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The Dualities of Reinventing Space
Profile: Martha Schwartz, ASLA, Principal, Martha Schwartz Partners

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor and Nicole Martin

Martha Schwartz, ASLA, Principal, Martha Schwartz Partners
Images courtesy of Martha Schwartz Partners

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Martha Schwartz, ASLA, Principle of Martha Schwartz Partners, is a landscape architect who has chosen to meld modernist art with landscape. She is using the same principles that worked so well for Andre Le Notre in his Jardins des Tuileries in 1664. He applied the principles of baroque art in the same way that Martha Schwartz applies the principles of synthetic cubism and 20th century art to her designs. Schwartz also brings in the sculptural quality of the Land Art movement begun in the 1960s, whose exponents, inspired by minimalism and concept art, rejected museums as settings for their work.

Both rare and striking in its design, Grand Canal Square, Dublin (2005) has become widely considered to be the most innovative landscape design project ever undertaken in Ireland. At 10,000 sq metres, it is one of the largest paved public spaces in Dublin.

"There's no doubt that my work has a tendency to cause a stir," says Martha Schwartz, ASLA. "Just ask my ex-husband, the landscape architect Peter Walker. While he was away on a business trip I decorated the front yard of our Boston townhouse with bagels and invited friends to what turned out to be a very funny--if unconventional--home-coming surprise. The Bagel Garden (1979) was my very first solo project after leaving Harvard's Graduate School of Design and earned me a place on the front cover of Landscape Architecture magazine as the enfant terrible of landscape architecture."

"The landscape is the canvas upon which we live our lives, join together as communities and build cities."

When you consider the amount of howling agony generated by modern abstract art one hundred years ago, it becomes clear the old traditions of park and garden design definitely need a strong personality to bring new, modern designs to fruition. Just as Picasso and Mondrian were considered "troublemakers," perhaps it takes a Martha Schwartz to embed a new, stronger aesthetic--one which is more appropriate to our modern sensibilities and more applicable to our modern lives.

"The use of light and space lures the public to Grand Canal Square, creating an interactive space that functions as a social magnet during the day and at night," says Schwartz. "This is indeed a crucial function of the design, given the regenerative purpose of the development itself. In addition, the fact that it opens onto a large, non-tidal body of water makes it a unique space for Ireland, as such spaces have only traditionally occurred in Mediterranean cities, for example, Trieste and Venice."

Necessity is the Mother

"Exactly 30 years after The Bagel Garden, I still revel in being labeled the 'mother of innovation.' From the Grand Canal Square in Dublin, with its striking bright red carpet, to the serpentine benches at the Jacob Javits Plaza in New York, my work goes far beyond green roofs, vertical gardens and porous paving."

Says Schwartz, "For most people, the "landscape" means forests and oceans, meandering rivers, sand dunes, endless prairies and other untouched natural spaces. My landscape is very different. It's the side walks, roads, shopping malls, byways, highways and parking lots; everything that surrounds the buildings in cities. And I see my job as making these public realms places that people cherish and respect - places in which they want to live. That's the biggest challenge in terms of sustainability: making livable cities."

The double strands of back-to-back benches at Jacob Javits Plaza in New York loop back and forth and allow for a variety of seating - intimate circles for groups and outside curves for those who wish to lunch alone. With their complex forms and bright green color, these benches energize the flat plane of the plaza in the same way that the French used the parterres embroideries which were punctuated by topiary forms.

What Makes a Sustainable City Livable?

Are livable cities sustainable in the old sense of the word? Sustainable design should be inherently able to imbue the people who view it with the desire to maintain it and the knowledge that making it last is a part of their heritage. It should represent a powerful need because it is valuable to them socially, culturally, artistically and spiritually. At the moment, sustainable seems to lean heavily on something closer to regenerative or natural, rather than lasting. That difference is the key to connecting with Martha Schwartz designs.

Schwartz's approach is very iconic. "My passion for regenerating cities with bright colors and man-made materials has its roots in modernist art. As a child of the 60s I grew up surrounded by architects - my father, Milton Schwartz, was a hard-core modernist architect who had a large practice in Philadelphia and designed high-rise residential buildings. My uncle, sister, cousin and now son and husband are all architects. For me, split-level houses with large plate-glass windows were the norm.

"However, I knew from an early age that I did not want to be an architect. As a child, I practically grew up in the Philadelphia Art Museum and later went on to gain a degree in Fine Art at the University of Michigan."

"At Jacob Javits Plaza, (1996) the benches swirl around the "topiary" or 6 foot tall grassy hemispheres that exude mist on hot days. While all of the elements are drawn from the Olmstedean tradition which maintains its hold in New York City, each element is tweaked slightly from its historic predecessor." Schwartz continues "These elements offer a critique of the art of landscape in New York City, where the ghost of Frederick Law Olmsted is too great a force for even New York to exorcise. The design itself offers a wry commentary on the fact that while New York remains a cultural mecca for most art forms, exploration in landscape architecture receives little support."

"Some of my earliest inspirations were the land artists of the 60s, including Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Mary Miss and Walter De Maria. The rawness and scale of their work lit a fire in me, so I made a profound decision: I decided I was going go learn how to make big art.

"I was also influenced by Roberto Burle Marx, the Brazilian landscape architect whose fluid bio-morphic forms, luscious plantings and use of vivid color still resonate with my own interest in bright color and texture. The Mexican architect Luis Barragan was also a huge inspiration. I was blown away by his use of color, geometry and light. His strict discipline and ability to pare down to the core, his use of emptiness, combined with his passionate colors, were irresistible to me."

Martha Schwartz has a innate understanding of these principles. Instead of thinking that forests were doing just fine before any intervention by people, and thus, unlike some landscape architects who create landscapes that look natural, Schwartz has a clear purpose. Unfortunately, since there are no longer many places in the world where some sort of intervention by humans can be avoided, she knows that in order to achieve "lasting" you have to make places that people will love as much as they love a forest, or a tide pool or a high desert. In order to be sustainable, a place must be loved by those who use it.

St. Mary's Churchyard, London, winner of the 2008 BALI Award, forms the center of a ?1.5 billion ($2.814 billion in today's dollars) Elephant and Castle Regeneration Program. It is one of the largest programs of its kind ever seen in Europe. "To make cities appealing, and therefore sustainable, they have to be places where people can work, relax and enjoy a beautiful surrounding," explains Schwartz.

The Process of Integrating an Art Form

Schwartz joined the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Michigan in the early 70s. "I asked Ken Polakowksi, the then chairman, if I could continue taking art courses. He asked me to explain how art related to landscape architecture. Unfortunately, I knew nothing about landscape architecture so, to my dismay, out went the art classes.

"I gave myself one year to see if I was cut out for landscape architecture. Very quickly it became clear that I wasn't at all. I thought the profession was completely dorky and incredibly boring when seen next to the crazy antics of the art world of the mid-70s. I wanted to be part of the movement which saw the American artist Chris Burden crucify himself on top of a Volkwagen Beetle. I needed a more open, less structured outlet for my creativity.

"I would have dropped out had it not been for a chance meeting with Peter Walker, whom I credit with changing the course of my life.

"I met Peter at the SWA Group internship program in Sausalito. During our first encounter he berated me and the other students for sticking to the rules and not bringing anything of interest or value into the world. "Where is the art?" he asked. His words struck an instant chord with me. They taught me that the landscape could be used as an enormous canvas for expression and ideas.

"St. Mary's has now been transformed from a derelict burial ground, peppered by tombstones and surrounded by formidable nineteenth century railings, into a bright and popular prominent public space," says Schwartz.

Applying the Art of the Era

"Another seminal moment in my career came in the winter of '78 while I was a student at Harvard Graduate School of Design, when Peter took our class to Vermont to visit Dan Kiley, another modernist landscape architect. Dan showed us slides of some of the French baroque gardens of Andre Le Notre that he loved, including Parc Sceaux. I was so knocked out by these images that I could hardly control myself. I had just seen a landscape that was intentional, did not look like nature, was minimal to an extreme, and was so huge that it ate everything around it. It was more beautiful to me than the Grand Canyon. It all came together in that moment.

"Although my interests have broadened and deepened over time, I am still guided by the desire to make cities that speak to people, draw them in and make them feel. My focus is primarily on cities because that's where the greatest populations live - by 2050, 78 percent of the world's population will be living in cities.

Lighting gives identity to HUD plaza as well. Lit from within, the canopies glow at night, recalling the lanterns that illuminate paths in Japanese gardens. A fiber-optic tube casts colored light under the planters making them appear to float on a cloud of light.

"To make cities appealing, and therefore sustainable, they have to be places where people can work, relax and enjoy a beautiful surrounding. Everyone talks about green buildings and green roofs, but they play only a very small part in sustainability. The focus has to be on supporting life within a city, whether you can get there by public transportation, or whether there are places for your children to play."

"The creation of appeal is paramount in making spaces work. If the design of the space does not engage people, serve them or create an identity that people can embrace, it will fail."

"HUD plaza is transformed through a strong ground plane, a series of concrete planters containing grass, and white lifesaver-shaped canopies," says Schwartz. "The 30-foot diameter planters double as seating. The canopies, fabricated of vinyl-coated plastic fabric, are raised 14 feet above the ground plane on steel poles. In sharp contrast to the heaviness of the architecture, these canopies and planters appear to float."

The Key to Appeal

What is Schwartz's core understanding of what is at the base of every lasting and therefore sustainable design? First and foremost, it is art. Just as the concept of a "desire line" means the path most often chosen to get from one place to another, a sustainable landscape design should be a place where people most often choose to be.

Without trees or public amenities, the original HUD plaza was designed to showcase the building. Before the addition of the canopies and planters, the plaza was virtually unusable by HUD's 4,800 employees.

"That's where the landscape architect comes in," says Schwartz. "Our job is to understand how people interact with their communities and what they want from their cities. And that involves talking to people, understanding their lives and their needs.

She continues, "It is an incredibly exciting time to be a landscape architect. The profession is growing at a record rate in the United States, so much so that practices are struggling to cope with demand. But for students to flourish, training needs to be improved. Aspiring practitioners have to be taught that "landscape" and "environment" mean more than a picturesque setting. They need to grasp how the culture and economy of a city work together to make it a viable place for people to live.

The Bagel Garden (1979) was the project that kick-started the career of Martha Schwartz. Initially intended to be a practical joke on her then-husband, Peter Walker, the project quickly became symbolic of the beginning of the post-modern era in landscape architecture.

What Will it Take?

So, is America ready for a landscape architectural revolution? "I think so," is Schwartz's opinion. "Some urban authorities, such as New York, are already taking the lead in making cities better places to live. For example, PLAN NYC, the sustainability agenda for the city, includes a proposal to ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute from a park.

"With Barack Obama as President of the United States, the future for landscape architecture has never been more exciting. I believe that landscape architects are going to play a key role in his drive to rebuild and include as a part of the infra-structure a robust public realm to address the needs of the present and future residents. Landscape architects will need to step up and broaden the understanding of how to make sustainable cities and communities.

"Designs for Exchange Square, Manchester (2000) focused on fusing the two halves of the city back together following earlier bombings by the IRA," explains Schwartz. "Because of the existing topography, the sculpting of a plaza level change is the major design factor. The level change accomplishes three things. It creates places for a great variety of activities, it provides a setting for the surrounding buildings, and it makes the square accessible to all. Connecting the two levels is an exuberance of ramps and stairs which become objects of both movement and stasis. These ramps act as landscape scale furniture, accommodating movement and informal seating."

"Obama is undoubtedly a friend of the profession. He supported the spectacular regeneration of Chicago, with the award-winning Millennium Park boosting spending in the area. Hotels have capitalized on the hype surrounding it, using the park as a marketing device for their websites, sales brochures, telephone recordings and guest materials. As well as bringing substantial value to the city, Millennium Park has also become part of the cultural identity of those living in Chicago in much the same way as Central Park in New York.

"Obama aided the launch of the Chicago Region Environmental & Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) initiative. Not only did this result in reduced congestion, but new green spaces were also created, again adding value and appeal to the area."

"The lower level of Exchange Square gets the most sunshine and accommodates outdoor dining with a close relationship to the fountain," says Schwartz. "The historic line of Hanging Ditch is brought to life through an abstracted river. An excavated 'ditch' is filled with stepping stones. At the bottom of the flume, nozzles spurt water, simulating a fast running river. River Birch trees mark the line of the water feature giving a soft and more casual quality to this area."

...And How Long Will it Take?

We will, of course, have to wait a little longer for Obama's policies to become clearer. However, with his Urban and New Energy for America policies, I feel positive that some major changes are on the horizon. For example, his plan to foster healthy communities through manipulating the layout of roads, buildings and parks, is certainly a revolutionary step from a Presidential candidate and, in my opinion, exactly what needs to happen in order to change people's perceptions of cities. By creating cities that encourage fluidity of movement between key areas within a city or town, as well as having open spaces, I believe the US public will be encouraged to embrace cities enthusiastically.

Above and Below: This apartment courtyard project in Kitaga, Japan is part of an experiment in "feminism in housing design." Before its present use for housing, rice paddies existed on this site. The geometric pattern of raised dikes and sunken paddies provides the metaphor for creating a series of sunken garden "rooms." These rooms offer a variety of opportunities for passive enjoyment or active play including water features, children's play opportunities, and public art. In the Willow Court, a sunken, flooded area with willow trees and wetland vegetation is made accessible by a wooden boardwalk. The Four Seasons Garden is a series of four miniature gardens that capture the spirit of each of the seasons and are enclosed by colored glass walls.

To Sum Up Her Ethos

"The landscape is the canvas upon which we live our lives, join together as communities and build cities. Encouraging people to live side by side will help cities to flourish and survive over the next 100 years."

Explains Schwartz, "The idea behind the public realm of the Children's Discovery Center project in Damascus, was too create a park which features a quilt of activities interwoven with the discovery center. The visitors will be led through several intimate spatial experiences addressing all the senses. Water will be the ongoing theme - both as activity and as a visualization of sustainable measures and educational media."

Schwartz continues, "Take my redesign of the Exchange Square in Manchester, UK. The IRA's destruction of the square in 1996 dealt a serious blow to the residents of the city. However, it is now a hugely successful, vibrant and exciting space bustling with activity. All this goes to show that careful and inspired design can make all the difference between a place that is viewed as having no value to anyone, and one that attracts people, encourages vitality and is cherished by its inhabitants.

Says Schwartz, "The central idea of the Mesa Art and Entertainment center in Mesa, Arizona design is to provide a grand promenade into and through the complex while providing opportunities for both large and small group gatherings, as well as places for quiet relaxation and enjoyment. The theme is a 'Shadow Walk', a place where the rich interplay of overlapping shadows, trees and architectural canopies create a cool and inviting environment. Long, curving lines of trees, shift back and forth as one walks along the promenade, throwing different shadow forms on the ground and creating different qualities and quantities of shadow."

Martha Schwartz Partners--Awards

2008 BALI Award, Regeneration Category: St. Mary's Churchyard, London

2007 Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science: University of Ulster, Belfast, Ireland

2007 Member of the Mayor's Design for London Advisory Group, London

2007 Awarded Tenure: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

2007 Chicago Athenaeum Award for Best New Global Design: Leamouth Peninsula London

2007 ASLA Honor Design Award: Mesa Arts Center

2007 Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science: University of Ulster, Belfast, Ireland

2006 ULI Award for Excellence: Mesa Arts Center

2006 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award

2005 Gold Medal, Tau Sigma Delta Society

2004 Royal Institute of British Architects, Honorary Fellow, London, UK

2004 Women in Design Award for Excellence, Boston Society of Architects, Boston, MA

2003 Play and Leisure Award, Germany, Malmo, Exchange Square, Disney, Gifu

2001 Award for Innovative Transportation Planning, New Mexico Chapter of the American Planning Association, for the Interstate Corridor Enhancement Plan: A Conceptual Framework, Albuquerque, New Mexico

2001 Pennsylvania State University, Department of Landscape Architecture, Bracken Fellow

2000 National Endowment for the Arts Federal Design Achievement Award, Minneapolis Courthouse Plaza

2000 ASLA Merit Award: HUD Plaza Improvements, Washington, District of Columbia

1999 ASLA Merit Award: United States Courthouse Plaza, Minneapolis

1999 First Place, Three Squares Competition, Coventry, UK

1999 First Place, Lehrter Platze Competition, Berlin, Germany

1998 General Services Administration Design Awards, National Design Citation: Jacob Javits Plaza

1997 Winning entry in International Exchange Square Competition, Manchester Millennium

1997 Phillip N. Winslow Landscape Design Award by The Parks Council for Parks in New York City: Jacob Javits Plaza

1997 ASLA Honour Award: Jacob Javits Plaza

1997 City of Toronto Urban Design Awards, Community Building: Infrastructure and Public Networks: The Village of Yorkville Park

1996 ASLA Award, President's Award of Excellence: The Village of Yorkville Park

1996 General Services Administration 1996 Design Awards, National Design Citation: Minneapolis Courthouse Plaza

1995 Landschaftspark Muenchen - Riem, Munich, Germany. Honourable Mention in International Competition

1994 Landscape Architecture Residential Design, Second Place: Dickenson Residence

1994 West Shore and Rash Field Competition
Winner: Baltimore Inner Harbor, Baltimore, Maryland

1991 ASLA Honour Award: The Citadel Grand Allee

1991 ASLA Merit Award: Becton Dickinson Atrium

1991 Resident, American Academy in Rome

1990 Urban Design Institute, Fellow

1989 ASLA Merit Award: Rio Shopping Centre, Atlanta, Georgia

1989 ASLA Design Award Urbanology Show: Turf Parterre

1987 Urban Design Award: Atlanta, Georgia

1987 Artist in Residence, Radcliffe College

1983 Visiting Artist in Residence Die Villa Romana, Florence, Italy

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November 18, 2019, 11:48 am PDT

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