BY BRIAN LIBBY
“I’m really nervous to be in front of so many great designers,” landscape architect Martha Schwartz told the audience at Ziba Auditorium last week at the beginning of her lecture. “I know this community is powerful. I haven’t been here for 25 years, but it’s a beautiful city that seems to care: about its public spaces, its streets, its buildings. And it’s still beautiful after all these years. Go figure.”
Schwartz, a Philadelphia native, established Martha Schwartz Partners in London back in 1980. Today it is arguably one of the top landscape architecture firms in the world, in part because of the combination of approaches. Schwartz’s firm, as their website describes it, “focuses on activating and regenerating urban sites and city centres,” and is situated “at the intersection of public realm, urban design and site specific art.” From a re-imagination of Paris’s Place de la République for pedestrians to urban regeneration projects in Ireland, Indonesia, China, South Korea and the UAE, her firm employs an effective blend of rigor and whimsy. And Schwartz herself, though exceptionally talented, is also modest.
“It’s not as if all the best ideas come from me,” she says of her firm today. “Some of them do. Probably the best ones.” With this, she laughs, acknowledging that she doesn’t necessarily believe it. “But I love ideas. That’s the best part: what we think of and dream of. I’m always amazed. ITo see these things that people think of that are so beautiful, that’s amazing. It’s at those rare instances that I’m a human being.”
Though she began by saying she hadn’t been to Portland in 25 years, Schwartz actually would fit right in here. Because her training is rooted in visual art—an irreverent, colorful brand of it—Schwartz’s work is at once rational and whimsical. And it’s earnestly focused on the public realm, as if the communal places and spaces we occupy are what foster an essential togetherness (because they do).
Schwartz, who recently moved back to the United States to open a branch office in New York (the firm also has an office in Shanghai), told the audience she missed being an American, “even though the politics…” She expressed horror at the elections on either side of the Atlantic that (with the help of the Russians) brought us Brexit and Trump. But it was clear this is a designer who won’t be bogged down. And her portfolio is the best indication.
The designer initially saw training in fine arts as a small rebellion. “Everybody in my family is an architect: my father, my husband, my sister, my son,” she explained. “I grew up on the floor of my dad’s office in Philadelphia. He was in the Jewish office. I knew it probably wasn’t for me.”
Instead she studied art at the University of Michigan, becoming inspired by the land art movement of the 1970s. “The artists were coming out of the galleries to make work. But you couldn’t sell it. It was kind of like, ‘Fuck you, art world! I am not for sale!’ But it allowed you to see the landscape through a new lens. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ But in those days there was no such thing as Land Art 101. So I kind of stupidly went into landscape architecture, thinking that was land art. I had to learn that wasn’t the agenda.”
Yet after studying at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Schwartz—even if she didn’t quite know it—was ready to make an impact. While she was not destined to become a land artist like James Turrell, her incorporation of artistic irreverence into design was very much of the time, as architecture turned toward postmodernism. Her career was launched in 1979 with The Bagel Garden, a tongue-in-cheek landscape design that literally featured bagels. It was funny, but it also wound up being a commentary on the uninspired, overly serious nature of the landscape architecture profession.
“When you’re an artist you’re hungry to do things. All this land was being completely wasted on dull stuff. It was frustrating.”
The designer and her then-husband were living in Boston townhouse and arguing about how to fix up the unkempt backyard. “I waited for him to go on a business trip, and I decided to go into action,” she recalls. “I gave myself an art problem. I had a hundred dollars. I could only buy what was on the block. There was an aquarium and a plant store. I bought what I needed. It was an existing baroque hedge but I clipped it back and cleaned it out. I shellacked bagels and set them out. I spread out blue aquarium rocks. I had friend at the GSD who took these beautiful pictures. Another friend who was at New York magazine and said, ‘Send them to your magazine.’ I sent them in to Landscape Architecture magazine. They wanted to publish it, but could I write an article about why I did this? I thought, ‘Okay, fair enough.’”
“Being appropriate was really important in landscape architecture. It was a new profession and they wanted to come across as standup citizens, detailing this and that. ‘The bagel,’ I said, ‘it’s a very important material. The reason is they’re cheap and anyone can install them. They don’t need to be watered and they’re biodegradable.’ It was absolutely deadpan. It was a Dada piece. For whatever reason, they put it on the front cover. This thing was so upsetting to real landscape architects. People were livid. Grady Clay, the editor, was eventually fired. People were like, 'She’s only in it for the money. I could pull my pants down too.’ But other people said, ‘Yeah this is great,’ ‘It’s crazy,’ or ‘It’s funny,’ or, ‘What is that?’ This was a time when all sorts of things were happening in the art world, and landscape architects were freaking out over some bagels. It was really, really a boring profession. But I realized something: if I called myself a landscape architect, I’d get a lot more opportunities to do things than if I called myself an artist. I knew I was going to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
From here, Schwartz described a succession of professional projects her firm (founded the year after the Bagel Garden) eventually took on, most all of which seemed to possess a similar sense of whimsy, color and cheekiness. For a roof garden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Whitehead Institute, for example, Schwartz made constraints her inspiration.
“There was no money and no water and no maintenance, and it couldn’t hold any weight,” she said of the roof project. “Nothing was going to live. So I said, ‘Okay, what does a garden mean?’” Given that the Whitehead Institute is devoted to genetic engineering, the designer decided the roof design would too. “It was about engineering a Zen garden with a French baroque garden. We used green paint and poured gravel, Astroturf, plastic plants. One side is the French baroque garden and the other is the Zen garden. There were seats for faculty to come out and have lunch.”
For a residence in El Paso, Texas, Schwartz again did a lot with a little, and made an asset of constraints. “Ms. Davis had a beautiful English garden, but she also had this walled area,” the designer recalls. “She said, 'You can do whatever you want inside this box.' You cannot come out of it. I want something easy to maintain.’ So the idea was to incorporate the wall into the concept.” The whole project became a series of walled stucco outdoor room.” One room was about the context of the mountains and was gilded with gold paint. There was a cactus room. There was a changing room for the swimming pool, so the cactuses were phalluses in tribute.”
In time, Martha Schwartz Partners began to take on bigger projects for public clients, in which case perhaps the edge came off the irreverence a little bit, but enough color and a sense of delight remained for the projects to enliven the architecture around them. “Our public work is the most meaningful,” she says. “Everybody gets to share it. It’s really the quality of the public realm that makes the quality of life higher in cities.”
For the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, Schwartz’s team enlivened an unused plaza at its landmark 1968 building by the great Marcel Breuer. For the Mesa Center for the Performing Arts in Arizona, collaborating with Portland architecture firm Bora, Schwartz helped create a shaded and multifaceted outdoor space that could host a variety of small and large performances and also do something much larger: give this outer Phoenix suburb a sense of place. Then there was Exchange Square in Manchester.
“This site was bombed in 1995 by the IRA,” she explained, showing a slide of the post-bombing devastation. “It’s the kind of set you like to work on because you can’t do anything worse. But we try to find a story for each site. Each site has its own individual thumbprint. We have to find a trajectory for us to follow as designers.”
Schwartz’s team found inspiration from Manchester’s history as “a nexus of the Industrial Revolution.” The designers brought back a so-called hanging ditch, “a real stream that ran a power wheel to grind wheat. We filled the hanging ditch with stepping-stones people could walk on, but most prefer to walk along it.” They studied the topography, “a geological rift where this a huge underpinning of York stone, but nearby is a lot of granite,” and used these type of stone to create “a series of gradual ramps down to this level divided by these low walls. You could picnic on them, play on them, lay down on them.”
For the Place de la Republique in Paris, “The big win was to convince the traffic engineers to give some space to pedestrians, not just cars,” Schwartz explained. “This was about reclaiming simple territory in the heart of Paris.” The design itself “was simple because it needed to be. In open space you need places to get food and coffee, to sit, to watch other people, to play and protest. I’m very proud of this: when you see protests by left wing protesters, this is where they go. So that’s really great.”
Schwartz then took the audience through a series of recent projects in China. Within these designs were additional moments of beauty and whimsy, such as a gazebo for the outdoor area of a new housing development. But a number of the designs seemed to be landscapes for sales centers meant to attract buyers to future buildings. “We’re all part of that horrible process,” Schwartz said, with an endearing candor.
After showing a few more projects, Schwartz then shifted gears. The whimsy and irreverence of her projects gave way to an earnest plea to the audience to do something about climate change. “I’m freaked out,” she confessed. “How do we practice and still deal with the vastness of this situation that we have made?”
Schwartz recalled learning about how permafrost in Siberia is melting, allowing massive amounts of methane to reach the atmosphere. “Methane is 28 times more potent than CO2,” she explained. “We’ve all heard the two-degree [Celsius] tipping point, that after which we won’t be able to go backwards.” If the targets of the Paris Agreement signed in 2016 were met, the planet was supposed to only increase by one degree. “It turns out that’s really conservative and, you’ll see, wrong. A newer projection is that by 2050 we’re getting closer to three degrees. The high estimate is asix6 degree centigrade increase by 2100. As human beings we can’t survive. It’s over.”
The designer recounted contacting a scientist-friend at Oxford University, asking what she, and the profession at larger, could do. “We can collect rain, we can deal with water management, we can help adapt, but we can’t continuously adapt to a six-degree Centigrade change,” she explained learning. While it’s important that we design for resiliency, we need to put that carbon back in the ground. We have to think about mitigation. We need intervention to reduce the sources. A lot of scientists agree that geo-engineering is what we’ll have to go do.”
So what does geo-engineering mean, in this case? For all the complexity of climate change, the answer, as Schwartz and others see it, is somewhat simple: trees. Specifically, the world needs a massive reforestation effort—in cities as well as outside of them.
“It’s not street trees anymore, folks. We need to create corridors,” she told the audience. Citing books such as Paul Hawken’s Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, she mentioned a number of solutions that, when combined, could halt or slow climate change: more tropical and temperate rainforests, regenerative agriculture, peat lands, afforestation, bamboo, alternative cement, coastal wetlands.
“Seven of the top 15 things [on Hawken’s list] you can do are about landscape,” Schwartz said. “The one thing I’m focused on is afforestation, which means planting forests in places that have never had forests or have been deforested in 50 years. Forest protection is the most powerful solution available to address global warming.”
She walked the audience through a study Schwartz and her Harvard GSD students completed that looked at how the Boston area would need to change. “Boston is going to have to go into retreat,” she said, showing a potential future urban growth boundary and an inner circle where no automobiles are allowed.
As is custom in these Portland Design Events lectures, the evening began with a short presentation by a local designer, in this case landscape architect Andreas Stavropoulos, co-founder of Base Landscape Architecture and president of Oregon ASLA chapter. And as it happened, Stavropoulos’s talk was an ideal primer for Schwartz.
Rather than discussing his firm’s portfolio, the designer spoke of his love for science fiction and how it has inspired him. Citing authors like Nora Jemisin and George R.R. Martin, Stavropoulos spoke of the “world building” that sci-fi authors engage in. “It involves deeply imagining the place where a story happens,” he explained. “It can take weeks, months, decades to build the world they can tell their story in. World building is imagining a place that does not yet exist. This is something I relate to. As I consider my work and the work of the firm, we consider ourselves to be story-driven.”
But world building by sci-fi authors becomes most interesting, the designer explained, “when the author gets to bring in the X-factor: some element of magic that the author gets to make up in this word. It could be a powerful ring or beings have eight-foot tails. It can be anything as long as it’s fully integrated into the world, and you can write an authentic story around it. I thought, ‘What’s my X-factor?’ Then I thought of one. Trees give us superpowers.”
Indeed, the world Schwartz imagined in her lecture—with the kind of geo-engineering necessary to withstand and overcome climate change—can be reminiscent of science fiction. But it also seems very recognizable and, dare I say it, perhaps even more attractive. Certainly no one wants global warming and its attendant catastrophes, but you know what? I wouldn’t mind living in a city with a giant band of forest running through it.
And to bring the conversation full-circle, it occurred to me after the lecture that whether it's a bagel garden or a worldwide reforestation effort, Schwartz is urging us to go forth boldly—collaboratively and with humility, but boldly nonetheless.