To celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8), we thought it would be great to talk to Signe Nielsen, Principal at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. Mathews Nielsen has several projects currently showing as part of the Built By Women exhibition in New York. Signe Nielsen is a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and has led more than 400 projects, nationally and globally. But her sense of design’s public mission extends far beyond these interventions. In addition to her hands-on project leadership, she is the co-author of several books on sustainable and green design for the NYC Department of Design and Construction. Signe has taught at Pratt Institute for more than two decades and has also lectured and juried competitions at institutions around the world, including Harvard University and the Ecole Normale Superiure in Paris.
What made you want to become a landscape architect?
I was introduced to the field after undergraduate school. I had intended to become an environmental lawyer but realized shortly before graduation that being a legal-eagle would not fully capture my more artistic inclinations. Clueless as to my next step, I joined a construction crew in Colorado comprised of architecture graduates who had been given a generous grant to build their thesis project. After eight months of what I would now call “design-build,” I came to realize how much I enjoyed the tangible quality of creative thinking. With that budding interest combined with the physical beauty of the Rocky Mountains, I latched on to the idea of landscape architecture. Upon my return to New York City, I enrolled at City College and earned my degree.
How would you describe your approach as a landscape architect?
We approach any new project with eyes wide open. Each site, client, community, context and its cultural legacy is unique, and we use this as a starting point for visioning, programming and thinking about how our design strategy can push the envelope. We do not come with a preconceived notion or formal response. This often leads us in directions we may not have even known during initial communications about the site. When we think about pushing the envelope, again, that evolves as the project evolves and we find out more about the site’s potential and client’s appetite for innovation.
Where do you start with a new project?
Following on from the prior answer, we undertake a rigorous research and exploration phase with regard to the site itself, its history and potential or actual significance within its community and environmental context. We also research the jurisdictional issues, associated approvals and review process in order to understand the parameters in which the design will be viewed. We also do a quick budget check to be sure we are starting out with the right set of assumptions to ensure that we don’t have to do wholesale backtracking which would inevitably lead to disappointment on the part of the client or the public. Lastly, we look at how we can use design as a way to “heal” a site if it has been degraded or otherwise not be living up to its environmentally performative capabilities.
Thank you to Signe for taking the time to answer some questions from WLA and remember the Built by Women Exhibition is open until April 11 at the Center for Architecture in New York.
Photographer | Elizabeth Felicella
Image Credit | Mathews Nielsen