Alumni Q+A: Justine Kwiatkowski Vélez MLA 06, MUP 06

Justine Kwiatkowski Vélez MLA ’06, MUP ’06 came to the field of landscape architecture because of her desire to give back to the world, whether through the restoration of environmentally-degraded sites, or the beautification of space. Prior to founding her interdisciplinary design firm Urban Robot, Vélez was an associate at James Corner Field Operations, LLC, where she managed Freshkills Park, an award-winning project that is transforming what was formerly the world’s largest landfill into a word class cultural and recreational destination.

Vélez is active in the Miami community as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture—where she teaches landscape theory and contemporary practice—and as a member of the Board of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. She lives in Miami Beach with her husband Sebastian Vélez MAUD ’06, a fellow GSD graduate and partner at Urban Robot, and their newborn daughter.

Tell us about your background and where you grew up
My parents were in the Foreign Service, so I grew up in various countries in Central America until I was 10 years old, but we moved back to the US in 1987 and established a small farm in upstate New York. Witnessing my parents’ loving stewardship of our fields and forests was a great influence on me and a formative element in my deep respect for nature. But I took an important detour before finding the field of landscape architecture—studying political science in undergrad and pursuing a career as a magazine editor (at the Washington DC-based think tank publication, The Wilson Quarterly). Although it may be surprising to some, my background in writing is a skill I utilize over and over again in my new career as a landscape architect.

When did you realize you would be a landscape architect?
It was actually a classic “lightning bolt” moment! I picked up my neighbor’s mail when she was out of town and it happened to include an issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine. I had never even heard of the field of landscape architecture before, but by the time I finished the magazine (which contained an article on the environmental restoration of the Las Vegas Wash and another on the function of public plazas in Boston), I was convinced this was my calling. I had no idea there was a career that blended a love of nature with the love of cities—and most importantly, entailed the skills to improve both. I started applying to graduate programs and one month later, gave notice at my job.

Tell us about your work and the types of projects your firm handles
We had humble beginnings in small-scale residential projects, which then led to luxury residential and hospitality. These sectors remain our specialties today. What I’m really excited about, however, is that these projects have opened up the door to larger scale, public, and environmental projects. I became a landscape architect to make the world a better place, and to have the opportunity to work on projects that address flooding in Miami Beach (as we did with Stormwater Park) is hugely gratifying.

When did you start your firm Urban Robot Associates, and what led you to do so?
The origin lies way back in 2001 with my business partners and co-founders, Sebastian Velez and Gerald Wood, 2006 graduates of the MAUD program. They’d dreamed of owning their own firm since their days as undergraduates at the University of Miami School of Architecture. I resigned from an unsatisfying job in 2009, and we founded the company. I ran the business on my own for a few years before we launched the architecture branch. In 2013, we took on a fourth partner, Giancarlo Pietri, who established our interiors practice. Having all three disciplines in-house, plus urban planning/urban design, has sparked a great creative energy, and attracted new clients because of the ease and synergy of working with an interdisciplinary office.

Do you have a philosophy of design?
Less of a philosophy, which is kind of a scary word, and more of an approach or a series of tenets. First of all, we let the project tell us what it wants to be, which is why each of our work has a different feel. Our designs are very responsive to the realities of the project, whether that be client preferences, program, budget, or site conditions. Although “the idea” is paramount, we stay away from being overly academic or intellectual, and we don’t have a predetermined style.

We also have a very holistic approach. One discipline informs the other and all aspects are designed in tandem. This is an outgrowth of our experience at the GSD in which most studios were interdisciplinary. Almost everyone in our office has more than one degree in a design field, and we take an interdisciplinary approach to projects whether we have been hired to look at all disciplines or not. Too often, architecture pre-determines the design of interior and exterior, rather than taking cues from them. At Urban Robot, architecture is considered the interface between landscape and interior, and each discipline heightens or plays off of the expression of the others.

I should probably take the chance to explain the origin of our name because “urban robot” is in many ways an outgrowth of an important design tenet. Rather than naming the firm after ourselves we really wanted to emphasize the collaborative spirit of our practice, where the idea takes precedence over the individual, and a project’s success is more important than the firm’s glory. We also like to think our name shows that— although we take our profession very seriously—we also like to have a little bit of fun!

What is your biggest professional accomplishment?
I’m sure my partners would agree that growing from a one-person design practice to the thriving ten-person office we are today is our biggest shared professional accomplishment. And we are particularly pleased with the public praise and media attention that Stormwater Park received this year. On a more personal level, launching the company while simultaneously teaching at the University of Miami was one of the hardest things I ever did, and one of the things of which I am most proud.

Are there people who inspire you?
James Corner for his ability to hit on the truth of a place instinctually, Andrea Cochran for her fresh beautiful lines, and Roberto Burle Marx for his painterly use of tropical plants. But in terms of day-to-day life, I’m most inspired by my business partners. I consider each of them a genius in his own right, who brings a truly useful skill set to the firm without which we would not survive—and is a beautiful human being on top of that. It’s an honor to work with them.

What’s your favorite city or place?
Seville, Spain. I fell in love with urbanity while living there in my twenties, and the vibrancy of the streets and people is truly unique. But in terms of design, I find the California landscape the most inspiring. I grew up with its semi-arid Mediterranean climate while spending summers with my grandparents in Southern California. It’s ironic that I practice landscape architecture in lush subtropical South Florida, but I nevertheless find a way to bring the stark and simple palettes of the California landscape into my projects.

What is the most significant thing you learned at the GSD?
The importance of representation and careful messaging. Packaging a design idea is a craft, and tailoring the concept for a particular audience or goal is essential for success. There’s a fine line between painting a design idea in the best light and misrepresenting it, but it’s an important line to walk. Success in our profession is as much about communication—both visual and oral—as it is about design.

Do you have a favorite memory about the GSD?
There are too many to list! General late-night silliness in the trays. The utter joy and lunacy after a final review. And of course, meeting my husband Sebastian Velez.

What advice do you have for young GSD alumni and aspiring landscape architects?
When presented with an opportunity that seems too challenging or unachievable, take it anyway. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish and you’ll always be better for having suffered through it. Just make sure you have an escape hatch or visible end so you don’t feel trapped and overwhelmed …and a supportive partner by your side if possible!