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An Interview with Martha Schwartz

This was the first in a series of articles from our archives that we will reprint in our electronic version of Perspectives.

In this provocative interview, renowned landscape architect Martha Schwartz1 dismisses the practice of imposing nature on manufactured landscapes as artificial and sentimental. She reveals how her mentors, role models and background as an artist influence her designs. Her insightful analysis of European and American public spaces illustrates the fallacy of applying the European model here in the United States. She lauds the diversity in the United States and the opportunities it presents to shape our cultural landscapes. A very intimate and revealing Martha Schwartz emerges on these pages.

1Martha Schwartz currently has firms in Cambridge, London and China. Her controversial 1979 design of The Bagel Garden jump started her career and landed her on the cover of Landscape Architecture. Peter Walker is her ex-husband.


The following Article first appeared in Perspectives, Winter 1999, Vol. 16.1.

By Heidi Kost Gross

Schwartz_photoAt the annual BSLA Dinner on April 21, 1999, we will have the pleasure of listening to Martha Schwartz explain her "RECENT WORK—THE DESIGN PROCESS IN THE PUBLIC URBAN SPACE"- Ms. Schwartz is an internationally acclaimed landscape artist who works primarily in urban-scale projects. Her background is both in fine arts and landscape architecture. During the last two decades, she has created some of the most exciting spaces in the contemporary landscape, raising design solutions to the level of fine art. Her staff members, Patricia Bales and Lital Szmuck taught Design I at Radcliffe during the Fall semester. Ms. Schwartz was born and raised in Philadelphia and educated at the University of Michigan and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. She is the mother of two teenage sons. Martha Schwartz, Inc. was formed in 1990, and is located in Cambridge, MA.

HK-G: It is a widely held opinion among American landscape historians and critics that landscape design generally is still solidly entrenched in the Romantic era. Consequently, the icon for most designers in the U.S. is Frederick Law Olmsted. You certainly have climbed out of the box of Naturalistic Utopia. Why and how did this happen?

MS: Actually, I was thinking that I never climbed out of the box because I never was in the box in the first place since I came to the landscape from a completely different direction. I had no idea what landscape architecture was until I was nearly through College (the Art School at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor). And, when I learned what it was, I was not tremendously interested in it anyway. I had no idea that landscape architecture existed as a profession, partially because my father was an architect and landscape architecture was so invisible. When I finally came to it, it was with an art background in printmaking, and with a strong interest in the earth works artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Michael Heizer and Mary Miss. However, I became involved in landscape architecture per se because I was starting to work graphically in ever larger dimensions, which were leading me into issues of scale. Consequently, I went into the profession with the idea that I would learn how to make "big art". When I went on to graduate school to study what landscape architectural history was all about, I was truly underwhelmed and almost dropped out of school after the first year, even though I was at the University of Michigan which was at the time THE design school for landscape architecture.

I remember trying to make an argument for my continuing to take art classes; but, since I had already graduated from Michigan's art school, no one in landscape architecture could figure out why I wanted to do that. At that time, there was almost no connection between the idea of art and landscape design. All was ecology based and landscape architecture was almost a formula - more of a service. I was awfully bored with it. The only reason I stayed on was because I had the opportunity to go to California and be a summer school student in Peter Walker's was the first person who brought up the connection between art and landscape, and it was here that I decided to persevere. Perhaps there was a landscape for me with my interest in art after all!

I discovered the Olmstedian tradition through the experience of trying to build landscapes. To my chagrin, I quickly recognized that's where the U.S. still was at in its landscape aesthetic. It is a continuous struggle for me to be confronted with this reality, for I'm not interested in that landscape design style, even as a tradition; just as I am not interested in landscape painting as a genre. Furthermore, I am not even interested in the direction it might take in the future since, in my opinion, there is no future in it. Admittedly, the Utopian landscape is something that everybody likes; it is non-threatening; it falls into the popular view of what a landscape is and /or should be. I feel that the Olmsted vernacular is sentimental, and probably not even healthy for us to be thinking of our landscape in its terms. I feel that we are dishonest when we plaster meaningless naturalistic symbols on completely manufactured landscapes. In a way, we are trying to avoid thinking clearly about what we are doing. It would be much wiser to confront what we really are as a culture and society, painful, but better in the long run than dragging around 19th century sentimentalism like a teddy bear. Sentimentalism allows us not to have to think deeply and, consequently we don’t admit our feelings and ideas about nature and the absence of a developed cultural language, particularly for our public spaces. As Americans, we are certainly running away from these difficult issues of who and what we are as a culture since what is American culture for one group is not applicable for the next.

Traditionally, functionality and utility were the primary criteria for a successful urban open space design. The social agenda of education and socio-political indoctrination came a close second. In your opinion have these criteria changed?

MS: Although I spend a great deal of time in Europe, I am an American, my roots are here, and this is where I belong. I think that for us Americans these criteria have indeed changed. While the above program might still be valid in Europe, I know that it is almost impossible to transplant it here. The cultural histories and. historical structures are so very different from one another, and the design approaches are not related. In America, we have a very different view and attitude towards urban open spaces, and very different pressures bearing on any situation. Europe's public spaces were created for public processionals, and to portray the illusion of power. They were giant stage sets designed to relate to the crowds, to control and interact with them, as well as to commemorate events. They are the hallmarks of singular cultures, often ruled by monarchs, emanating from one point of power and one point of view. Their collective function was to create a mood. I love these spaces and adore looking at them; but, I would never have chosen to live in a time, and under a political system that created them—now that's a conundrum.

The American formula is very different, for we never had a consolidation of wealth. Wealth was always distributed differently. Individual wealth always came first and was based on the land or the sea. We never had any use for capital cities. Consequently, we also never had the communities of artists who carved out and built the great metropoles like Rome, Madrid or Paris. Nor did anyone have the interest or the power to commission the art to go with them. In the urban spaces here there was no need for pomp, circumstance or communication, for when we settled, we simultaneously developed a transportation system unlike any other in the world. This system, which still today characterizes the United States, incorporated trains and roads, and lots of cars. Furthermore, we perceived no great need to leave the urban neighborhoods, the villages or farmsteads to communicate with one another. In short, we developed a country based on technology which no longer needed the Agora. Since we didn't need it earlier, we need it even less now. Certainly, urban spaces from Dallas to New York City vary greatly; though in general people in either city care little about them. In new cities like Dallas, built on fringe land, the designer, has to invent the relevant cultural context. These spaces are blank pages. You have to create a dialogue of some sort in order to generate a THERE there.

Nevertheless, public open space in the U.S. is in an ongoing transformation. I know because I am in the middle of it. I also know that I am romantically involved with the idea that there should be Euro-type public urban spaces. Alas, most people are still romantically involved with the idea that there should be nature in these spaces. Whatever this means, collectively we care less and less about nature and become more and more removed from it. Our children have no idea what real nature is except for what they see on TV, or the other media. Psychologically we are all on a spaceship that's leaving Mother Earth behind. Through technology, we now communicate in very different ways, and we are becoming ever more private - another difference between us and the Europeans. We retreat into our homes, which are our castles because we still have the space to do so. Everything within our property line is our world. The outside of this domain we abdicate to some other force of little interest to us, preferably the government whom we have traditionally hated. We have never freely allotted our resources to the government. We create and recreate ourselves in our own homes, in our own companies, and in the rest of the private sector. All else is not part of our consciousness.

Considering this, is it a wonder that our public spaces are always changing, or remain in a miserable state of flux? Right now our superior public-spaces are in airports and shopping malls, or near highway intersections. Check out the parking lots these are our true open spaces today. The emphasis here is on usage not romance.

HK-G: At the turn of the 21st century, you are one of the leading American modernist landscape artists. Who are the women and men who inspired you and why?

MS: Peter Walker was my greatest inspiration. Naturally, I admired the work he was trying to do and is actually still doing. He, too, was wrestling with the idea of connecting art with the landscape. He motivated me to stay unfettered, to explore, to experiment and to hone and pursue my artistic ambitions in landscape architecture. Most of all, he encouraged me to bring my own art ideas to the table. He was very interested in this experimentation since he did not make a distinction between art and landscape architecture. Peter Walker was my ultimate teacher.

Schwartz_Javits_PlazaHK-G: You have stated that modem sculpture and mid-century earthworks influence your work. How much of your work draws on contemporary painting?

MS: A lot. I love painting. My work is an amalgamation of the two art forms, sculpture and painting. I love the pop artists because they made us see the common place - the low-cultural environment - in a different way. I find that very useful since this is how we are building our landscapes today. We are not spending money for craftsmanship. That's past. We do assemble our things out of everyday materials, and it is these artists who illuminated the way for us to look at everyday things with a fresh point of view: very positive and very optimistic. My particular favorites are Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Noguchi, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. On the other hand, I also love minimalism. You see, I am not a purist, nor am I linear.

HK-G: At Radcliffe, the Landscape Design Program very much stresses Design Process. What are the tools that you use to fully understand the site and lead you to an informed concept?

MS: Good question. When I teach at the Graduate School of Design, I stress process very much. First off, get the "feel" of the site. Ingest and understand the wishes, motives and background of the client(s), and understand well how the site is to be used. Get your mind set on the program. Albeit, the biggest and most important part of the process, however, is the part people don't talk much about, - how do you formulate your own idea? Where does it come from? How do you generate it? What do you do to get an idea in the first place? What is an idea? Always remember that you alone are the source, nobody is going to tell you what to do, or how to do it. Most importantly, you have to learn to trust yourself. Even if you meticulously go through every step of site analysis, even after you understand and know everything that is there to know about the site, it doesn't tell you what to do with it. You have to divine that yourself. Now, how do you get to that?

You simply have to rely on instinct. Memory, history - you have to inject all of these and, somehow, come up with something that you feel strongly about. The more you know about  something, the richer your synthesis will be. And, even with a good synthesis, you still will have to give more. After this exhaustive process, your design will end up to be very personal because it emanates directly from you. The next step is to become confident enough to give form, life and meaning, and learn how to be connected and comfortable with it as your imprint.

It is this part of the design process that is very tough to get at and is very difficult to learn. Usually by the time someone ends up at Harvard or Radcliffe, they usually have had very linear training, and this kind of being in touch with one's feelings and one's sensibilities has not been encouraged nor supported. You have to peel back all those layers of different things you have learned in order to get to that which is important to you as a human being. The emotion of it all is what will give a design form and the power of your convictions.

HK-G: Plant material: Radcliffe mainly educates people who come to landscape design via their experiences in creating private gardens. On the whole, these students tend to know their Hortus III well, and use their horticultural knowledge to paint the landscape canvas. Ian McHarg and Neil Jorgensen have their fan clubs here as well. In your work, plant material is used to underscore the architectural line of your design and to evoke historical and/or social meaning, frequently with a sense of humor, very much as it was done in the Renaissance and the Baroque. Do you consider this a departure from the modernist architectural tradition of your stylistic milieu where nature was mostly left in its vernacular splendor?

M S: Of course, I see myself much more in the Baroque tradition, manipulating the landscape—absolutely. I love the Baroque Garden best of all, because it seems like such a wondrous artful way of melding the human landscape and nature together. What could be better than making a city out of trees? How urbane and civilized is that? Baroque gardens for me are giant stage sets, always designed for people interact upon and within. These gardens are theatrical stages where plants are used in order to construct space, and to create the feeling that the artist wanted you to have, whether it was being expansive, or to be very small, or have a direct connection to the sky. These designs were all about the manipulation of feelings, perceptions and mathematical ingenuity using plants for delineating the horizontal-cum-vertical dimensions, as well as the ground plane. I am aligned with this design philosophy; I see this tradition as dealing constructively with the thoroughly manufactured world of today.

In contrast, the dichotomy posed by the modern tradition disables us to integrate real nature with the man-made structure and, consequently, undermines all dialogue except the extreme. This has produced terrible places to live. Modernists had their perfect view of the world where man was in one place, nature in another.

And humor ...Humor is personal. I come from a very funny family. We use humor a lot, in all situations. Why not also in design? You know that humor is a very serious business. Comedians have a real purpose. They are often very angry. Since people won't listen to heavy handed truth, the way that comedians are able to get their very serious message across is through the subversive act of being funny—speaking truth in jest.

About the Interviewer:  Ms. Kost Gross is the principal in G/S Associates. She is current President of NELDHA and the 2011-2013 President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts. She is Natural Resources Commissioner of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts and was awarded the the 2010 Landscape Design Council Award for Excellence, given in recognition of  outstanding civic accomplishment. She was also awarded four gold medals from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. She holds certificates in Landscape Design and History from the Radcliffe Seminars of Harvard University.