Martha Schwartz: Redefining Sense of Space

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Martha Schwartz, renowned landscape architect, designer and sculptor, has had global influence on the fusing of landscape and urban design, architecture and sculpture. Her colourful and witty conceptual designs for city plazas, waterfronts, streetscapes, events, residential and corporate gardens push the boundaries on a grand scale.

In a world where globalisation has increasingly homogenized place and culture, her philosophy is one in which sustainability is achieved by reclaiming a sense of place where there is differentiation of cultural identity. It requires a social ‘buy in’ or community awareness. She recognises the power of the designer to create what she describes as a ‘connective platform for a city’s environmental, social and economic health’.

fifa_1FIFA World Cup 1994
Schwarz designer mobile furnishings for USA locations

As landscape architect, she underpins the vision with a prodigious master plan. As designer, functionality is her tool for sustainability, social and environmental transformation. As artist, she opens her toolbox to unleash an explosion of electric colour, playful geometric and sculptural forms, innovative materials and technologies and a powerful, creative flair. As a tenured Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Schwartz and her firm are actively engaged in research, innovation and collaborations. She was a co-founder of the Working Group for Sustainable Cities (WGSC), a hub of cross-fertilization between urban development, environment, sociology, public policy and health, religion, gender and cultural studies.

bagelgarden_1Bagel Garden
Back Bay Townhouse Boston, Massachusetts USA

It all started for Schwartz with 13 dozen bagels. “Bagels are humble, homey and ethnic, and I could get many of them inexpensively, “ she explained about her first installation (1979) created to celebrate the homecoming of her husband from a business trip. Inspired by classical French Renaissance gardens, she set about to remodel the outer and inner squares of box hedging in the small front garden of their Georgian row house in Boston. She added a Pop Art splash of wild colour in a wide strip of purple aquarium gravel, planted 30 purple perennials to complement the existing Japanese maple and laid out 13 dozen bagels dipped in a marine strength varnish for weatherproofing.

A gesture of love, warmth and welcome, it marked the start of the landscape architect’s career and established from the outset that her prior training as an artist was going to distinguish her as an innovator with strong cultural and aesthetic values and an ability to think ‘outside the box’. It also planted the seeds for the design and the staging of many welcoming entrances to public and grand corporate spaces throughout the world.

MS_11Jacob Javits Plaza
New York, NY USA 

In 1997 Schwartz was recruited to transform Jacob Javits Plaza, New York. After the controversial removal of the pre-existing sculpture and demolition of the plaza to repair an underground car park, she was required to transform the public space (45,000 sq. feet) and make it accessible to the culturally diverse neighbourhoods of Lower Manhattan.

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MS_12Jacob Javits Plaza
New York, NY USA 

In another wry nod to the French parterre garden, strands of luminous green, New York style park benches swirl around the protruding topiary’ hemispheres that are covered in grass. There are a variety of functional and comfortable seating options for groups or individuals. Blue enamelled drinking fountains, orange wire mesh rubbish bins and light standards bring the flat and shaded space to life and make it fun and accessible. She employs a formal ground plan, adds a mix of distinctly New York elements reminiscent of pioneer Central Park architect, William Olmsted – lights, rails and bench seating, and then gives it a wild splash of colour. The exaggerated spiral handrail designs are humorous and cast silhouetted shadows and patterns. The repetitive, topiary-shaped bollards made of white concrete link street level to the plaza and plaza to the building creating a visual and spatial rhythm. A ‘bird’s eye’ view of Schwartz’s design reveals a formal, classical treatment with evenly dispersed patterns of form, colour, movement, light and shade. A profile view reveals a skilful manipulation of scale and proportion to create a vibrant and user-friendly public space.

MS_10Davis Residence
El Paso, Texas USA

The Davis Texan garden commission required a Mexican influence and a design that was to be visually separate from the existing garden.

I made an interpretation of a Mexican walled garden using a palette of concrete walls, paint, gravel and cacti. The design is based on a series of boxes – gardens inside gardens – to create the metaphor of a house. Each one contains a symbolic statement in stone, metal and cacti.

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MS_5Davis Residence
El Paso, Texas USA

Schwartz adopts elements of iconic Mexican architecture and evokes a Magic Realism – a staged set of toy boxes, vividly coloured blocks in a maze-like arrangement that create ambiguous rooms that play with space and place. Each room encloses surprise elements of desert cacti, rock and glass. This garden appeals as fantasy but it also delivers the practical advantages of minimal maintenance and hydration in a hot, dry climate. It is bold, practical and it successfully plays with the both the mind and the senses.

MS_6Broward County Civic Arena
Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA

The National Car Rental Centre and home of the Florida Panthers Ice Hockey Team is the unlikely backdrop for this commission by the Broward County Public Art and Design Program in Florida. Schwartz has designed sixteen large-scale sculptural canopies, like “mechanical palms”, they echo the existing Royal Palm plantation. Soaring high to fill the cavernous space under the post and lintel façade of the building, they are framed in steel and made of high–tech lime green fabric. Lit from within, the canopies glow at night and illuminate the plaza for pedestrians. A striped ground paving that draws on the geometric lines and patterns of the building integrating the forecourt space with the architecture. It is hard to imagine the emptiness and coldness of this public space prior to Schwartz’s bold sculptural and colourful design solutions.

MS_7Night View Broward County Civic Arena
Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA

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MS_1 copyBiornis-Aesthetope Avian Habitat Green Roof
Goldman Sachs, New York USA

Schwartz is an innovator and a collaborator. It is no surprise to find her firm engaged in the design of an avian habitat green roof for the top of the Goldman Sach’s building in Lower Manhattan. It is the type of project that requires high levels of research, scientific expertise, creativity and long-term vision. The lead design team, BAM (Ballistic Architecture Machine) bring together ornithologists, ‘green’ technologists, structural engineers, designers and architects to develop the concept for the roof as a functioning biotope (a small environmental catchment area) for birds migrating along the Atlantic Coast Flyway. The design process involves strategic management of a matrix of variables; from the use of organic and inorganic soil substrates, gradients of water retention, insect hibernation patterns and vegetative planting as well as structural loading and construction viability and the cost of maintenance over the longer term. The result is a dynamic sculptural form with visible resting areas, water pools, and organic vegetation to create a desirable destination for birds to stop over and a myriad of atmospheric benefits for the local area. It is set to become an icon for the global “green” movement and an important milestone for the green roof industry as well as a distinct “green” icon for Lower Manhattan and Goldman Sachs.

Schwartz, who boasts a long string of prestigious awards and has a network of offices in Boston, London, the Middle East and China, will continue to attract criticism for her preference for synthetic and plastic materials over the natural elements, like grass and trees, and for treating the landscape as a wild Pop Art canvas. But, by challenging the status quo, Schwartz reshapes the way we see our values and our habitats. She redefines our sense of place in the wider universe.



Jo Moulton from JOMO Steel is compiling a profile collection of leading Australian sculptors and designers for the architectural, interior and landscape design market. Jo’s interest in sculpture and design stems from her past work in leading Australian museums and art galleries. She has her own design practice specialising in exterior design.