Martha Schwartz’s Urban Spaces

Martha Schwartz's Bagel GardenLast week, Martha Schwartz (professor of landscape architecture) discussed her recently published book Recycling Spaces and her design work at the GSD. Her materials have evolved from bagels to the latest technological advancement, but all in service of playful narrative.

Recycling Spaces, edited by Emily Waugh, positions the role of the landscape architect as central to making dynamic, healthy urban spaces. "Inventing new ways of using space to invite people to explore is what’s fun about it,” said Schwartz.

Charles Waldheim (department chair of the of landscape architecture) introduced "your Martha Schwartz” to a full room. Schwartz traced her interest in urban spaces. "My background has always been in fine arts. I went into landscape architecture to build big art.”

Martha Schwartz’s practice of twenty years is urban-focused with a strong emphasis on making more sustainable cities through design.  She presented images of concrete-dominated sites that she was commissioned to turn into more dynamic spaces. "I like these kinds of things because they’re so under-funded and under-advocated, it actually takes more imagination,” said Schwartz. "A good idea, something that actually brings life to something that degraded is really what’s required.”

In 1979, shortly after studying at the GSD, Schwartz built "Bagel Garden,” a temporary installation that she made as a joke on her then-husband Peter Walker. "I didn’t have any money,” said Schwartz. "The rule was I could only buy whatever I could get from around the neighborhood.” So she walked down the block, gathered her materials and reinvented her 22-foot square Boston Back Bay garden—effectively planting rows of bagels into an existing formal garden.

Her bagel joke made it to the cover of Landscape Architecture magazine, which asked to her to write an article on her bagel medium. "Getting out of art school, a big idea was being able to design public spaces for every man. And I decided, well, the bagel is a perfect material because it’s democratic, it’s cheap, anybody can do it, it does well in the shade, it’s biodegradable. I made a very good case for why it was a good landscape material and it freaked out the profession totally. People think of me as the bagel lady.”

Today, Schwartz has moved from bagel building to water design. As part of a collaborative entry led by Aedas Architects for the Chicago Navy Pier competition, Schwartz proposed a design that, she believed, would put Chicago on the map for tourism. It kept the footprint of the industrial pier while incorporating a wetland garden and barges to facilitate water access. "Just like most post-industrial countries and cities—everybody is trying to reorient themselves to the water because the water is now clean.”

Proposal for Abu Dhabi Financial CenterIn her more recent projects, Schwartz has been sensitive to how landscape-altering technologies play into her work.  Her proposal for Abu Dhabi’s Financial Center incorporated green wall technologies, which open possibilities for planar planting in urban sites. "This is what’s so rich about our profession—there’s so much invention going on. I think we’re truly in a renaissance right now. We’re able to deploy these incredible inventions into the life of a city. So that you can make attractive, meaningful, fun places that people will choose to live in.”

Serious technological advancement and playful narrative underlie much of her work. "A landscape can be funny. It can be ironic. It can have political content. That’s what’s so cool about what we do,” said Schwartz.

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