21 Questions With Landscape Architect Signe Nielsen

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: U Shin Kim

New York’s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Signe Nielsen is a landscape architect who has practiced in New York for over 40 years. Her firm, MNLA, designed Hudson River Park; Little Island, in collaboration with Heatherwick Studio; and the Governor Island master plan, in collaboration with West 8. Nielsen is the president of the city’s Public Design Commission.

Name: Signe Nielsen
Age: 71
Neighborhood: Tribeca
Occupation: Landscape architect

What’s hanging above your couch?
It’s a south-facing window covered in plants. Because I can control my own heat, I have Mediterranean plants growing: bougainvillea, jasmine, citrus, an olive tree, and an epiphyllum which produces a giant flower that only blooms at night and lasts for a day. I lived in Greece for a while and I’ve also spent a lot of time in that area of the world. It just struck me as the kind of plants that like it cold at night and warmer during the day so, why not?

What’s 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 these jobs anymore. I believe the term was a candy striper. I mostly made beds, cleaned bed pans, and picked up food. What else is a 15-year-old gonna do?

What color are you always drawn to? 
Purple. It’s the only color of flowers that bloom in our climate from March to November. I teach a course in planting design at Pratt Institute and when we get to the discussion of color, I talk about monochromatic and polychromatic and complimentary colors. And I said, let’s take the color purple as an example. Based on my experience with clients, many people have a different view of what the color purple is. Some tend toward the pink, even the fuschia, to periwinkle. I like the entire spectrum.

What art or artifact are you most surprised you own?
I have a piece by the British artists LoveJordan called Yellow Fever. It’s large — maybe two by three feet — and full of small one-and-a-half-inch tall bottles filled with yellow powders that have crazy, wacky names like “Cat Piss,” “Banana Daiquiri,” and “Yellow Submarine.” I don’t normally own things that are that orderly and all of the bottles are perfectly lined up. What attracted me to this was the incredible imagination about the color yellow.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?
Michael Bloomberg. He appointed me to the Public Design Commission and as a result I got to know him reasonably well in his administration. I have great respect for his leadership, his thinking about climate change is incredible, and I find him to be a very enjoyable person to talk to.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?
I helped build a model for a presentation. Computer programs and three dimensional computer programs have displaced physical models, and while architects build models all the time, landscape architects are less inclined to because sites are huge and you can’t convey the sense of scale then. But in this case it was a job interview and we felt that we needed to do something that would distinguish ourselves. We built a model of the entrance to the site.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?
I collect small bud vases. I usually get one in every country I go to since it’s something that displays a craft. I’ve got glass, stone, ceramic — every culture has a different kind of ceramic, so there’s Oaxacan pottery, Japanese vases with beautiful glazes, and many more. I have them displayed on a shelf in my home office. Whenever I go to the farmers’ market and pick up flowers, I look for the vase that will complement them.

What New York City museum do you always go back to?
I would have to say the Met. And why? Because I just like to get lost. I’ll go to the Greek collection, then I find myself in some medieval room, then I walk through Chinese pottery. It’s not as crowded as many museums are and if it is crowded, you can always go somewhere where it’s not crowded.

What do you always have next to your computer? 
A bottle of water, a stand for my laptop, drawings by my grandkids, not a hell of a lot!

Where is the best view of the city?
I’m going to be a little personal and say that for me, the best view is from the high point of Little Island. It’s important that people remember that we’re on an island and that we are surrounded by water. From that vantage point, you can see all of lower Manhattan, the shoreline of the West Side, the Statue of Liberty, New Jersey, and up the Hudson River. It’s taken us years and decades to reclaim our waterfront and I think we should recognize that.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
We’re about to find on our streets in New York very large structures for the 5G network. The network needs to see from tower to tower so they’re going on top of light poles. I think it’s going to be about the ugliest thing in our streetscape that you can possibly imagine. Even though they’re not on the street yet, they will be soon and it’s going to be a horrible imposition. They’re about six feet tall and 30 inches in diameter, completely out of proportion to the light pole itself. We have many different kinds of light poles in the city and some are benign, some are somewhat attractive, and some are ugly. But to see this object on top of a light pole that’s already 30 feet in the air? It’s kind of a clunky, top-heavy object.

What’s one thing you would change about your field? 

I wish there were more opportunities for young people entering landscape architecture to have more exposure to what it is that we’re designing. I would be discouraged by the fact that you’re mostly behind a computer and your ability to be outside in nature is pretty constrained.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
I’ve lived in the same building in Tribeca for 45 years and I would definitely stay here. I live in a rent controlled building and it’s a ridiculous amount of space. It’s a historic district. The afternoon sunlight is very beautiful. I know my neighbors. I feel comfortable. There aren’t many tourists. I like how Tribeca has evolved. When I moved in, it was all warehouses and trucks. There was no dry cleaner, no shoe repair, no schools. As I grew up, so to speak, the neighborhood started to grow up. There are art galleries, clothing designers, and practical things like a dry cleaner, liquor store, and shoe repair.

What would you hoard, if it stopped being produced?
I would hoard paper. I write a lot and draw a lot. But with that, I’d also have to hoard colored pencils.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut? 
I look at pictures. When I’m starting a new project, I might just Google Image search for different places I know and it sort of leads me. I also like the thesaurus. I never use the same word twice in a sentence or certainly not in a paragraph, so I’m always looking for another word to say the same thing or to say something more precisely. The thesaurus stimulates me when I write and images stimulate me when I draw.

Where was your first NYC apartment and how much was the rent? 
I lived on West 16th Street between Seventh and Eighth. It was a New-Law Tenement walkup and the rent was about $250.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I walk along the Hudson River. Okay, I designed most of it and I just love to see people use the spaces. I have a whole collection of pictures of people using spaces that I designed in ways that I never imagined. It’s incredibly inspiring. There’s an undulating section of the boardwalk in the Tribeca area of the park and I turned around a curve and saw a whole wedding party. The bridesmaids were wearing peach and the bride was obviously in white and I just lost myself.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten? 
Nobody ever gave me bad advice, honestly. I had a phenomenal mentor, Nicholas Quenell, 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 on it, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a young child and thought I’ll just do this for a couple of years and then I’ll go back and work for somebody else. And you know, here I am, 40-something years later.

What have you given away to 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 it more than I do. I’ve loaned 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’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order?
My favorite restaurant is Takahachi, in my neighborhood. I go there like twice a week and my favorite order is the box-pressed salmon.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?
I’ve essentially devoted my life and my firm to public service, so something about that — making people happier when they’re outside.