Warren Byrd: How to Be a Landscape Architect

Throughout March, the University of Virginia School of Architecture has celebrated the work of local landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBWLA) and its recently published book Garden Park Community Farm. The celebration kicked off with a lecture by Warren Byrd, FASLA, former student and faculty member. He explained his life-long “meandering with purpose,” starting as a curious boy with a sketchbook, through his 25-year journey founding the firm, and its expansion into one of the most well-respected practices in the country.

It’s a unique occasion for a landscape architecture program to honor the lifetime achievements of a designer who has been personally tied to the school throughout his career. For me, as one of the program’s students, it was an opportunity to better understand my program and profession and glean insights from a lifetime of dedicated teaching and practice. As a professor for more than 25 years, Byrd had several lessons to impart on future landscape architects. These are the ones that I took with me:

Lesson #1: Live your Values

Byrd said he has been given the opportunity to do three of life’s most important things: “to teach, to parent, and to plant trees.” These three values permeated not only his talk, but also his roles as husband, father, educator, and designer.

As a teacher at UVA, Byrd stressed the value of plant knowledge and the importance of planted form as a foundation for landscape architecture. Students of his recall many hours treking around Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge mountains, drawing and memorizing native plants in their indigenous environments. Similarly, in the lecture, he reminded us to “think of plants from the beginning” and showcased an incredible array of plant uses in NBWLA’s work, a characteristic that has become a hallmark of the firm.

As a father, Byrd displayed a moving devotion to his wife Susan and his daughter Susanna. However, his notion of family did not stop there. He emphasized that all of NBWLA’s work, at the core, is about families—from the firm’s family, the families of visitors that visit sites, and the families of plants and animals considered in the designs.

As a planter of trees, Byrd noted not just the significance of planted form, but also reminded us of how lucky landscape architects are to devote their careers to improving the world through its own natural beauty and systems. It’s important, as we go through our daily lives, projects, and careers, not to lose touch with this unique gift and responsibility that we have been given.


Lesson #2: Be humble

His talk also reminded me of the importance of staying humble. Even though he was a founding partner and leader of the firm for over 25 years, at every opportune moment, he attributed his success and the success of the firm to the people around him—his partner Thomas Woltz, NBWLA’s staff of designers, his wife Susan, clients, and visitors of his sites. This was a reminder that no project is the work or vision of a single person, but they all require a dedicated team to come to fruition.

Lesson #3: Draw

The last lesson Byrd imparted during his talk was to draw. Every day. Draw to understand how something works or fits together. Draw thoughts and ideas. Draw to see the world differently. Draw to aid memory. He said that “you never know when your mind will bring up something from the past, and drawing helps you remember better.”

He emphasized drawing as a tool—both for understanding what is and for creating what could be. And this also touched at the heart of his design philosophy. Drawing requires one to be still and observe. He stated: “preparation in design is about listening and learning.” Drawing requires distillation. The “best designed places share a simplicity of purpose and expression—they express just a few salient qualities.” Lastly, drawing requires both logical understanding and an intuition for how that can be expressed.

He noted that the best design work is a combination of what is rational and intuitive.

The works highlighted in Garden Park Community Farm —from the Dell at the Univeristy of Virginia to the City Garden in St. Louis—are all manifestations of these lessons. Much more than just a compilation of successful design projects, it’s a testament to Byrd’s career dedicated to teaching, parenting, and planting trees.

Harriett Jameson is a student at the University of Virginia, pursuing a dual masters degree in Urban and Environmental Planning and Landscape Architecture 

Image credits: (1) Garden Park Community Farm / Princeton Architectural Press, (2-3) The Dell at University of Virginia / Nelson Byrd Woltz

2 thoughts on “Warren Byrd: How to Be a Landscape Architect

  1. Michael Sobczak 04/30/2013 / 7:09 pm

    W TByrd was always spot-on as a teacher and this is no exception. Warren breaks it down to the essence of why we do this work. It’s because of WTB that I switched from a “quick graphics” mindset back to to “drawing” to learn by observing. His lack of hubris in this time of celebrity designers/firms is evident in WTB’s built work and his teaching career. Warren Rocks 🙂

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