21 questions for landscape architect Signe Nielsen
Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: U Shin Kim
New YorkThe “21 questions” of are back with an eye on New York creatives. Signe Nielsen is a landscape architect who has been practicing in New York for over 40 years. His company, MNLAdesigned Hudson River Park; Small island, in collaboration with Heatherwick Studio; and the Governor’s Island Master Planin conjunction with West 8. Nielsen is the President of the City of Public Design Commission.
Last name: Nielsen sign
Occupation: Landscape architect
What’s hanging above your couch?
It is a south-facing window covered with plants. Because I can control my own heat, I grow Mediterranean plants: a bougainvillea, jasmine, citrus, olive tree, and an epiphyllum that produces a giant flower that blooms only at night and lasts a day. I lived in Greece for a while and spent a lot of time in that part of the world as well. It just struck me as the kind of plants that like the cold at night and the heat during the day, so why not?
What was the first job you had in New York?
I was a nurse’s aide at Lenox Hill Hospital when I was in high school. I don’t believe hospitals have those jobs anymore. I believe the term was candy striper. I mostly made beds, cleaned bedpans, and picked up food. What else is a 15 year old going to do?
What color are you always drawn to?
Purple. It is the only flower color that blooms in our climate from March to November. I teach a plantation design course at the Pratt Institute and when we come to the discussion of color, I’m talking about monochromatic and polychromatic and complementary colors. And I said, let’s take the color purple as an example. From my experience with clients, many people have a different view of what the color purple is. Some tend towards pink, even fuschia, up to periwinkle. I love the whole spectrum.
What art or artifact are you most surprised to own?
I have a piece by the british artists LoveJordan called yellow fever. It’s tall – maybe two by three feet – and full of little inch-and-a-half-tall bottles filled with yellow powders that have crazy, goofy names like “Cat Piss”, “Banana Daiquiri” and “Yellow Submarine”. “Normally I don’t have such neat things and all the bottles are lined up perfectly. What attracted me was the incredible imagination of the color yellow.
Which New Yorker would you like to date?
Michael Bloomberg. He appointed me to the Public Designs Commission and as a result I got to know him reasonably well in his administration. I have a lot of respect for his leadership, his thinking on climate change is incredible and I find him a very pleasant person to talk to.
What’s the last thing you did with your hands?
I helped build a model for a presentation. Computer programs and three-dimensional computer programs have replaced physical models, and while architects build models all the time, landscape architects are less inclined to do so because sites are huge and you can’t convey meaning. scale at that time. But in this case, it was a job interview and we felt we had to do something that would set us apart. We have built a model of the entrance to the site.
Is there something you have multiple versions of?
I collect small bud vases. I usually have one in every country I go to because it’s something that displays a trade. I have glass, stone, ceramics – each culture has a different type of ceramics, so there is pottery from Oaxaca, Japanese vases with beautiful glazes and many more. I displayed them on a shelf in my home office. Every time I go to the farmers market and pick flowers, I look for the vase that will complement them.
Which museum in New York do you always go to?
I should say the Met. And why? Because I just like getting lost. I’ll go to the Greek collection, then I’ll end up in a medieval room, then I’ll wander through the Chinese pottery. It’s not as crowded as many museums and if it gets busy you can always go somewhere that isn’t crowded.
What do you always have next to your computer?
A bottle of water, a stand for my laptop, drawings from my grandchildren, not much!
Where is the best view in town?
I’m going to be a little personal and say that for me the best view is from the highest point on Little Island. It is important for people to remember that we are on an island and that we are surrounded by water. From this vantage point, you can see all of lower Manhattan, the West Side coastline, the Statue of Liberty, New Jersey, and the Hudson River. It took us years and decades to reclaim our waterfront and I think we should recognize that.
What building or object do you want to redraw each time you see it?
We’re about to find our streets in New York very large structures for the 5G network. The network has to see from tower to tower, so they go above the streetlights. I think this is going to be the ugliest thing in our streetscape that you can imagine. Even if they are not on the streets yet, they will be soon and it will be a horrible imposition. They are about six feet tall and 30 inches in diameter, completely out of proportion to the lamp post itself. We have many types of street lights in the city and some are benign, some are somewhat attractive and some are ugly. But seeing this object atop a lamppost that’s already 30 feet in the air? It is a kind of clumsy and very heavy object.
What is one thing you would change in your field?
I wish there were more opportunities for young people entering landscape architecture to have more exposure to what we are designing. I would be put off by the fact that you are mostly behind a computer and your ability to be outside in nature is quite limited.
If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?
I have lived in the same building in Tribeca for 45 years and would definitely stay here again. I live in a rent-controlled building and that’s a ridiculous amount of space. It is a historic district. The afternoon sun is very beautiful. I know my neighbors. I’m feeling good. There are not many tourists. I like the way Tribeca has evolved. When I moved in, there were only warehouses and trucks. There was no laundry, no shoe repair, no schools. As I grew up, so to speak, the neighborhood started to grow. There are art galleries, clothing designers, and conveniences like a dry cleaner, liquor store, and shoe repair shop.
What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?
I would accumulate paper. I write a lot and I draw a lot. But along with that, I should also hoard crayons.
What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I look at pictures. When I start a new project, I can just google image search different places I know and it sort of takes me there. I also like the thesaurus. I never use the same word twice in a sentence or certainly not in a paragraph, so I always look for another word to say the same thing or to say something more specific. The thesaurus stimulates me when I write and the images stimulate me when I draw.
Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?
I lived on West 16th Street between Seventh and Eighth. It was a new law building walkup and the rent was around $250.
Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I walk along the Hudson River. Ok, I designed most of it and I love seeing people use the spaces. I have a whole collection of photos of people using spaces I’ve designed in ways I never imagined. It’s incredibly inspiring. There is a wavy section of the boardwalk in the Tribeca area of the park and I turned a curve and saw a whole wedding party. The bridesmaids were wearing peach and the bride was obviously in white and I just got lost.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
Nobody ever gave me bad advice, honestly. I had a phenomenal mentor, Nicolas Quenel, and he always gave me incredible advice. The only bad advice I ever received was from myself when I decided to start my own business. When I think back, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a young child and thought I would do this for a few years and then go back to working for someone else. And you know, here I am, 40 years later.
What have you given someone that you wish you could get back?
I can’t think of anything, really. When I give things away, it’s usually because someone needs them more than me. I lent my daughter some paintings that are probably on “long term loan” but if I wanted them back, I could always ask her for them.
What is your favorite restaurant in NYC and do you order regularly?
My favorite restaurant is Takahachi, In my neighbourhood. I go there about twice a week and my favorite order is the canned pressed salmon.
What descriptive phrase do you want on your obituary?
I’ve basically dedicated my life and my business to public service, so something about that – making people happier when they’re outdoors.