Laura Santín, an Agricultural Engineer and Landscape Architect, and William Roberts, Registered Landscape Architect and Urban Designer, are co-founders and co-directors of nomad.studio in New York City. They possess an uncommon breadth and depth of skills that they apply to every project. Each commission balances both the macro-scale — the holistic vision and approach to the project, while at the same time maintaining focus of the micro — materiality, ornamentation, and pattern as expressed through custom furniture, lighting, paving, and other details that provide each project its own unique identity. Their commitment extends beyond the design to encompass the people who will interact with the project and the context in which it will be implemented. Each project demands a unique approach and is considered from a multi-faceted perspective, balancing social and environmental parameters, aesthetics, innovation and economic realities. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Laura and William’s unique approach and philosophy on design.
On becoming a landscape architect
William: I’m originally from Louisiana. As a child, I spent a lot of time interacting with the vast water landscapes found throughout South East Louisiana. I also grew up maintaining a fairly large piece of family owned property in Baton Rouge. I guess those two factors were influential for me to join the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, which has strong landscape architecture curriculum. I took a few introductory courses and immediately fell in love with the profession.
Laura: I’m from Spain and landscape architecture was not a recognized curriculum when I finished my main studies in 2000 and now, in 2015 it is still not recognized, which is a problem when you navigate in that direction, because it is an amazing profession. I graduated as an agricultural engineer and afterwards I pursued a Master’s in landscape architecture. In that manner I am recognized as a landscape architect within the European Affiliation of Landscape Architecture, the Spanish Chapter.
On discovering their voices as landscape architects
William: My influences are not solely linked to the academic or professional realm; I have an urge to explore, especially cultures that differ from the United States. During college I traveled a fair amount and still make it priority today. I have a curiosity for understanding how different cultures interact and appropriate public space. From the experiences and knowledge that I gained while traveling, I started to create a foundation for how I would like to approach the profession.
Laura: It has been thorough the connection with the landscape and that has happened to me through three different experiences: intuitive understanding of ecosystems while working in residential gardens, traveling internationally, and hiking in the mountains. From there I developed an ethos and a language.
On starting Nomad
William: There are two or three different meanings behind the name nomad. We both have a very nomadic spirit, a necessity to travel. We also were interested in mirroring the small footprint of a nomadic life-style, so we set up the office with that idea in mind, which gives us the flexibility to move around and understand each landscape. Also, nomadic people are more in tuned with the rhythms of nature, they understand how the systems work and they work with them.
Laura: We started talking about creating the firm while we were traveling from Moscow to Saigon mainly by train. One of the countries that impacted us the most was Mongolia and its extremely tough nomadic people. Nomad Studio started there with this philosophy of frugality, flexibility, and freedom to do what you believe you have to do. The business is structured to nurture creativity, communication, and flexibility. We are the head of a network of professionals, which expands and contracts as much as needed to handle both large and small projects with love and dedication.
On the global network
William: We are constantly expanding the professional network. People typically contact us and we begin a dialogue with them to understand how the collaboration could function. It is mainly about developing trust and understanding between each other. One of the most important aspects about this working system is that it allows people to have a life as they envision it; for instance, they set their own schedule and work space. It allows them to take their own responsibility and risk, which is reflected in the quality of work.
Laura: It is very important for us to work with entrepreneurial people; we do not feel comfortable around an employee-mentality. We want people that take care and ownership of what they are doing. We want people that understand risk and do not panic when they are outside of their comfort zones.
On specific principles they adhere to
Laura: One of our main threads is that we want to spread environmental awareness through connection. We work to foster an emotional connection with the landscape that helps people to understand a larger picture. The more people realizing where we are, who we are, and what do we represent in the big scheme, the better.
William: It is also important to us to be able to inspire and provoke people.
On the Green Varnish project
William: The Green Varnish, which was on show at the Contemporary Art Museum of Saint Louis this last summer, personifies one of the ongoing conversations within the studio. There are many inconvenient truths that it seems we cannot face as a society. With Green Varnish, we made a reflection about the necessity of covering inopportune facts with politeness or “beautifying”. In this specific case, on how our lifestyle is altering natural systems. We live in denial within vanishing landscapes, refusing to accept reality. Aligned with these thoughts, we developed a site-specific installation that completely modified and altered the space of the museum’s courtyard. A green fabric composed of nearly 6,000 sedums elegantly floated over the floor of the museum’s court. This hovering carpet was lifted at two of its corners to reveal a fan of tawny poplar boards. The result was a dramatic living sculpture that felt both monumental and weightless.
On their aspirations for Nomad
William: We are at an interesting moment right now. From the beginning we attempted to steer Nomad in a particular direction. But as you grow as a studio, sometimes you drift off course, you lose perspective and it is difficult to adjust your direction, but you try to redirect yourself. We have experienced that a couple times. This is why I say we are at an interesting moment right now. We are attempting to make sure that we stay on the path that we want to walk. It is very difficult to stay your course, however it is worth the effort.
Laura: We are in a society where everybody policies to make sure that everybody is normal. The pressure is impressive. We are trying to go in our direction, but we have to maintain the focus every step of the way. The targets now are not very much different than the targets we had when we started with Nomad.
On the future of landscape architecture in next 5–10 years
William: The profession is expanding at the moment, which is great. Our only concern has been that the profession does not to lose sight of what separates it from other professions. Regardless, the profession worldwide is becoming more relevant and the public is more aware about the benefits of landscape architecture beyond gardening, which, by the way, is a scale of the profession we both love.
Laura: Landscape architecture is preparing system thinkers that can lead projects with a different perspective regardless of the scale. I hope that is the future of the profession.
On advice they would give their younger selves
William: I would recommend myself to spend time getting to know and understand my weaknesses and strengths, deciphering in depth who I am as a person. Also, I will encourage myself to be exposed to as many aspects within my culture and others.
Laura: I do not have advice for the person I was in college. I was more intelligent than I am right now. That person should talk to me now.