Martha Schwartz: Landscape Architect

She started out by saying she never meant to be a landscape architect. Her uncles, cousins, father, son, husband are all architects; it’s like a congenital disease. She planned to go into fine arts but then she encountered earthworks and so smitten wanted to explore that. One thing led to another…

What is the landscape? We think of it in pastoral terms. We think of it in terms of purist erasure — Landscape is the world without us humans in it. It’s the remainder of leftover areas we don’t ruin. Or it’s when we make nice walking gardens. Trees, birdies, clean rivers and chilly hills.

But the landscape is a bigger circle encompassing every environment we’re in — the highways, the parking lots, the service areas, the sidewalks, the towers, the open pit mines. They are still the landscape. And we spent, statistically, 7 times more of our time on highways than in parks. It is what we create that then creates positive feedback loops in health, social lives, economics and environment. On some level we know that non-commercial space, like time off, pays for itself in a way. NYC’s Central Park brings $623 million/acre to the city because people want to see the park. It wouldn’t make economic sense to parcel any of its green space into any kind of “development”.

In a project she did in Toronto, Yorkville Park, having the park and public space has increased property values around it and increased the amount of shopping done because people want to be there. The green space takes its cue from the Victorian era houses and makes a collector’s box as if the landscape were each in cubicle of Canadian shield ecology. At the same time she remarked, it is better to do something that some hate and some like than something that people don’t care about because if people are blasé it won’t be maintained. If a project is taken to heart by some people, then it will be integrated into lives. For example, Grand Canal Square in Dublin, Ireland was a plaza to go in front of a waterfront performing arts centre. Even in Ireland’s economic downturn, the area was not effected economically because it served people’s needs for a space that worked.

She adds curves and colors to the built environment and green it but does so with a sense of whimsy that is considered from a design point rather than just random play such as in Ireland’s square which plays with colors and geometric shapes that mark outdoor areas.

Public spaces, whether commuter suburbs, or mixed use street plaza life govern the rules we employ against each other. Cultural change, she contends, happen in public space, not when we are sequestered and ghettoized.

She tries to tie in the project to its context. She talked about “creating a “there” there” as Stein put it. In a project going up in China she used sight lines to shape how people walked to see the model homes. The construction of the new homes was blocked from view by a wall with a vista with a cutout to see the distant hills. Along the path there are trees planted and metal sculptures that evoke Chinese lanterns and provide shade. The walk to the model home is so popular the developer has decided to keep it as a park.

Her commission in X’ian, China is a fascinating walled garden where none of the walls are parallel, most dead-end in the maze. You are always under the canopy of willows and approach them but never see the base of any trunks until the end. The end of each wall is mirrored.

Greenery is characteristically done unconventionally, like Vienna (pictures 5 and 6) or Minneapolis.

Another project for a tower in Abu Dhabi was to make a green roof. The hitch was typical. The architects did their work and left and then it handed over to handscape architects but the design load of the building didn’t consider the possibility of a green roof. Her solution was to give dimension with mounds of greenery and water trickle feature along the seating, but the green are all panels that at thin planting on a foam core to give shape without weight.

Also in Abu Dhabi was a beach with special demands. People want to be separated by gender so males can’t access women and children, and so the immigrant labour can’t access the employer class. As well the beach front is tucked in between the ocean and a freeway because infrastructure for transport was designed first and leisure and daily life second.

In Jakarta, her firm is working on Pluit City. Jakarta has a lot of problems in the sense of it sinking worse than Venice. In Jakarta they’ve emptied their aquifers and have to catch rain water to supply local water needs. The project reclaims land, builds seawalls, replants mangroves which were all cut down which should help stabilize the coastline and regrow the fishery.

She’s doing multi-family housing in Japan with a funky stone form of fish among bamboo.

In this interview she talks about renewing mines,

We worked in Winslow, New Jersey, on a clay quarry that had been a dump for 30 cars. It was a degraded and socially dangerous site. With the client, and an ecologist, we regenerated it so now it’s an informal nature conservancy. Now, people want to know if they can buy the land to develop it into housing (no). But the point is, that now, there is a whole new set of possibilities for the site and the town.

They resculpted the 500 acres creating ponds, mixing in wood chip with clay so it could grow. It went from being a waste area to an area that migrating flocks use on their flight path. It is now trees and local species have moved back in. There are 11,000 clay quarries in New Jersey but it takes will and desire.

Martha Schwartz (of Martha Schwartz Partners of London, UK and her firm, Martha Schwartz, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachussetts with projects in over 20 countries) was the speaker on November 4, 2013 at the National Gallery of Canada.

She has received a couple pages worth of highly regarded awards and prizes including the Cooper-Hewitt Museum National Design Award for her body of work in Landscape Architecture, Women in Design Award for Excellence, Boston Society of Architects, 2005, an honorary fellowship from RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), and several design awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects, including residencies, tenure and an honorary degree.

But more importantly for this she was one of the most articulate of speakers the series has had and she organized the lecture into the half of principles of why landscape matters and then details of a few projects. And she did so with smatterings of humour, and with loads of enthusiasm and inspiration.

I was wishing through the talk that Mayor Jim Watson should have been there. He would have enjoyed her ideas, spirit and talk. Perhaps he was there. It is open to the public and a full room.

Quote: “You have beautiful, living and inanimate materials, and one can create something that has cultural resonance. The narrative or idea can be about anything. All great art is, essentially, a very personal statement or inquiry. A built landscape is not required to look or mimic nature. If we are creating it, like any other cultural art form, it can be what we wish it to be. There’s no law that says it has to look like nature. What if all the books or movies or plays were about one subject matter or were dictated by the government? It would be stopping the evolution of culture. Without realizing it, people have very clear notions of what a landscape should be, while we’re much more open about what a building can be because we know it’s a cultural artifact.” ~ Martha Schwartz [via]

P.S. The Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism present forum lectures irregularly through the regular university year.

Nov 18th will be the next lecture. It is by David Leatherbarrow of the University of Pennsylvania. He does research on history and theory of architecture and the city. His books include: Books include: Topographical Stories, Surface Architecture (with Mohsen Mostafavi), Uncommon Ground, Roots of Architectural Invention, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time, and Masterpieces of Architectural Drawing.

 
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