Martha Schwartz: “An idea is something that actually contributes to the movement of culture”

Martha Schwartz — is a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, head of her own practice Martha Schwartz Partners and one of the most sought-after landscape architects in the world. She talked to Strelka Magazine about what it’s like being a woman in such a male-dominated profession as architecture, how to make central Moscow safer for children and how different is working in Russia compared to working in China.

Credit: Elena Strebkova / Strelka Institute

Among some of Martha’s most notable works are several regeneration projects such as Grand Canal square in Dublin docks, Jacob Javitz Plaza in New York and Exchange square in Manchester — the site of a 1996 IRA bombing. She also curated the development of master plans for Doha in Qatar and Baltimore Inner Harbour in the US. Schwartz visited Moscow to discuss details of her new project — design concept for the public spaces surrounding a major toy store located on Lubyanka square in Moscow. In addition to that, this year Schwartz is also curating a joint educational programme of Strelka Institute and Harvard School of Design.

— The amount of influence a landscape architect has in the overall process of urban development has increased in recent years. What, in your opinion, enabled this process?

— Well, I think a number of things have happened. Due to the rapid growth of cities we’ve become more urban: more and more of us are moving to cities for various reasons, but primarily because that’s where most people can find work. And so we’re all struggling to figure out how to make these expanding cities work. There’s another factor — the increase in global population. I know that in my own lifetime population of the United States has doubled. We’re dealing with shifting demographics and the burgeoning of capitalism and consumerism, which is putting a tremendous pressure on our natural resources. 

I would call landscape architects “knowledgeable generalists”

Landscape architects are based on studying the environment and integrating build form into it. So, between this awareness of how fragile the environment is, what our impacts are upon it and the growing populations and urbanization, the landscape occupies the territory in between the buildings — right in the center of this discussion.

— Do you think that the area of expertise has actually widened and now your job entails much more than in the past?

— I do believe it has widened, because the issues have grown, but the nature of the profession has always been how to define itself. When you tell people you’re a landscape architect, they say “Oh yeah, I have spider mites!” or “Where is your truck?” or, you know, some really strange things. They don’t really know what we do — it’s a kind of a new profession. A landscape architect can be working on a large regional scale, or create private gardens, or be an urban designer. You can be a horticulturalist or an artist in landscape — so many things you can be. So, within an already ill-defined profession which is currently expanding, we are trained to collaborate and to understand how different systems work together. It’s a very useful part of our fundamental training. You can’t just build a city because you’re capable of constructing buildings. You have to think about quality of life and what it means. People want to inhabit healthy cities where they can get good education and a job which pays well.

The landscape doesn’t have any boundaries. It may have property lines and it may have water shares, transport corridors, but when you’re putting together the whole thing, you really have to think holistically. You have to use a lot of expertise. So I would call landscape architects “knowledgeable generalists”.

Doha Masterplan. Credit: Martha Schwartz Partners
Doha Masterplan. Credit: Martha Schwartz Partners

— Could you name some of the most successful collaborations in your career?

— We work in conjunction with engineers, architects and city planners. Larger projects mean you have bigger collaborations, as you need more information. And then there are clients, developers, even mayors who enable you to think better and who are more accepting of ideas. It was fantastic working with the mayor of Edessa in Greece, for example. I also worked with the administration in Gothenburg, Sweden, who were very forward thinking. I collaborated with the city planners in Milan concerning a huge territory south of the city where the thermal springs are. We have worked with MRDV quite a bit. And wonderful engineers, of course. For example Neil Walmsley from Arup who is truly a visionary transport engineer. And then graphic designers ‒ for example, Spin. Some wonderful collaborations.

— Can you compare your experiences of working in different countries, in terms of construction regulations and restrictions? Is it always a burden and a formality or can it actually stimulate creativity?

— Well, I guess I’d say if I were speaking as a studio artist, it’s always an obstacle. But if you’re actually working in public ground, you have to engage with a lot of entities that claim the landscape as belonging to them and rightfully so ‒ you have neighborhoods, you have people who are using spaces, you have people who own the landscape, you have the cities who appropriate it. So, you’re learning how to communicate and get acceptance at higher levels of control. It’s very important. Otherwise, if you don’t bring those people along with you and get their support, you won’t accomplish anything. 

We do a lot of work in China and regulations there, compared to the US or the UK, are lax. It does affect the quality of how things get done and the process of how people get chosen to do the projects. It’s extremely unorganized and you’re always trying to fix things up cause it’s absolutely chaotic. But in China they are also very anxious for design. They want you to come up with ideas, because right now everything looks the same. Visual impact is very important to them. And that’s what makes all the craziness worth it. Because they actually build it, and they build fast and they appreciate your ideas. London is much more conservative. There’s a real process and it takes forever. Very careful, very measured, planning goes on and on and on, peer review. But because they are so unsure whether they’re going to get planning permission, very little is spent in the design process — they don’t want to waste money on something that may not happen. So, it’s all speculation meaning they don’t put a lot of time in their design process and they don’t wanna take a lot of risks. If you do get a permission then you can get it built in a very orderly fashion, add good materials, well-crafted. But nothing of real cultural significance.

I would prefer to work in a place where ideas are important. An idea is something that actually contributes to the movement of culture. Craft is important, but how long something lasts is not a measurement — the idea must resonate. I like to work in areas and with people who are looking to explore visual ideas.

Credit: Martha Schwartz Partners
Credit: Martha Schwartz Partners
Credit: Martha Schwartz Partners

— But in case of Russia when working on the “Kids Route” project, you faced a very particular kind of limitations related to the current sanctions regime, meaning that you could only use elements designed and produced in Russia. Was it easy to adapt to these conditions?

— One of the great things about my team is our ability to adapt. We love ideas and we’re very agile with them. So, if you’re creative, you could probably solve the problem if you don’t have a whole mindset about how things should be. I, myself, did not find it confining at all. You don’t need a whole range of crazy materials to do something interesting. This has to be functional and easy for people to build. Simple enough, so that it could really become the background for city life. The only real challenge is how fast it needs to be done. But we manage to keep up the pace and we find it really, really exciting. The expectations are very high. I was really honoured to be asked to do this. Moscow - the capital world city! It’s a challenge, but you gotta keep trying, otherwise, it’s not fun at all, is it?

It did give people on the street something to look at, but to the people in the offices it was an absolutely “Fuck you!” piece

We’re planning on doing a studio here with Harvard students to try imagining what the future of Moscow might be and how the landscape could change in say 50 years. What it would look like and what do we have to bring to the table to make that happen. Cause it’s going to happen ‒ the change.

— Could you tell us a bit more about the joint educational programme that Harvard Graduate school of Design and Strelka institute are curating this year?

— Well, we are still working out the details. We’ll start at the end of August. There will be a workshop where we can form the team. The majority will be Strelka students and about thirteen Harvard students. Strelka students come from all sorts of different backgrounds, so we want it to be an organic process — discovering what areas we need help with, what kind of expertise is necessary. And then working together to put something more rounded up at the end. We will have a topic big enough, so that it will involve everything. Economists, graphic designers, social workers ‒ everyone is involved in reconfiguring of the city. But in the end we’ll still need to really get down and produce a design for something. The focus will be on one specific thing and each student will do a proposal for it.

My first experience of working with Strelka was when I was invited as a member of the jury for Zaryadye park competition. I really enjoyed the process and that’s why I was eager to collaborate again.

— You also had a very interesting experience working with public art. You were commissioned to redesign Jacob Javitz square in New York after removal of the ill-received Richard Serra statue “Tilted Arc”. How does one approach a site with so much negativity attached to it?

— That’s a really interesting topic, because that wasn’t the first time that we’ve dealt with what I would call a “culturally polluted” site. One of our projects was the redesign of the Ebrington Barracks in Derry, Ireland which was absolutely the heart of darkness. It was where the English army presided, where the Troubles, the IRA and that whole war started. And even though the things had changed the Barracks still stood there. I was also asked once to redesign a part of the public space for German army barracks where Göring had his summer house. Also a really polluted site.

Javitz Plaza and Serra's sculpture in New York. Credit: David Aschkenas
Javitz Plaza in New York after its redesign. Credit: Wally Gobetz /
Javitz Plaza and Serra's sculpture in New York. Credit: David Aschkenas

I think that everybody went through the process of re-evaluating what public art is. I mean is it even possible to do public art? Art should be about personal freedom, freedom of thought. If you’re somehow controlled, then you may produce something, but whether it’s possible to please the public… It’s probably impossible. So you have to construct a system where there are specialists and people who are able to judge art as being good or bad. That itself is problematic but it’s how they did it in Seattle, for example. There was a specific group of people who were tasked to decide on who would do it and then whether the piece was good enough. Seattle is one of the most progressive cities — it has a “Percent for art” program that ensures every federal project that is built spends 3% on public art.

But on the other hand, just because a mayor may say “Well, I don’t like it” it doesn’t mean it won’t be done either. You know the difficult part is mediating between everybody’s taste. So, there needs to always be some protection between the general public interest and what an artist wants to do. As long as the artist doesn’t make things dangerous for people. Art in museums and galleries is one thing. But when you do something out there where people are forced to look at it, it’s an imposition on the public as well.

I was actually scandalized that they would take that Richard Serra piece down ‒ it's a great work. But when I was brought on board to “fix it”, I talked to people who worked in the offices trying to find out what it was that they were thinking about, what was wrong with it. Turned out they were angry because it cut them off from the street. There was a big wall and it gave nothing to the people working inside the building. It did give people on the street something to look at, but to the people in the offices it was an absolutely “Fuck you!” piece, which was Serra’s intention of course. It was a hostile, harsh piece and they felt confronted and unhappy. So, I asked those office workers what they wanted and turned out they wanted green. But the developer and the architect of the building ‒ they didn’t want any green, the place just was not designed that way, it had a garage underneath and so forth. So instead we built a lot of benches and painted them green creating a place to sit and relax. But the shade we painted them also proved controversial — I mean, they’re all lawyers — and they tried to stop the project. But it’s turned out now. Today it’s a nice, very easily digestible, acceptable space.

— It’s interesting that you propose to redesign Pushechnaya street (one of the streets redeveloped as a part of “My Street” program - ed. note) as a shared space and also as a play street. But play streets are a very neighborhood-oriented concept, whereas shared space is hard to imagine in the current transport climate of Moscow. So how do you create a safe space for children in the middle of a boiling megalopolis? And how do you make it attractive?

— We do have one big thing going for us and that’s the toy store. I mean, I do think that the overlapping of all these expectations may not fit perfectly ‒ it’s true. Because nobody is really living there, so it’s not going to be a neighborhood where the kids come out and play. But we’ve designed it so that there’s enough space where people can hang out, enjoy themselves. And we’ve come up with a couple of goofy ideas that I think would be a lot of fun if we could get the toy store to engage. They could manufacture temporary elements for kids to play with and give them to the street. Things that appeared and disappeared and could be moved around. It’s the front of the store, so a lot of people going in and out of the doors, delivery trucks arriving — a very active part of the city. And there are also shops and cafes on the other side that need service access. And some transit traffic on top of that. However, it has been shown that in Amsterdam it works and the streets are very safe and self-regulated. So I think even people from Moscow can change. You just have to try, right?

— And our final question: could you tell us what it’s like for a woman to be the head of your own practice in an industry that is still pretty much male-dominated.

— That’s a difficult question for me. I guess the shortest answer I can think of is that I’ve been in this for over 30 years and it’s only the last 2 years that I have actually allowed myself to recognize how terribly difficult it has been and what my career may have been had I simply just been a man. Because I’ve done everything wrong that a woman can do. Everything. I am the first female to have a permanent position in the department of landscape architecture in Harvard, which is the oldest department in the world. And they allowed it only after I resigned in protest. So, not all that much has changed. But just as a word of advice to you: don’t ever give up.