Wandering the Cultural Landscape with Nomad Studio
This summer an installation designed by William Roberts and Laura Santín of Nomad Studio at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) is making waves. Not amber waves of grain—try green waves of sedum, the hardy low-maintenance succulent.
Green Varnish is on display now through September 13, 2015. The first courtyard installation at CAM, Green Varnish sits next to Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Arts Foundation building, evoking a “calm that quietly combats the dis-quietness caused by the scale of the immense armature,” according to John Hill of St. Louis magazine. Described in the June 2015 issue of Interior Design magazine as “a handiwork and gentle political statement . . . appearing as some verdant magic carpet levitating above a gravel floor,” Green Varnish is a colossal blanket of vegetation—more than 6,000 sedum plants cover a pressure-treated plywood-and-poplar framework that nearly fills the 2,250-square-foot courtyard at CAM. One corner of the installation rises nearly nine feet, exposing the underlying framework and showing the immense scale of the project made possible by Nomad Studio with the help of Iria Peréz & Associates, LIA Engineering, Collab-Portico, and Green Roof Blocks.
The project exemplifies what Nomad Studio is all about: the innovative combination of art and design with natural elements to inspire people to interact more with nature in the hopes of establishing a bond and encouraging stewardship. William Roberts, registered landscape architect, founder and co-director of Nomad Studio, said the project embodies the studio’s philosophy “to create unique, memorable spaces and experiences that help foster a connection between users and the landscape.”
William, an alumnus of the LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, has long been interested in how different cultures connect—or disconnect—from nature.
He spent his childhood interacting with the landscape of Southeast Louisiana, fishing in the swamps and playing in the bayous. He enjoyed helping with the maintenance and upkeep of a large, family-owned property in Baton Rouge. As he considered college and his career options, someone suggested landscape architecture.
“I had the same misconceptions about the profession as, unfortunately, many people do—I thought it was mostly planting and maintenance. But I enjoyed spending time outdoors so I thought I’d give it a try,” recalled William. “I took some classes and fell in love with how landscape architecture allowed me to explore creatively. I was hooked,” he laughed.
William took full advantage of the many opportunities for travel offered by the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program at LSU. In the spring semester of his fourth year, he spent four months in Japan interning for Keikan Sekkei Tokyo Company, Ltd. That same year he spent the fall semester studying abroad in Portugal in an Academic Programs Abroad course taught by Professor Bruce Sharky.
“I was exposed to two contrasting cultures in a condensed time frame and introduced to other aspects of the profession,” said William. “I was immediately interested in discovering more about how different cultures appropriate and interact with public space.”
After graduation William gained four years of professional experience at MESA Design Group in Dallas as a project designer, working on numerous large-scale international projects from conceptual design through detail resolution and construction observation. He continued to gain international experience at MESA’s office in Madrid, where he served as managing associate in charge of design, project management, and construction documentation for two years before the office downsized in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. In Madrid he met his wife and future business partner, Laura Santín, an agricultural engineer and landscape architect. They worked together on several projects at MESA, including “Ferrari Experience” and Nakheel Headquarters in Abu Dhabi and the Blue Cross Blue Shield campus in Richardson, Texas.
William returned to MESA’s Dallas office, working for a couple of months on a project in Dubai before deciding to take a seven-month sabbatical to roam the planet and explore the interesting transect of culture and landscape. He and Laura started out in the U.S., headed to Russia, crossing Siberia, and went on to Vietnam and Australia. Along the way, they came up with the inception for Nomad Studio.
“We wanted to establish a network practice with a light footprint that would allow us the ability to develop a deeper understanding and connection with each landscape,” said William.
He and his wife cofounded Nomad Landscape Architecture and Planning in 2009. In collaboration with different studios and individuals across the globe, Nomad works on commissions, design competitions, and art and design installations—all with the goal of fostering a connection between people and nature, as accomplished by Green Varnish.
Or Orange Secret, an installation designed in collaboration with Iria Peréz & Associates, Mosquito Curtains Inc., and Quentin Comes. A 2014 entry in Jardins de Metis, an annual gardening competition in Quebec, Orange Secret plays with color and perception and the way people respond to enclosed spaces. Comprised of five different species in the same color tone planted in a space surrounded by walls and cloth veils, the project was voted by the public as most popular. Nomad Studio will reinterpret the installation for the 2015 competition.
Initially founded in New Orleans, Nomad Studio has been based in New York for almost five years, with William and Laura dividing their time between Madrid and New York. William and Laura complement each other well.
“We approach a project at two different scales with the perspectives of two different cultures, which brings a different aspect to the design process,” said William.
Laura’s experience and expertise is more large-scale focused, encompassing a broad range of the profession from horticulture, rural/sustainable development, recreational trails, urban parks and plazas. William’s expertise spans a large spectrum of the profession, as well, but he is equally interested in the site-specific nuts and bolts. Details like craftsmanship—reinterpreting and exploring how we approach the design of items such as a fence or a bench—are a particular passion of his.
“Each project we take on balances both the macro-scale—the holistic vision and approach—while maintaining the focus on the micro,” William elaborated, “materiality, ornamentation, and pattern as expressed through custom furniture, lighting, paving, and other details that provide each project its own unique identity.”
Currently, Nomad is entering a period of refocus and redirection, William said. “As with most goals, we’ve been pulled away and pushed back. We are currently focused on maintaining the course of our original philosophy, the social and environmental aspect of the landscape and how it interacts with art and design.”
William’s advice for others pursuing careers in landscape architecture is to get to know the profession. “Ask yourself what you want out of the profession, immediately and long term. Get to know yourself and what you want. Travel helps bring that understanding.”
“It’s important to keep pushing yourself and refreshing your perspective,” William added. “Break your normality to keep your minds open and ideas fresh. This is why interaction between cultures is so important.”
Visit thenomadstudio.net to view more of Nomad Studio’s global, award-winning projects.