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Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Nelson studied architecture at Yale University, a choice he came to, by his own account, by pure chance; Seeking refuge in Yale’s architecture school during a rainstorm, he quickly found himself entranced by the student work on display. Entering the profession in the depths of the Great Depression, Nelson competed for and was awarded a Rome Prize, which provided a two-year stipend to study at the American Academy in Rome, where he lived from 1932–34. During this time he conducted the interviews that would become a series of 12 portraits on significant architects of the day—from leading lights like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Gio Ponti, to lesser known figures such as Ivar Tengbom and Bent Helweg-Moeller. The articles, published in the magazine Pencil Points, established Nelson as a unique voice that is equal parts keen insight, wry humor, and provocative pronouncement. The articles also demonstrated his wide interests and innate suspicion of ideological boundaries, as the architects profiled hailed from seven countries and included avowed Modernists as well as more traditional practitioners.