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The Private Art of the Public Space Architect of Hudson Yards

The Private Art of the Public Space Architect of Hudson Yards


The landscape architect Thomas Woltz doesn’t usually work at home. But one day, he was sketching at the breakfast table in his West Village sanctuary when he had an “aha!” moment for his design of the Public Square and gardens of Hudson Yards, the enormous new development on the West Side of Manhattan.

“It was one of those desperate moments of asking, ‘What is the essence of this project?’” said Mr. Woltz, 51, nattily dressed, as usual, in a suit. That was where he came up with the idea of the pattern underlying the project.

“The plan is a series of ellipses” that converge under the sculpture known as the “Vessel,” and “each radiates out to the different towers and into the retail. Wherever you arrive to Hudson Yards, you arrive to one of these soft embraces of the landscape,” he said.

Such descriptions are not unusual for Mr. Woltz, the principal of the firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, and he approaches art-collecting in the same thoughtful way. Though he divides his time between New York and Charlottesville, Va., he has devoted considerable attention to making his apartment here a home.

I’m eclectic,” he said of his collecting. “I just follow my heart. I’m sure that my sensibilities are the result of some things that are innate but others that reflect my training.”

Mr. Woltz, who has master’s degrees in architecture and landscape architecture, also practiced his trade in Venice for five years. There’s a classical vibe to some of his trove, like the French copy of a Roman bust of Marcus Aurelius and the framed grouping of plaster imprints of ancient Roman seals.

But it’s balanced by pure abstraction, as seen in the small piece of twisted rebar that was found in a field and given to Mr. Woltz as a gift. He gave it pride of place on his mantel.

Earlier this month, on the day that his Hudson Yards designs made their public debut, Mr. Woltz took an hour out to discuss his pursuit of art. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Tell me about this bird painting over the fireplace.

This is really her apartment. It’s an American whooping crane by an artist in Montreal named Brad Woodfin. He paints animals on the edge of extinction in this Dutch master portrait style. It’s the largest American bird. And I just thought it was so commanding for these very high ceilings.

Talk about a conversation starter.

I light these chandelier candles at night. So when I have a dinner, it’s only candlelight in here. And she just glows, emerging from the dark. She’s really powerful.

Does the work relate to your design life?

Absolutely. A lot of our work is — like some of these works of art — focused on threatened and endangered animals, and trying to rebuild the biological connectivity of large-scale landscapes, in particular agricultural landscapes. Think about it this way: We design within natural systems. So unlike an architect who makes an object, we’re making a big natural system. So that natural system consists of soil, water, minerals, animals, plants and people.

Where do you get most of the pieces?

Art galleries mostly, and that was the case with the two paintings by Gresham Sykes in the corner. The one on the left was a meditation on Japanese portraiture, “Japanese Portrait with 3 Pink Lemons.” You can see sort of a kimono in there. I saw that in an art gallery and absolutely loved it. I bought it and then asked to meet him, and the gallery put me in touch with him. This was probably 15 or 20 years ago, and he was in his 80s. Then I also bought “Six Shooter.”

“Six Shooter” is more like an analytic Cubist work — what’s the draw?

I think for my architectural training, that one really appeals to me. Even in our most contemporary landscape projects, there will be an underlying geometry based on the Fibonacci series or the Golden Section, the Golden Mean. A lot of those ideas about geometry and proportion structuring the human body and architecture can be readily applied to space.



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