Martha Schwartz: “I went into the profession sideways.”

Martha Schwartz: “I went into the profession sideways.”

There’s a wonderfully high chance your travels have taken you through the artfully warped spaces and cleverly designed public realm projects by Philadelphia-born, New York-based landscape architect Martha Schwartz. Her design footprint — and that of her eponymous firm, which has outposts in New York, London and Shanghai — can be found in Abu Dhabi to Malmö, Xi’an to Miami. Since her plucky entrance into the industry with the Bagel Garden in 1979, this design denizen has etched a pathway for handsome, bold and imaginative parks and streetscapes. In a career that now spans six consecutive decades, Martha has traversed the globe helping to build better cities. We chat to Martha about relocating to London for 14 years, daring to design differently, and deploying creativity to help mitigate climate change.

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On finding design

I went into the profession sideways. I did my undergrad in fine arts and admired land artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Christo and Walter De Maria. I wanted to create big-scale installations, but I didn’t want to do the starving artist thing in New York. So a friend turned me to landscape architecture. I thought I’d learn how to drive a tractor and push earth to make sculptures.

After my first year – which I thought was completely boring – I applied for a summer school program in San Francisco with the SWA Group. Peter Walker, the founder of SWA, was really supportive. Coincidently, I ended up finishing my final year where Pete was teaching his first course at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). He continued to encourage me to push my art agenda. We ended up getting married and having two kids. I still feel so lucky to have the support of someone who assured me it was okay to design differently.

On the Bagel Garden and etching your own path 

When I left grad school I was creating small landscape installations (Bagel Garden, Splice Garden) before the term ‘art installation’ was coined. The Bagel Garden (1979) done for the front yard in our Back Bay home ended up on the cover of ASLA magazine. The editor at the time, Grady Clay, wanted me to write about why I created a garden made with shellacked bagels, purple aquarium gravel and creeping phlox.

It was a critique of the landscape architecture profession, which at that time was very male, white and corporate, and one of the most important aspects of ‘good’ design was that it was ‘appropriate’. So I argued the bagel was an ‘appropriate’ garden material – it’s cheap, democratic, biodegradable, doesn’t need watering and can do well in either sun or shade. The next issue of the magazine came out and there was a huge debate on whether the garden was ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Many people were upset or angry, and Grady was, sadly, eventually fired.

It was an unusual way of entering the profession, yet it was perhaps the most important landscape I have ever done. It was a pie-in-the-face move, but it served as a bridge for my thinking – why, really, can we not use bagels? Why does the profession not allow the same cultural discourse as art and architecture? Why can’t we be critical, or funny or go beyond the parameters of grid design?

Where Martha’s career began: Bagel Garden, 1979. Images courtesy Martha Schwartz and Martha Schwartz Partners.

On creating in, but not for, New York City

I love New York. I left in 1987, lived in San Francisco, then Cambridge MA, and from 2004 I was living in London, but I recently moved back to NYC. It’s always had its own identity and carved itself as being different and a little separate. You see the weirdest, most terrible, incredible or wonderful things just by walking down the street. Everybody in every possible gradation of colour and dress. Nobody is gawking, it just is what it is: fluid. But I can’t say I’ve designed anything in New York in the last 20 years. There’s not much space left and there are a lot of great landscape architects here that are competing. We’re lucky to have work keeping us busy around the globe.

It was an unusual way of entering the profession, yet it was perhaps the most important landscape I have ever done. It was a pie-in-the-face move, but it served as a bridge for my thinking

On living and designing in London

I lived in London for close to 14 years. I was inspired by the way the city looks after its green spaces, like Richmond Park. The parks are beautiful and humane, you can sit on a chair, walk along an accessible path, grab a bite to eat. It’s incredibly civilised. The public realm in London is really valued and it shows.

On why you travel for work

After the Bagel Garden I was invited to work in many countries outside of the US. These days I’m very focussed on climate change and have been invited to lecture around the world. I have a nonprofit called Mayday.Earth, where we’re building a platform that allows people in the Global South to have access to information about climate change and the possible solutions to make cities more “Climate Ready”, which is also a course I teach at Harvard’s GSD.

Beiqijia Technology Business District in Beijing, China by Martha Schwartz Partners. Images courtesy Martha Schwartz and Martha Schwartz Partners.

On the landscape being part of culture

How we design for our cities becomes part of our culture. The landscape is everything between the walls of buildings: roads, gutters, sidewalks, highway interchanges, parking lots and natural ecosystems. Yet, humans manipulate all Earth systems, therefore we must design a world where we have enough space to regenerate, especially as we grow towards 12 to 13 billion people. We need to both protect natural systems and better plan and design urban areas, where 70% of all humans will be living by 2100.

I was inspired by the way the city looks after its green spaces, like Richmond Park… The public realm in London is really valued and it shows.

On the bigger picture of sustainability

We need to consider that the Earth’s resources are limited. It would take 4.5 Earths to create enough material for a 13 billion population who live at the standard we do in the US. We can’t find another 3.5 Earths’ worth of materials, so we need to think about how to use materials that are sustainable and recyclable – like the bagel! Now more than ever it’s important to agitate the way we design and interact with our cities.

On bringing beauty to the world

What we see deeply affects how we feel and think about ourselves. I believe everyone has a right to beauty. I never think ‘why don’t I make something iconic today?’. But what we see in our urban spaces is so important to us. Life without beauty would not be fun.

Times Central Sales Center, Xiamen, China by Martha Schwartz Partners. Images courtesy Martha Schwartz and Martha Schwartz Partners.

On designing happy cities

Communicating on a psychological level is the most important thing a designer can do. That’s why integrating design with the landscape is so important, especially in public spaces. I like the idea of creating a space where people make up their own way to move through and experience it. We understand the benefits of being outside and interacting with people – and during the pandemic it’s something we’re all missing terribly. Cities need places for kids, for the elderly, for activity, for quiet. The cities that are the most livable are the ones that have those open, flexible spaces.

I never think ‘why don’t I make something iconic today?’. But what we see in our urban spaces is so important to us. Life without beauty would not be fun.

On changing the travel landscape

My practice is working on upgrading an existing airport to make it carbon negative. Meaning, we can counterbalance all of the carbon dioxide of take-off, mid-flight and landing and we can also make the airport fully self-sustaining – including producing water and food, recycling waste, storing energy. It’s a good example of how we can actually use the landscape along with new technologies to mitigate the effects of climate change while making a fully self-sustainable, large-scale development work on its own.

On places where you like designing

Europe and China are very progressive in landscape design. Developers and cities will often work backwards, designing and building the landscape first to attract people to the development. Humans are very curious creatures, so people will come to explore new, different and exciting public spaces. This approach also creates economic value for developers because an audience already exists for that space. People value the landscape’s beauty and attractiveness. Houses with a tree in front are always worth more than the same house but without the tree.

Grand Canal Square, Dublin, Ireland, by Martha Schwartz Partners. Images courtesy Martha Schwartz and Martha Schwartz Partners.

On a scary travel experience 

When I was in Australia I was stuck in a hotel room because a spider stood between me and the door. It was fucking big. I definitely was not going anywhere near it. I missed the meeting I flew down there for, waiting for someone to come upstairs to rescue me. Turns out the spider was dead…  There have been several times when I’ve had to leave a hotel room because a spider is somewhere in the room. The worst is when you see one and then it disappears. I’ve always been this way, but really, it’s a pain in the ass, because spiders are everywhere.

On where you get your culture fix

When seeking art in London I head to the Tate Modern or the Victoria & Albert Museum, which are both fantastic. Then in New York, I find art-hopping a little more organised as certain areas, such as Greenpoint and Chelsea, are packed with galleries and alternate places to see culture.

Europe and China are very progressive in landscape design… Humans are very curious creatures, so people will come to explore new, different and exciting public spaces.

On where you’re truly inspired

The art scene in China is really rocking at the moment. My son lives in Beijing, which has led me to the city for the last 13 years and the art scene there is great. Young Chinese talent are really transitioning through a cultural revolution, figuring out who they are and how to create things that align with being Chinese. And it has resulted in wonderful high energy art that they’re making for themselves and not for a client.

On a career-changing moment

I really didn’t have an acute awareness of climate change until about 2016 and 2017. My sister Maggie sent me a YouTube video of Professor Peter Wadhams from the University of Cambridge. He talks about how the permafrost is melting and all the organic material formerly trapped is starting to come alive and producing methane – which is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It freaked me out. I sat down that day and realised what I was doing as a landscape architect wasn’t relevant to that scale of disaster. Professor Wadhams’ work has helped launch me in the direction I’m heading with my practice and non-profit.

Top: Yongsan International Business District, Seoul, South Korea. Middle: Winslow Farm Conservancy, Hammonton, NJ, USA. Bottom: Vanke Center, Shenzhen, China. All projects by Martha Schwartz Partners. Images courtesy Martha Schwartz and Martha Schwartz Partners. 

On teaching at Harvard and next generation

I have been teaching at Harvard’s GSD since 1992, and recently, have helped to create the first required climate change course. This new course has come from the demands of the students who feel very strongly about this issue. It’s on its maiden voyage but I’m completely blown away by the achievement of these young professionals.

On where you think design is heading

Ideas about how we can address climate change are pouring out of science. I haven’t known a period in my life that is so alive with ideas than now. Learning about climate change can only build our ability to better respond. There is so much that must be done, and so many things we can do. It is a true adventure.

Our practice, for example, has started integrating materials that reflect heat back out to space in order to cool the planet. For surfaces we use crushed rock, such as olivine (green) and basalt (black), that are beautifully pigmented and that sequester atmospheric CO2.

Ideas about how we can address climate change are pouring out of science. I haven’t known a period in my life so alive with ideas than now.

On your favorite things about New York

I love driving into New York City at night. From a distance it looks like a huge ocean liner. I also love people sharing their art on the subways. And even though people can be brusque, it’s also very friendly. I’ve never lived in a city where the people aren’t afraid to drum up a conversation with strangers.

On your favourite things about London

I love riding the tube. It’s so civilized and you never need a car to get where you want to go. I also love the British slang words and their sense of humor. They really rip everybody to shreds, but most of all themselves. For food try a full English breakfast, or eat at The Wolseley in Mayfair.

On a window or an aisle seat

Window.

On London in one word

Cool.

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Nuggets in this interview

industry

Martha Schwartz Partners

"My practice is working on upgrading an existing airport to make it carbon negative".

–Martha Schwartz

inspiration

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

“It’s really fantastic.”

–Martha Schwartz

food and drink

The Wolseley, London

"For food try a full English breakfast, or eat at The Wolseley in Mayfair.”

–Martha Schwartz

inspiration

Tate Modern, London

“When seeking art in London I head to the Tate Modern.”

–Martha Schwartz

industry

Bagel Garden

"It was an unusual way of entering the profession, yet it was perhaps the most important landscape I have ever done".

–Martha Schwartz

neighborhoods

Richmond Park, London

“The public realm in London is really valued and it shows.”

–Martha Schwartz

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