Member Spotlight: Catherine Seavitt Nordenson
Professor and Director, Graduate Landscape Architecture Program
Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York
Education: Princeton University, Master of Architecture; Cooper Union, Bachelor of Architecture; University of Michigan, Bachelor of Science…. and City College of New York, Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture!
Catherine Seavitt Nordenson is a professor and director of the graduate landscape architecture program at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York. A registered architect and landscape architect, she is a graduate of Cooper Union and Princeton University, a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship for research in Brazil. Her work explores adaptation to climate change in urban environments and the novel transformation of landscape restoration practices. She also examines the intersection of political power, environmental activism, and public health, particularly as seen through the design of equitable public space and policy. Her recent books include Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship (University of Texas Press, 2018) and Structures of Coastal Resilience (Island Press, 2018). Her essays have been published widely, including the journals Architectural Review, Artforum, Avery Review, JoLA, LA+, Landscape Architecture Magazine, and Topos.
Field Study with students at Mariner’s Marsh Park
Catherine with students at the Jewish Museum’s Roberto Burle Marx exhibit
What is YOUR story? What led you to a career in landscape architecture? When did you realize you wanted to become a Landscape Architect?
I grew up in an old auto-baron house in Detroit, right in the middle of the city. It was built by the first treasurer of the General Motors Corporation. We had a little yard in the back and I remember how much I loved the trees in the neighborhood, as well as a funny little park around the block that had nothing in it but big trees and a diagonal footpath from one corner to the other. I still go back to that house to recharge my batteries. It’s the first place I’m going to drive to as soon as everyone in my family is immunized.
I studied architecture, first at the University of Michigan, then I transferred to Cooper Union in New York when I heard about it from one of my professors who was studying at Cranbrook Academy. Ed Bye was teaching at Cooper at that time. His reading list was a stack of poetry books. I did my post-professional degree at Princeton. I feel so lucky—everywhere I studied, I had amazing professors. Not to mention scholarships. Sometimes looking back I still can’t believe my luck. After grad school I worked in Paris for a couple of years, and then spent a year at the American Academy in Rome. That was transformative. There I realized that all the research, the projects, the school theses, everything I was interested in and that I’d been doing all along was landscape architecture. I just didn’t know what to call it.
Catherine at the American Academy in Rome, 1998
What project or work that you have done at any point in your career are you most proud of and why?
I’m partial to the project I did in Rome at the American Academy—drawings of the Tiber River from the mouth to the source, in plan and section, unraveled. And I’m proud of the book on Burle Marx; that took me a very long time to write. But I think I’m proudest of my students and their work—I’ve been teaching since 2000, and that is the most rewarding work I’ll ever do. I can picture every project from every student in my head, and I’ve kept all my little Moleskin notebooks with my sketches from our desk crits over the years. Both of my parents are teachers, though they are retired now—my dad taught math and computer science for the Detroit Public Schools for his entire career, and my mom was a mathematics professor. I guess it runs in the family.
What is your favorite outdoor space in the greater NYC area and why?
Well, since the pandemic, definitely Central Park. I’ve been going on very long walks. I have a handful of favorite trees dispersed throughout the park that I like to check on. I’m also partial to Jamaica Bay, its marsh islands, the Rockaways, the light on the ocean, and the big sky.
What do you do to de-stress, relax or escape?
I meditate in my living room around 5.30 or 6.00am while the rest of my family is still sleeping. I think sunrise is my favorite time of the day.
Where do you go for inspiration or what do you find inspiring?
The score desk seats at the Metropolitan Opera. I listen to a lot of opera, and the sound is the best up there. I check out the scores from the music library at City College and read along. It’s extraordinary to see how all the instruments and voices come together with the score—spatially and aurally. It’s been a long pandemic, but I’m looking forward to the next season, whenever that will be.
Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, Jamaica Bay mapping
Learn more about Catherine Seavitt Nordenson
- Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship, 2018 by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson
- Structures of Coastal Resilience, 2018 by
See all publications here: https://ccny-cuny.academia.edu/CatherineSeavittNordenson