Anton Nelessen - Architect

Interview with Architect & Professor Anton Nelessen

Anton “Tony” Nelessen has more than 37 years of professional experience as an urban designer, professor, author and practitioner in the fields of visioning, physical planning and urban design. His firm is considered one of the foremost vision planning firms in the country. He holds a professional degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota and graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design with distinction. He has taught at Harvard, University of California-Davis and Image Works School of Photography. He is an Associate Professor at Rutgers University Graduate Department of Urban Planning and Policy Development. He has guest lectured at colleges and universities across the United States, and at numerous planning, Smart Growth, New Urbanism, environmental and transportation conferences. His work in urban design and transportation qualified him to testify before the US Congress on behalf of TEA-21. He is charter member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. 


My story is a story looked at an old man looking backwards. In now about to turn 68, and I think back now and how fast my story evolved and changed, and became what I have become now.


I am a small town guy. I grew up in a small town. It was one of these places that you walked every place. Yow know, I worked in the downtown area. So I grew up with a very informal and a very tight knit Dutch community group in Wisconsin. I think all that originally had some influence on some Initial thoughts about city planning, how you should function, how pedestrians should function in the context of a city, but then I searched around for a profession, and of course the key was that I was from Wisconsin and there was no architecture school in Wisconsin. So I went to a school that had a combination of initially Engineering, drafting, etc, and I kind of moved in that direction – the direction of industrial design if you will. It was the University of Wisconsin at Monamony. The school was called “Stode”. It became clear after the first year that this was not where I wanted to be. And they said “Well, what do you want to be”, and I said “well, I’m not really sure”, and so they said “why don’t you take this aptitude test”. In the test, the art and the mathematics came up high, and they said the logical combination of those two is architecture, and I went … “oh! Architecture!” You know … Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc … It had never crossed my mind, but once they said it to me, I said “wow, doesn’t that sound fascinating”. So, the question became where do you go to school of architecture, so you are from Wisconsin and you can go to IIT in Chicago, which was the Mies school, but what was the Best school? At that time, the University of Minnesota with Ralph Rapsod being the head of the school, was where more Rome Prices came out of Minnesota than any other place, where more progressive architectural awards came out of Minnesota than any other place, and I thought “Minnesota!” so I went to Minnesota. And enrolled in a 5 year program in Architecture, and fell in love with it. I mean from the second that I got there that this was it. This was what I was going to do with the rest of my life… being able to create things, buildings, spaces, places for people.


There was 92 of us that started, and 7 of us that finished. It was a supercompetitive, cut-throat program, and in the end I hated everybody I graduated with. That was the way the school was – The mentality that “if I don’t graduate a good architect, I will not graduate ANY architect”. Ralph, because he had Polio and only one hand, he drew with only one hand in Grease pencil, so the notion of the sketch and how you transport ideas in sketch-form, was one of the main things … How you graphically represent things in Minnesota. It was really really important.


So, the craft of architecture was emphasized as much as the theory


No doubt. In fact I would say more the craft than the theory, because the theory was in fact about the spaces that the dean and several other people were doing at the time, which was really the cutting edge of what was going on nationally. The Guthrie theater for example in Minneapolis … all were kind of part of the the time of when I was in school. And every year that I was in school, [Ralph] won the top progressive architecture award.


It was a peer group. You always admired the drawings of the people in the fifth year. So, there was this ever-increasing standard that you were expected to achieve if you were to graduate. In my last year, I was introduced to a guy named Richard Peterson, who was there because we were slowly graduating to doing larger and larger projects, and finally we go to work of a project of a neighborhood rather than a building … And that was it for me! I said “why just get involved with a building, when you can deal with a whole neighborhood, and that did it for me. From then on I was totally committed to large scale archtiecture of multiple buildings, which then evolved eventually as the urban site.


What exactly is the ultimate goal that you have when you work in a neighborhood? Is it really the form?


No! I think it is the emotional feeling of being in a place that a) you’re really proud of, b) that gives you a kind of interesting feeling of the things that you see on the street, the birds, the light, the trees, the flowers, the smell of the food, the cafes on the street if you will, people you run into while you are there, the sequence of spaces that you are going through. Designing a sequence of space is so much easier when you are doing it with a neighborhood in a kind of larger, urban design scale, and I think that wa to me the thing that was the most important, and for us, most of our work has involved a kind of public participation process, where we show people images of their community as it exists now, and assimilates it as how it could be, and then other places, and what we find is that vision of what places want to be, human interactive places that have a kind of integration with nature, these kind of human responses to the physical place, are manifested almost across the board, in the 150,000 to 200,000 people that we have worked with in the past years. And there seems to be a human desire one that comes out of our ancestral past – I’m not sure – but there seems to be in human beings this desire to want to be in these really human, interactive, well-proportioned, beautifully lit spaces, and it seems to go across the board. The ethnic age does not seem to make any difference, so .. .there is something inherent in the human being, that has the engrams of this physical form past that we carry with us, and so it manifests itself in different ways, but I think that essence of the neighborhood, the essence of the community, the experience through walking, that is just inherent and just comes out in the work. I look back now on some of those original sketches from Minnesota, and it’s not that much different than what it was back in 1965 when I graduated.


Why is it so essential for people to understand te history of theory neighborhood by simply walking through it and looking at old buildings that had been there for ages


I think there is a certain level of comfort that people have in these buildings being that they have been there for a while, and there is something about the scale and proportion of them that is not overwhelming. For instance, if you take what we call “Identifiable Building Module” … If people pass a street that has multiple sizes of shops 2 meters, 5 meters, 4 meters and so on and there is a variety of these spaces, they somehow feel more comfortable, than with these kinds of monolithic types of facades, or (the worst of all) blank walls, which people dislike the most. So, you ask, “Where does that come from?” and then you go back and design the neighborhood.


If you think that people have these engrams of their past, and then, they get exposed to things that become familiar to them in their lifetime, their real lifetime. That becomes the next cummulative set of experiences in their head – the visual and spatial experiences in their head – and all of a sudden … that’s not there! Not only is it not there, but (in the case of the WTC) it is paralleled with the catastrophe of all these people getting killed and the noise, and the fumes and all the stuff that followed it and all the media response to it, and knowing people (especially from this area) who got killed, all this has had an extraordinary cumulative effect. In fact we hear it almost every day in our national defense policies. All this stuff we have in our heads. And then there are the experiences you accumulate by experiencing places and being in places, and then there is the third push I think, which is the media, which is telling you how to think. Now, in a time of rapidly expanding media, i.e. someone showed me their iphone and said “this is my new puppy!” And I thought “what a perfect word” You’ve got your little puppy you know, and you pet it and squeeze it, “good boy, you go with me every place, he is my puppy” … and I thought that this notion of communication is now exponential … and I grew up without a telephone. We didn’t have a telephone … we didn’t have a television until I was 14. And even when we did, we only had two channels up in Wisconsin. Instead, people talked and they interacted, and they went to church, and they went on the streets, and they went to festivals, I mean people knew and got to know each other that way. The children played in the street, etc. Now, what happened in my lifetime is this exponential increase in the exposure to media telling you what to think and what you want. And still there is this fundamental notion of interacting. In fact, I watched a documentary regarding a recent economic conference that took place in Switzerland. They asked him “why do you all go there.” I mean, you have got all this power in the world, you run this major bank, you can literally call up, video tape, video-conference anybody, so why do you come to this little village in the snow? He responded that “there is nothing that could replace this human interaction, sitting there having a drink and talking about it. The eye contact!” I think it it has to do with the energy transference. I think there is something about two heads being together, that is not possible when they are separated by an electronic visual screen. So, interaction is still very important to people. So I think that is the essence that makes these neighborhoods have the characteristics you want. Perhaps so even more today, because as we go further and further away from it, people may have the desire to have that even more! And I think that is an interesting think to think about. We have so much artificial communication, which at some point makes you say “ok, I need to actually go see people”. I need to be with other people. I saw another PBS documentary that mentioned the average 13 year old uses 154 text messages a day on average … or something like that! IT was some outrageous number above 100 … a DAY!


I am thinking of the mating thing. I mean … sooner or later … you can text all you want, but sooner or later you want to feel what the person feels like. It’s human nature. So, to me, the question is all about manifesting that into architectural form and urban design form. To me, that is one of those fabulous challenges.


Is it necessary for the architect to see the ugly side of architecture and urban design as well as the good side of it? Is seeing and understanding successes as important as seeing and understanding failures?


The little town I grew up in had everything. A little movie theater, two little supermarkets everybody knew, two meat-markets, two hardware stores, and it was a small town of only 6000 people. It had everything you ever wanted and you could walk to work, and was surrounded by farmland, so it was pretty idealistic I must admit. Well, when the main highway came in, Route 96, which is the main street of the town, they took away the trees, widened the road, and shrank the sidewalk. When it was done, they closed it and had a big dance in the middle of the street because “boy! Wasn’t that progress, and wasn’t that fantastic”. Well, 20 years later there is NOTHING left in that town. It has all left on that highway to the periphery. Everything basically got bigger and “better” just down the street and outside the town. The fire-department needed a bigger space, so they couldn’t do it in the town, so they moved it out. The supermarkets got bigger, from a 12 thousand sq ft supermarket all of a sudden you needed 50 thousand. They moved out of town, and so on! So, eventually what happened was that everything disappeared. I think there is one bar left and that’s it. Everything else is GONE ! Now, they look at the Main street and they ask what happened. Well, you let it happen. And to make things worse, they had dutch elms and they died. These trees created a beautiful arcade. When all the trees died and all the downtown was dead, all of a sudden you ended up with a ghost-town. Sad and terrible thing!


This whole thing started happening in the 50’s. It started getting edgy in 1960, with stuff starting to think of moving out. By the time I was out of college in 1965, already a quarter of the stores were out, so there is a period between 1960 and 1965/66 when this happened. When it hit 1975 and early 80s, it was almost completely done, and then from the 80s to the 90s it was the death. There was nothing there any more. It totally disappeared.


As an architecture student, did you find any of this fascinating as it was happening initially?


No! I was horrified! “How did you let this happen” I would ask. I think I was angry. I even wrote letters to the editor (for which my parents were upset about) saying why don’t you at least have the good sense of replanting the trees. Do something, but don’t let the thing stand as is, and of course this is a dutch society so you don’t criticize. There are strict rules about what you do and don’t do in a Calvinistic Dutch society. But, every time I went back there I just got more and more angry. This dark side, still propels my vehemently anti-sprawl sentiment, that I’ve had in my entire life time and continue to have. I cannot stand suburban sprawl. Now, what is interesting about it is that all these Route 18s and whathaveyou, THEY are all dying as well! All the stuff that moved out there, a 50 thousand sq ft supermarket, go replaced by an 80 thousand sq ft supermarket, and the next big downtowns were replaced by the bigger malls. And all that stuff is sitting around there and I am going, “how stupid”. And the human interaction has disappeared and EVERYTHING … everything … is done by car! It is filled with parking-fields in front of the mall. And for a while they were happy about this progress. Twenty years later they are saying “What happened”. And I say “Listen folks, we could see what was happening. Why couldn’t you see what was happening”. So, as a designer, and an urban designer, and a planner, and an educator, and even the books that I’ve written … It’s all about the same thing. I cannot imagine people being happy shopping on the route 18s and the rest of that ugliness. I cannot imagine it. Especially after the filming work that we have been doing around the world in various countries. People are walking, and they are itneracting in their small shops, and it’s pedestrian and then you come here and it’s all cars, parking-lots, entrance to the big stores, 50 cashiers, nobody knows your name etc. It’s gotta hurt. It’s gotta hurt people psychologically!


But how can you prevent that from happening? It is not really the peoples’ decision. It is the decision of investors who decide to open a mall.


No, I believe it’s a little bit of both. One is that we are kind of deprogrammed from the original experience. Let’s think about who bought the streetcar systems. All these towns had these glorious streetcar systems. Who bought them up? Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, and General Motors. They bought them up and ripped them out… for the car. And I guess they lost a lawsuit about them, but they didn’t care. Motorama in 1939 showed us the image of what America was supposed to become. This place of super-highways … and we became that vision. It was clear. We were told through that last depression that this new vision of auto-oriented suburban development was going to be the wave of the future. This was how we were going to build the new America, and we did. But … you can have the war, but how do you prepare the exit strategy – How do you repair what you just destroyed.


Do you have any proposals for how to change this path?



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