Thomas Woltz: Wild By Design

Michael JN Bowles; Nelson Byrd Woltx; Garden Park Community Farm (Princeton Architectural Press)
by Logan Ward - Virginia - June/July 2013

Unlike many landscape architects, Thomas Woltz isn’t interested in imposing his will on nature. He’d rather let nature set the terms. In the process he’s turning heads and proving that ecology can be beautiful

>See photos from this story

Thomas Woltz is in a hurry. On a blustery afternoon beneath a sky of bruised clouds, the landscape architect bounds up a hill on a 133-acre estate west of Charlottesville, Virginia. His ankle-high Chelsea boots (dinner-party fashionable, red-dirt practical) churn through brittle pasture grass toward a “pinetum”—an arboretum of pines, Woltz explains as I stagger-step to keep up—that he and his firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, designed for the owner. This collection features conifers from around the world, but only those that grow at the 38th parallel, the local latitude.

At the top, we pause for two beats to admire atlas cedar native to Algeria and Japanese black pine. We pivot west and, for two beats more, absorb the pastoral view below: white Georgian Revival manor house winking from a grove of trees, barn, rolling meadows ringed by woodlands, and, in the distance, the saw-toothed silhouette of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We walk over to a circular metal map of the horizon perched on a post, like something you’d see at a national park. I crouch, sight across a steel nib poking up from the center, and identify one of the peaks by aligning it with a scale drawing etched on the map. Woltz, who devised the system, one of many ways he decodes nature, looks on admiringly. He’s bundled in a three-buttoned topcoat whose gray herringbone perfectly complements not only his purple tie but also the dash of gray at his temples. His entire ensemble, in fact, appears tailor-made for the overcast day, which heightens the impression that everything I’m seeing is part of Woltz’s master plan. Before I know it, he’s off again, crunching through the meadow grass to show me something else.

Like other landscape architects, Woltz rearranges nature to reflect the hand of man. Unlike most, he redesigns farms—working farms—though his chief aim isn’t to pretty them up. Looks matter, but in his broader, more scientific view of aesthetics, beauty springs from the ecological health of the land. “This idea of decorating the outdoors is not what we do,” he explains.

Landscape architecture has its share of self-important designers who impose their singular vision on nature—who hate being considered glorified gardeners, wear their indifference to horticulture like a badge of honor, and don’t much care what plant you use as long as it can be sheared into a hedge or arranged in a geometric grid. Woltz isn’t one of those. At forty-five, with not quite two decades of client experience under his belt, he has emerged as a leader among a new breed of landscape architects who put as much stock in science as in art. He and his mentor and business partner, Warren Byrd, both Southerners raised to revere nature, exude passion not only for plants but also for the complex biological systems in which they thrive. “We design for ecological excellence,” Woltz says.

He has brought me here, to Seven Ponds Farm, to show me the birthplace, some fifteen years ago, of the Conservation Agriculture Studio, his name for the firm’s multifaceted program for designing “working land.” The ConAg approach differs from region to region, but generally, Woltz seeks to make farmland healthier and more productive and, as a result, more beautiful. As designer, he collaborates with three key partners: landowner, farmer, and a team of scientists, including conservation biologists, soil scientists, ornithologists, and others. Together, they do things like remediate silt-choked streams by building check dams and fencing out cattle; improve pasture through rotational grazing; and boost native wildlife by killing invasive trees and shrubs. Woltz is a big proponent of warm-season grass meadows, which don’t require fertilizers or machine mowing and harbor quail and buzz with diverse populations of pollinators. In terms of aesthetics, whether bursting with wildflowers or waxing brittle golden in winter, meadows look great in all seasons.

Woltz and his colleagues at Nelson Byrd Woltz apply the same principle to non-ag projects, such as city parks, corporate campuses, and memorials. The firm has exploded in growth, from two landscape architects in 1985 to thirty-five working out of offices in Charlottesville, New York, and, as of last fall, San Francisco. They’ve worked in twenty-five U.S. states and nine foreign countries, including New Zealand and China. In 2012, Woltz and team became lead landscape architects for one of the largest mixed-use projects to surface in urban America in decades, the redevelopment of midtown Manhattan’s twenty-six-acre Hudson Yards.

Exciting as that commission is, in terms of impact, Woltz’s farm work may be more significant—and ambitious. The roughly 15,000 acres his ConAg Studio has touched so far are impressive from a landscape architecture standpoint but a drop in the bucket when measured against the 2.5 billion acres of U.S. farmland, much of it drenched in chemicals and worked by diesel-powered machines. Woltz knows that changing conventional wisdom about landscape architecture and farming is a tall order. Which may be why he’s in such a hurry.

Woltz and Byrd each witnessed the forests, farms, and streams of their childhood bulldozed by developers, a fact I learn during my visit to the firm’s Charlottesville offices, located in a rambling nineteenth-century brick house in the historic courthouse district. I find Byrd at the top of several creaky flights of stairs in a garret office known as the Byrd’s Nest. Now sixty years old and easing into retirement after officially turning over the reins to Woltz in 2011, he wears a wrinkled cotton shirt, untucked. He swivels away from his computer screen to help me connect the dots between past and present.

Byrd grew up in northern Virginia, where creek-bed explorations shaped him into an amateur naturalist. But after the construction of Interstate 66 and the Washington Metro’s western commuter line, one Fairfax County farm after another gave way to subdivisions as the county’s population shot from 100,000 to 1.2 million.“Pastures were being torn up, and streams were being buried,” he says. In choosing the field of landscape architecture, he asked himself, “Can I repair what was lost during my childhood, particularly the creeks and streams?”

Byrd joined the University of Virginia faculty in 1979 and opened his ecology-minded practice a few years later with his wife, landscape architect Susan Nelson. As an educator, Byrd says, “one of the critical things I did was to get students into the field. I wanted to teach why a plant grows where it grows, what plants associate with it. That’s how you learn, by observing nature, not just abstractly studying it out of a book.” One of those students was Thomas Woltz. 

Woltz knew from a young age that he would become an architect. But it wasn’t until years later that he added “landscape” to the job description. The youngest of five children, he was born in 1967 and raised on a cattle and crop farm in Mount Airy, North Carolina, at the foot of the Blue Ridge, where his father owned Quality Mills, a maker of upscale knitwear. Though financially comfortable, the family, according to Woltz, worked hard to grow their own food, sprouting flats of seeds in the dining room each spring, cultivating terraced garden beds out back, and sweating over steaming canning pots in August.

Like Byrd, the young Woltz felt the loss of rural land like a punch in the gut. Suburban sprawl wasn’t a threat in sleepy Mount Airy, but Woltz learned early on that farmland is always at risk. During visits to his mother’s family in Haywood County, near Asheville, they passed Springdale Country Club, whose fairways and greens had been carved out of a farm that once belonged to his mother’s family. Part of a colonial land grant, the land had been passed down for two hundred years, until the Great Depression, when Thomas’s grandfather sold it to avoid financial calamity. During the 1970s, when Thomas was still a boy, his father’s family developed its Mount Airy farm into the Cross Creek Country Club. 

After high school, Woltz studied architecture at UVA, still dreaming of designing buildings. After graduating, he marched on, moving to Italy to run UVA’s summer program for architecture students. He stayed for five years, practicing with a Venetian architecture firm during the off-season. Ironically, it was in Venice, a flooded city essentially devoid of plants, that the idea of designing landscapes first occurred to him. 

“Growing up on a cattle farm, I thought landscape meant pastures, meadows, and forests,” Woltz says. “In Venice, there’s only water and pavement, but it’s all so beautifully designed that, in terms of the spatial constructs, you feel the satisfaction you get from living landscapes.” He realized that his true calling was designing at the intersection of man and nature—of culture and agriculture.