Martha Schwartz, Inc.
Exploring the relationship between art, culture and landscapes
by staff at Martha Schwartz, Inc.
There are many firms who do exemplary work on a wide-scale of usable landscape project types. There are also a number of Landscape Architects who create cutting-edge, artistic designs. But to incorporate the two into a single project design, it takes a special kind of talent.
Martha Schwartz, Inc., was formed in 1990 with a particular emphasis on just that, providing personal service to clients desiring unique design and executing site-specific public art commissions. The office employs a small group of artist/Landscape Architects who are interested in the possibilities of landscape as an artistic medium and who are capable of executing those ideas at the highest level possible.
The office explores the relationship between art, culture, and landscape and challenges traditional concepts of landscape design. This attitude is applied to a variety of projects nationwide, ranging from Art in Public Spaces commissions and private residential gardens to public plazas, parks, and mixed-use developments. Many current projects are commissioned as site-specific works of contemporary art.
The approach to projects is both experimental and experienced, emphasizing the interaction of clients and designers striving for the highest level of artistic achievement and excellence in execution.
HUD Plaza Improvements
Although Marcel Breuer's 1968 building for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington, D.C. bears a richly textured facade, its six-acre plaza is clearly a casualty of the Modernist aesthetic. Without trees or public amenities, the plaza was designed to showcase the building, but is virtually unusable by HUD's 4,800 employees. Adding to the desolation of this landscape is the fact that the base of the building is a solid wall of dark stone that prohibits a visual connection between the life of the building within and without. HUD's objective for the plaza was to reactivate it by commissioning a new design to reflect HUD's philosophy.
The scheme developed for the plaza repeats a circular motif in white, yellow and grey, recalling Breuer's use of geometric designs for screens, walls, and ceilings. The plaza is transformed through a strong ground plane, a series of concrete planters containing grass, and white lifesaver-vinyl coated plastic fabric, are raised 14 feet above the ground plane on steel poles. In sharp contrast to the heaviness and somberness of the architecture, these canopies and planters appear to float. As this plaza is built over an underground garage, the canopies also provide shade on a plaza that was not designed to support the soil required for trees.
Lighting gives identity to the plaza as well. Lit from within, the canopies glow at night, recalling the lanterns that illuminate paths in the Japanese gardens. A fiber-optic tube casts colored light under the planters making them appear to float on a cloud of light. For the dark wall at the base of the building, a backlit mural has been planned to reflect the people and faces of HUD and to go a dramatic backdrop for the plaza.
United States Courthouse Plaza
This 50,000 square foot plaza is located in Minneapolis, Minnesota's civic center, facing city hall and in front of the new federal courthouse designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. The program required a plaza designed for both civic and individual activities, with its own imagery and sense of place.
The design developed for the plaza refers to Minnesota's cultural and natural history. Earth mounds and logs, elements of that history, are the plaza's symbolic and sculpture elements. Within the plaza, these components symbolize both the natural landscape and man's manipulation of the landscape for his own purposes.
The mounds are intended to evoke a memory of geological and cultural forms. They suggest a Minnesotan field of glacial drumlins, a stylized hill region, or, like a Japanese garden, a landscape that allows a dual reading of scale--a range of mountains or a low field of mounds. Ranging in height from three to nine feet, the tear-shaped mounds are planted with jack pine, a small, stunted pioneer species common to Minnesota's boreal forest. The log benches, evocative of the great timber forests that attracted immigrants and provided the basis for the local economy, tell a similar story. The association of timber with Minnesota speaks to the heart of the regional collective memory and the plaza leaves a strong emotional imprint on the people who visit it.
Jacob Javits Plaza
In 1992, the Federal Government undertook the repair of the waterproofing for the underground garage beneath the Jacob Javits Plaza. Because the existing plaza would be demolished during the waterproofing construction, the opportunity was seen to revitalize the plaza. During the time that Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" inhabited the plaza, this 14-foot high sculpture was an obstruction both visually and physically to pedestrians. After the sculpture was removed, the plaza remained vacant and disconnected from its context. The intent of the plaza redesign was to create a usable, lively open space in the heart of the city. Full art and Landscape Architectural design services were required for this transformation to take place.
Large planters, which formerly existed at the northwest and southeast corners of the site have been removed, as well as the long empty fountain which had occupied the only sunny portion of the site. By opening up the plaza, the connections between the plaza and the street are reformed, and the people who wish to sit can do so in either sun or shade.
The seating for the site is provided on twisting strands of New York City park benches. With their complex forms and green color, these benches energize the flat plane of the plaza in the same way that the French used the parterres embroideries, which were punctuated by topiary forms and whose edges were defined by trees and buildings.
Familiar lunchtime elements are provided, such as blue, enameled drinking fountains, orange wire-mesh trash cans, and Central Park lighting standards. While all these elements were drawn from the Olmstedian tradition, which maintains its hold in New York City, each element is tweaked slightly from its historic predecessor. These elements offer a critique of the art of landscape in New York City, where the ghost of Olmsted is too great a force for even New York to exorcise.
The Citadel site, formerly the Uniroyal Tire and Rubber Plant in the City of Commerce, California, has captured the imagination of generations of Southern Californians. The factory was built in the 1920's. The decorated Assyrian temple and bas relief front walls were preserved by the developer. The issues for MSI were to retain the wall and create a design in a compatible context. Additionally, it was important to maintain the mystery of the wall white, at the same time creating a design that would attract the users of the retail, office and hotel buildings.
As the center of the historic wall, adjacent to the Ziggurat temple, the wall has been breached to reveal an oasis of date palms aligned in rows on a patterned plaza. The buildings are located along two sides and at the terminus of the 150-foot wide by 700-foot long central plaza evoking a civic and ceremonial space.
Pedestrian and vehicular spaces are separated by specially designed tire-shaped rings, which surround each of the palm trees. The checkerboard paving is composed of a series of colored-concrete rectangular pavers which visually slide under the plantings and other plaza features.
The hotel and entrance to the retail court are on a cross axis framed by buildings and palms. The retail court recreates a Middle Eastern bazaar, a space of shade trees and paths, awnings and water. All these elements and the design concept create an environment evoking the mystery of another place and time. A formal allee of flowering trees connects the central space to the planned hotel. Special pavement links the plaza to the hotel motor court. Parking for the project is designed to recall the agricultural groves of Southern California and the Mediterranean Row plantings of dry, grayish, olive trees contrast dramatically against the green palm oasis.
Martha Schwartz, who helped found the firm (The company has a San Francisco office as well), received her Master of Landscape Architecture at the University of Michigan. Schwartz won an ASLA Merit Award this year for her the United States Courthouse Plaza in Minneapolis. She also won first place at the Three Squares Competition in Coventry, England and the Lehrter Platze Competition in Berlin. Schwartz is also an Adjunct Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. lasn