to find this thing.
We daylighted it.
And now it's a font, a very contemporary plaza with 110 gallons a minute of fresh water surging up into the park, which we now capture.
And it irrigates the park. So it's offsetting millions of gallons of drinking water that were used for irrigation.
So this cultural research led to an authentic response, a moment that you plunge your hands in that cold water in your holding hands with thousands of years of history.
But then it becomes a sustainability solution for the management of a public landscape by capturing that water.
And it was all just because we got curious of the hidden stories in land.
Amazing. It gives this concrete element to the high-degenerian, heavy portentous lexicon of the unconcealment of being.
That process of unconcealment is what you're describing in many ways.
And it doesn't end with just the unconcealment. Then there is the care for it's not perpetuity, but it's endurance in the future.
Well, that care is probably one of the most difficult challenges I face for the work of our practice.
And what is important is people not really understanding the degree of engagement of maintaining and sustaining these landscapes requires.
We are so separated from our understanding of how nature actually works.
That over and over we see people build something. And everyone's very happy at the opening and you go back a year or two later and it's appalling, the lack of care and maintenance.
And with any of our public parks, you know, plea to that, the conservancies, the parks department, as they raise funds to build these things set aside 20% for maintenance and development.
Because without this ongoing care and stewardship, it will fall apart because it comes to invasive plant pressures or abuse.
And so, you know, it's not just caring for the world, it's caring to maintain the world.
But yeah, you know, that can't stress how much I agree and sympathize with that because here we are in Silicon Valley and you're not a native Silicon Valley, you're just here visiting and we're recording the show.
But Silicon Valley has all of its premiums go to innovation. And there is no sense of the value of maintenance and how much maintenance is so much more fundamental than innovation.
And I experience this even in the university where I belong to a sector of the humanities.
And then there are the sciences and a lot of things take place in a university of extenfered in the sexy thing I have to do with innovation, biotechnology and medical things.
Where are the humanities? It's mostly about maintenance, about teaching students what, you know, your four fathers knew before and this sort of maintaining a certain level of knowledge about things.
And yet, when everything now is geared towards the model of innovation and experimentation and I'm on guard, then I think what you described by going to a place two years later and it's all in ruins.
Because no one is doing that unsexy work of maintaining.
I have a funny example where I would offer back to these concerns about poor maintenance is the power of design and design ideas.
And so this process that I hope heals recognizably authentic landscapes. I hope it's our goal.
Sometimes that narrative becomes the guardian of its future. And I have a minor example, but it's flashed to mine since we'd already talked about a wrong go station.
There's a garden that we designed there that we call the endeavor garden.
Through our research process, it found that the botanist onboard Joseph Banks, who's the botanist with Captain Cook.
He had collected, I believe it was between 70 and 80 specimens on this first landing.
So in 1769, he collected 70 or 80 specimens, dried them. They went to the Urbarium in London, the National Agricultural Society.
We got them list from the National Agricultural Society and we made a perennial garden, a contemporary design of a perennial garden, big drifts, of the plants that have been collected, gone to London, and we bring those back.
As a garden, and we just called it the endeavor garden. So it's not the ornament of the outdoors. In fact, quite the opposite. It's the telling of a story through our art and our craft of the cortical.
There was a little pipeline that needed to go in. It was to connect a septic system, very small ditch that needed to cross.
And the farm manager to his great credit said, "Oh no, you can't go through that because that's the endeavor garden."
You have to go around through the pasture. So it was a little bit longer of a pipeline. It wouldn't have really mattered that much, but I appreciated that the idea of a design was strong enough to prevent the destruction, even in a small way of this garden.
All this leads me to a proposition that no restoration without maintenance.
Correct. Don't bother. Because you can restore and then it has... and if it's not maintained, it's not going to go anywhere.
Well, Thomas, one last project I'd like to talk with you about briefly coming to the end of the show is a memorial park in Houston, Texas, which I've written about actually for the Harvard design magazine, as you know.
Because it was really something that impressed me greatly where you have a park in the center of Houston, a huge park.
And it's called the Memorial Park, and most people don't know really anything about why... what is memorializing what the history, what the cultural memory associated with it is.
And maybe you could share with our listeners what you're envisioning to do there that will bring out of its concealment the memorial history of this site.
Well, Robert, I'm glad you asked about Memorial Park because in a way it can summarize the arc of our practice and the arc of this conversation in the sense that I feel like we've hit a stride.
Where this process of bringing visibility to the deep history of the site was very useful in building support of the public community.
We met with 3,000, over 3,000 Houstonians to get their feedback and ideas about this park, which is 1600 acres in the middle of Houston, right between downtown and uptown Houston.
And it was historically Native American hunting grounds through doing deep soil tests.
We found margins of ash where we could tell that the Quarankua Native peoples had been burning this for bison.
It's on the Buffalo Bayou River.
So we start with the Native American history.
Then the early settlers history, it was a timber operation.
It was the brick kilns.
It was a grazing operation, fruit tree production. Later it was acquired to be a training camp for soldiers going to war in Europe in World War I.
And probably 1,500 acres of training camp with the cavalry.
So you have this ephemeral city of 30,000 soldiers being trained.
At the end of World War I, the Hogg family who had discovered oil, it's been built up, very wealthy family.
Acquired the land and did a sail to the city over a long period of time so the city could create this park.
And it was the Hogg family's intention that it be called Memorial Park to remember the sacrifice of these.
Soldiers, well, fast forward to the droughts of a few years ago, Houston received essentially no rain for 4 or 5 years.
And about 80% of this forested park that had never really received or implemented a master plan.
It just had grown up as a forest dramatically populated by invasive exotic species.
Suffered tremendously. 80% of the forest cannot be died in those four years.
So that was when there was a call for landscape architects to interview.
And we were very fortunate to be selected. And we began this process that I've described of looking at what were the authentic, resilient, ancient ecosystems of Gulf Coast Texas that survived for thousands of years before we were here.
And that's wet prairie, dry prairie, mixed hardwood forest and pine forest.
And so we said rather than the ideal sort of English park, let's do an authentic Texan ecology as we rebuild.
Because drought will come again to Houston and floods as we've already seen will come again to Houston.
So we need to invest in the most resilient and authentic ecosystems while telling the story of the soldiers of the wars.
So we've been working on that part for about eight years. We're very fortunate that I think some of the power of these design ideas and stories attracted funding from the private sector.
And the Memorial Park Conservancy does an extraordinary job of maintenance. They are building in the maintenance budget, the maintenance staff.
We've completed a year ago during COVID it quietly opened. They just sort of took down the construction barriers.
But people immediately knew how to use it. It's called the Eastern Glade. And it has the latent sense of a drill ground.
And it honors the original axial entry to Camp Logan, the training camp.
But it offers a massive elliptical loan for passive recreation, preserving moths of post oak and creating a kind of savanna and then bore walks through wetlands.
So it's a very big formal gesture, yet you're immersed in the natural ecologies of the park.
And the current construction project is about 70 acres of a land bridge that crosses six lanes of a highway.
So again, the scar that was just for your listeners, a six lane highway was slashed through the park dividing the northern and southern halves in the 50s or 60s.
And this idea of restitching the park together using a massive land bridge. So four tunnels span the road because the high water table we couldn't excavate down.
So the road remains at surface and we did a high performance, precast concrete tunnel shells and then 60 or 70 acres of earth.
Ramps slowly up, over and back down and using dry and wet prairie as the ecosystem to sustain.
So hundreds of trees being planted. And in my mind, the scar is there.
You see the highway, but you've made this giant artful gesture with huge elliptical entry portals into the tunnel that are very careful that the geometries are very carefully.
Calibrates, it's not trying to look natural. It's a massive work of art.
But what it represents is the triumph of the landscape over the gray infrastructure of the city and allows both to survive.
A little bit like Hudson Yards, the trains continue to function and I have a public plaza above. So I'm really interested moving forward in these hybrid ecosystems where we don't say, well that's lost.
But what can we invent as a new hybrid?
Can you say something about the planting of the lowly pines?
Sure. That's really explicitly that it's a radical idea of planting and then cutting down.
Yes, I think it is a radical idea. We developed it in the master plan and we're just about to begin design development on that part of the park.
But what you're referring to is an area where working with local archaeologists, they brought to our attention the remains of some very modest structures from the Camp Logan era.
They're the foundations of latrine buildings and shower buildings for the soldiers.
Because remember everything else was ephemeral. It was a canvas city of tens of thousands of people.
So these are authentic fragments no matter how modest.
And that is, as I said before that moment that you hold hands with history when you can touch the authentic.
I think those are very important devices in the landscape.
So the idea that our team proposed was to plant 100 acres of loblolly pines, 15 feet on center in both directions,
fairly standard distance for Texas forestry.
Loblolly pines are a major staple of the forestry industry.
Every day we use paper or cardboard. We don't even think about it. So bringing that to one's conscience is, I think, a good stuff.
But also the formation of these forests. They look like long cathedrals or if you will, soldiers marching in formation.
And it was looking at some black and white photographs of the drill yard with all these soldiers that we thought, gosh, this really resembles a plantation of trees.
Maybe that is an appropriate memorial.
And it makes for these really spectacular long gallery spaces.
But the sort of crux of the memorial concept is a brutal one.
That I think I'm often called out about. But here's the idea that once we plant, which should be in the next two years, 25 years is the average age of maturity for loblolly pine in Gulf Coast timber industry.
25 years turns out to be the average age of the soldier killed in the soldiers killed in World War I.
It's an incredibly young average age for death from that war.
Not as much as Vietnam, I think it was 1919.
Yeah, but anyway, 25 is young.
So 25 being the age of maturity of the trees and the average age of the soldiers felt like a kind of touchstone for us.
And so this idea of on Armistice Day in November that one regiment, a thousand loblolly pines would be respectfully and ceremonially cut down, removed from the forest, treated, killed dried, and then go in service to projects like habitat for humanity, public housing, that those trees would be sacrificed in service to public need, public safety, public well-being.
And then on Memorial Day, a thousand Houstonians would come and replant that grove the following year.
And that maybe every five years one regiment would be felt.
If you see this, you will never forget it. It will be gutting and horrific and you might understand the sense and scale of loss of life.
And also the idea of sacrifice.
So this is a living landscape memorial, it would go on in perpetuity. It's constantly being cut and replanted just as we are.
Well, Thomas, you know, radio is a special medium because you're really dealing with the audio and it's often very difficult to deal with things that are having to do with art and visuals where you can't show slides and things of that sort.
I think you've done a terrific job of allowing us all to imagine and see with our inner eye what kind of extraordinary work you've been involved with and just how multidimensional and multidisciplinary it is.
So I want to thank you again for coming on in title opinions. I hope we can get you back in the future for a follow-up discussion.
Thank you Robert, that would be a pleasure.
So I'm Robert Harrison for in title opinions. We've been speaking with Thomas Wolds of the principal owner of the firm Nelson Bird,
Boles Landscape Architecture. Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.