Martha Schwartz, Reconnecting

Back from a dozen years in London, the designer is focusing on climate and the world she has made her home.

By James Trulove

 Photo by Sahar Coston-Hardy.

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, and her business partner and husband, Markus Jatsch, last year relocated from London to Brooklyn, though the London office remains the headquarters of their firm, Martha Schwartz Partners. Schwartz continues to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design—though her projects have taken her firm just about everywhere but the United States. James Trulove, a former editor of LAM, who has known Schwartz for years, joined her and Jatsch, who is trained as an architect, for a conversation to find out what prompted the move and where Schwartz is directing her design and teaching now.

James Trulove: You now have offices in New York, London, and Shanghai. I guess there are many opportunities for a landscape architect in China given the enormous amount of construction that is taking place. What is it like to work there?

Schwartz: Unfortunately the quality of much of the built work is poor, and this thing about them wanting to build 400 cities in 20 years—unfortunately, it was very market-driven. There wasn’t any kind of top-down city planning where instead of just building high-rises, they said, “Let’s build a city.” It was just building high-rise towers. By zoning law, there had to be a little tutu of green around it.

Trulove: Well, you go through China, and you see all these endless rows of new condominiums that are black at night. Nobody lives there.

Schwartz: It’s because the local government officials are rewarded for how much they can get built, whether it is needed or not.

Jatsch: A lot of developers are now actually using the landscape to create a public realm around them which has a higher quality, because the buildings themselves don’t have it.

Trulove: And the landscapes often are more traditional?

Jatsch: No, not when they call us.

Trulove: There’s got to be an enormous amount of work and a lot of competition.

Schwartz: Yeah. There’s a lot of work. But you know, the Chinese goal is to do everything themselves.

Jatsch: I think we are in a bit of a fortunate position over there, because the companies that work in China are usually too big and corporate to really embrace landscape as a design opportunity, so we don’t have too much tough competition in this field in China.

Schwartz: Yeah, that’s true.

Jatsch: And they just love Martha, when she goes there to lecture as this master hero, because she really established a new understanding and approach for landscape. They really seem still so unreformed, which is fascinating.

Schwartz: Well, I think anybody who kind of does something unusual or steps out of line, especially if you’re a woman, that seems to…

Trulove: Well, that’s been your modus operandi from day one, right? Stepping out of line?

Schwartz: Stepping out of line, exactly. It’s especially bad manners, being a woman. You’re not supposed to do that.

Trulove: Why did you come back to the United States to set up an office again? You mentioned earlier on that it was about reconnecting. Reconnecting with what?

Schwartz: My family.

Trulove: Rather than to be reconnecting with the United States as a place to do work?

Schwartz: I’m not sure I was tremendously attached to the United States in terms of work. I always think of myself as kind of too far out there, while the U.S. in many ways is very traditional. I’ve come to understand after I’ve lived here for awhile, that [Americans] are real colonials. We long to kind of create this history that we don’t have, and so we look back to the mother ship and try to re-create that connection. I was in Mexico City for a colloquium, and I hadn’t been there for a long time, but they embrace modernism. We haven’t. We just kept on going with the colonialism, columns, and this, that, and the other.

Trulove: So, what sort of projects are you looking for here now?

Schwartz: Pretty much anything. One of my big worries is whether we will actually integrate into what is going on here. I know that there are a lot of cities doing interesting things. New York has made a big effort in understanding how the landscape needs to function. But finding people who are interested in landscape as a contemporary kind of design art? I just don’t know.

Jatsch: I think the U.S. is slowly warming up to understanding the need to see landscape as being part of the infrastructure and thus also being a design opportunity. You know, because of global warming and other issues, these large-scale projects are starting to happen in these cities, especially on waterfronts. There are a lot of opportunities opening up for us as designers. And then you have more and more sophisticated clients in the center of the country. There’s a lot of interesting stuff suddenly happening in the built environment in these little towns, cities, in between the two coastlines. They were not on the radar 20 years ago.

Trulove: You are a tenured professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. What are you teaching your students now?

Schwartz: Well, it’s funny you asked that one. I’m not even teaching a design studio. I’m teaching my students about climate change. It doesn’t seem to be a big topic at the GSD.

Trulove: It does not?

Schwartz: No. Markus and I are co-teaching a studio, working in connection with Harvard Forest, which has basically mapped out all of Massachusetts and done a number of scenarios based on—let’s say—2060. One scenario is: What happens when there are climate refugees trying to get into Massachusetts because there are droughts in the Midwest? Massachusetts will have water. It’s been reforesting itself. How do you actually make trade-offs between planting trees in order to sequester carbon dioxide while you still need land to grow crops? Because there’s always a trade-off, right? One scenario is where you stop sprawl and create a boundary around Boston and other cities, so that you’re protecting the landscape in order to capture water. [Massachusetts is] going to have like 6 to 8 percent more rain in the wintertime and no rain during the summertime. I’ve been obsessed with this whole issue of climate change and what it means for us as landscape architects. Because where we’re used to working site by site, we’re stewards of the landscape. We make sure that on every site, we collect the water. In order to create any kind of impact ecologically, you need scale, and you need connectivity. So, those things are usually determined during the planning process. It’s a bit frustrating knowing that this freight train is coming right at you, and what our role really is. We’re barely teaching ecology at all at the GSD. But instead of the traditional way of teaching ecology, which is plant associations and what’s going to grow where, we have to learn about what really is happening, because everybody knows that climate change is happening, but they don’t know how fast it’s happening, and they don’t know the ramifications.

Jatsch: The Harvard Forest Project actually did, with climate change as a main focus. The starting point was that they realized in the 1800s, 1900s, there was so much deforestation going on in New England and in Massachusetts. And in the 20th century, [the forests] regrouped to an unexpectedly high level, and this showed them that recovery is possible. But regrowing stalled recently, and due to current land policies, it’s starting to go down again. They were trying to figure out different scenarios, how this can be prevented, how the existing and remaining forest areas can be protected. And as part of these scenarios, they also looked at the carbon sequestration potential of these forest areas—which turned out to be quite a powerful element—and then of course, scenarios of industrial reforestation, agriculture, and becoming self-sufficient. These were outlined with different stakeholder groups. Another one extended into the entire region of New England, actually.

Schwartz: Except they haven’t tackled the cities, which is what we’re trying to do. That is the hard part, because of the city’s crazy emissions. So, we’ll never really be able to kind of stuff it full enough with trees to really impact the carbon dioxide. There is quite a lot that the planting of trees can do to modify the climate. The soil actually is what sequesters carbon dioxide, but also it helps the water to infiltrate and bring down temperatures. All of Massachusetts actually is enough to sequester 10 percent of the emissions that Massachusetts makes. This issue of how we deal with the water inside the city is very important: how to take out a lot of the hardscape, how to bring down temperatures.

Trulove: And a lot of people are prepared to believe that it’s not happening because to do so has a negative impact on commerce.

Schwartz: Yeah, well, I mean, not at the GSD. Even people at the GSD who you would think would know, don’t know.

Trulove: That’s interesting you should be the one who teaches them, because you’re the one who rebelled against this at one time. When Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature, came out, he was looking at landscape architecture from a completely different perspective from you, who wanted to have a big canvas on which to create a beautiful piece of landscape art.

Schwartz: I never felt ecology was wrong or bad. The real problem is that everybody thought that ecology had to look like something, and it doesn’t have good design. You can be ecological and you can also make art. There’s no real one or the other. People just took those stances: “It should be pastoral and natural.” Well, who made up these rules? If we were to go to a zero-carbon economy right now, we would still continue to heat up for hundreds of years—the oceans, thousands of years. So actually getting to a zero-carbon economy could take 50 years, which is too long. And the oceans are warming up and the ice is melting, which actually kept a cap on methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide [as a greenhouse gas]. We read an article months ago that Europe could be looking at 100 million climate refugees because the Middle East is going to heat up to where it’s too hot to live. There are going to be these huge demographic shifts. So, to me, it seems like it’s time to rethink our approach to ecology—what we as landscape architects should be doing, because we’re not scientists. There are lots of scientists working on all these incredible ideas, but our government hasn’t really seen fit to, first of all, recognize it’s happening, but second, to say that this is something that’s important enough that we should be spending our money on, like the Manhattan Project. Put $5 billion together with all these scientists and put them in the desert and put some razor wire around and tell them not to come out until they figure it out, because they could.

Trulove: But, that’s not going to happen now.

Schwartz: Well, I mean, it may not happen at the federal level, but it still absolutely could be happening at a state and private level. There’s a lot of money to be made, so generating new ideas and technologies could really happen. There are also cities that are working to bring down their carbon footprint very quickly. And, you know, there’s always China, which could move on it very quickly.

Jatsch: China is capable of pulling it off, hopefully on a political level. I think the United States is extremely capable—more than any other country—to pull things off on a private level. You don’t find this in Europe.

Schwartz: Look at Silicon Valley and all the ideas that came out of there. It’s like an Industrial Revolution. There are all these technologies out there being invented and being looked at—ways of sequestering carbon dioxide and the oceans, sucking up the atmosphere, new fuels, you know, for airplanes, new battery technologies. I mean, all this stuff is being invented now, and it’s all over the place.

Jatsch: And the United States is traditionally open to taking ideas. We just met with a scientist at Harvard, David Keith, who is into solar engineering. I was wondering whether, especially with this new administration in Washington, whether he is still in the right location with his work and his research, and whether in Europe would he be more supported for what he’s doing. But at the same time, the Europeans are much more skeptical of any broad, large-scale solution.

Schwartz: Anyway, back to our Harvard studio: Our class is looking at how Boston in 2060 can integrate meaningful ecologies into the city. How to bring down the heat, how to take up a lot of the concrete and the asphalt and store the energy. How do you actually deal with keeping the fresh water that you’re going to need in the summer? These are all things that cities are going to need to figure out. And it isn’t just on a site-by-site basis. These have to be connected.

Trulove: Manhattan is another example. A few years ago the Museum of Modern Art had an exhibit on the impact of rising sea levels on New York City.

Schwartz: Well, and Boston, too; it’s a sea-level change. Another problem is having heavy rainstorms that come down so quickly that if plants aren’t holding down the soil, it washes away. All the topsoil goes, and then you have the desert. It can’t hold the water, and it’s lost. And then you need it later. Part of the interesting thing is that along with this kind of crazy shit that’s going to happen in the climate, the technologies for cars are going to change tremendously.

Trulove: We’re seeing that happen at an extraordinary speed at this point.

Schwartz: The reason we need the size roads we have is for human error. A self-driving car only needs six feet, so there’s the opportunity to harvest all this public space in the streets to actually have linear, connected systems. We’re looking at all the different townships in and around Boston and how many roads there are. What happens if you don’t need half of them? And what can you do that really affects the environment by planting forests, by taking up the asphalt and creating retention areas?

Trulove: That’s very interesting.

Schwartz: A city could do a lot better. The more trees you have, the more shade you have, the less need you have to cool it down, and you don’t need as much energy. So, you can plant your roads; there are all sorts of things that cities can do to make life a lot more livable and keep us alive. The only reason we care about sustainability is our sustainability. So it’s a very strange studio.

Trulove: Do you have a lot of participation?

Schwartz: No. Not very many people are interested in it.

Jatsch: It’s not just Harvard; it’s American schools nowadays. They don’t really teach design anymore, whether it’s architectural or landscape. In the London office, we don’t have anyone from the United States.

Trulove: Really?

Jatsch: No. Look at designers. The best designers come from Spain. They have a solid basic design education. They don’t shy away from color theories and proportions and this kind of stuff, and yet, they then top it with a very solid teaching of architectural thinking. They combine these two very well. Even landscape architects—which is an official program in Spain—they are really solid people. In the States, every school is jumping on this newest fashion with whatever is based in the computer, whether it’s 3-D manufacturing, or parametric design, or whatever. And none of them teach the basics anymore.

Schwartz: I’m supposed to be teaching an advanced design studio at Harvard, and people just don’t have tools. I have found it very frustrating. I mean, the desks have gotten so small; they’ve been redesigned so that they’re about not even this wide. And then they have these backs that are made out of glass. You can’t pin up anything. They’re not made for drawing. It’s all about computer stuff.

Jatsch: Do you know what I was told the other day, last week? At one studio’s desk, one half is occupied with a computer and two monitors and the other half was occupied with a little 3-D printer. No space to sketch, with a physical model, to try out, to experiment, nothing.

Schwartz: It’s pretty grim. And the idea of scale, people have no idea about scale. Like, I’m making a little path. How wide is the path? One hundred meters, a little path. No idea, right? No idea because it looks this big on there, right? So the school hasn’t really been run with, I think, a real commitment to what it takes to really teach design. Then, I’m taking this advanced design studio. It’s like, well, “rise over run equals percent slope.” That is where I am. And so I often make the decision to stop talking about design. All I need you to do, want you to do, is to try to grade this, so when you graduate from graduate school, you’ll have been able to say that you’ve graded something.

Jatsch: It’s a typical studio problem, I think, where the students love to dive into these analyses because the longer they do it, the less time they have to spend on actually putting a pencil down and designing something. And they shy away from it. Great analysis and making them pretty and beautiful is much easier, and it isn’t really something you can be criticized for, because it isn’t right or wrong.

Schwartz: Every class, we’re getting incredible people from the engineering school who come in and talk to the students about the science behind global warming and the science behind ice melt. They’re all from Harvard. They’re coming in, and the students are learning what’s behind all of this stuff. And then they’re having to figure out what they’re going to do with each one of their townships in terms of inserting these ecologies. Now they’re going to have to measure the effect of it. And they’re going to learn something about it. They’re going to know a lot more about climate change. They’re going to know a lot more about what they can do as landscape architects, what they can tell other people, what they can tell their clients, what they can tell the mayor about what needs to be done at a larger scale. We give them the future and not another half-assed design course.

Trulove: Are your students receptive, the ones that you have?

Schwartz: Oh yeah, they’re great. Absolutely, yeah. I mean they’re all landscape architects; I’m not opening it up to everyone, [just] landscape architect students who wanted to learn about it.

Trulove: You were very frustrated because you came from an art background. You fell into landscape architecture just because you thought it would give you more freedom to design, right?

Schwartz: Well, I thought I wanted to learn how to build big art, right? But, that wasn’t really exactly what landscape architecture was about.

Trulove: A somewhat larger canvas.

Schwartz: Yeah, there was only one other person—this is when I was at the University of Michigan—who was from an art background. After that first year I was like, it’s not for me. This is really so boring…I can’t do it. But, I happened to see this sign up on the bulletin board that there was this summer program at the SWA Group out in California. I had never been to California. It wasn’t like I put together a portfolio. I rolled up my drawings, stuck them in a tube, and sent them out. I mean, it was really the most half-assed thing. I sent it out, and they took me, and I mean, I’ll tell you how wired I was. I found out that [Hideo] Sasaki wasn’t there. Sasaki was actually in Watertown, and there was this guy named Peter Walker who was running it, and I’m like, who is Peter Walker? Like, ugh! I was like, where is Sasaki, not his flunky? But I didn’t really spend a whole lot of effort trying to learn landscape architecture, because there were 120 people there. There was not one woman. I mean, I just decided they would never hire me, obviously. I’m not a landscape architect. I don’t know anything about it. I’m a girl. So, I just had a good time, and I would take every project as I did, once a week, and I would just do whatever I wanted. Some of it was kind of strange. But what happened was that during the course of the summer, Pete and a couple of other people would always be worried what I was going to do, because it was weird, you know, weird. I didn’t care. We had a house project on a hillside, and I don’t remember why I decided to do this, but I did the whole hillside, you know, the whole thing, the driveway, the entrance, the interior of the house, all the way down, the hillside, all out of yellow broken tiles. And then kind of this glass bubble house. You know, Pete had a group of his buddy architects on the jury, and there was this one guy who really liked me a lot. He was really excited about it. It was Frank Gehry. I just kept doing this stuff, you know, because obviously they liked me. And then the next year, I went back to Michigan, and then I worked on pulling together a program where I invited five different practitioners to come in and teach for two weeks, because Michigan’s out in the middle of nowhere. I went to the Graham Foundation and got some money, so I spent the whole year doing this, not learning anything. And in the last year, I transferred to Harvard, and that was the year that Pete got there, and I just hung out in his class, and he just encouraged me to keep on doing what I was doing in the SWA office—which was to make art projects out of it. So, I never learned how to be a landscape architect, really.

Trulove: To this day.

Schwartz: To this day. I’m better; I know more than I did, but for me, the idea of teaching, certainly at my age—I want to get something out of it. I want to see how this student turns out. It would be really great to be able to do something that can fit into this Harvard Forest research, to really show how cities can react at a geo level. This needs to be taught as part of the core, not as an optional studio. In other words, there’s enough information that all the students coming into landscape architecture should come out with the awareness of what’s going on in our world, on our planet, because we don’t have time, and we need all the help, all the advocacy, we can use.

James Trulove is a publisher and editor of books on architecture and landscape architecture. His most recent article was about the Metro-Forest project in Bangkok (May).

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