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Architecture Firm Spotlight #04: Martha Schwartz of Martha Schwartz Partners
June 16, 2021 at 4:00 PM
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A conversation with Martha Schwartz about the soul of Landscape Architecture, her career so far, and what lies in the future for Martha Schwartz Partners.

Interview by Vaishnavi More, Founder, and CEO at Archslate

Edited by Sidhanth Thomas

Earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan and later transferring to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, Martha Schwartz went on to advance her career in Landscape Architecture by establishing her architecture firm, Martha Schwartz Partners while exploring the relationship between the Arts, Culture and Landscape design.

Archslate: I am certain every architect knows what Martha Schwartz Partners is. How did you start this journey?

Martha Schwartz: I am not exactly sure how I did it or even where I am today. What I do know is that it has been a long, strange road. I have been very fortunate because I love what I do. Almost everyone in my family from my dad to my mother’s brother is an architect. I pretty much grew up in the basement of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

I thought I would stick with the artsy design group but I also love the science of biology. I ended up with enough knowledge to go off to medical school. But when I started getting interviewed, I would get questions along the lines of, “why don't you want to be a doctor's helper?” I said, “because I want to be the doctor. Is this a trick question?” I was told to go to Warren Whackers class on the taxonomies of plants which was great advice. I decided to move on to landscape architecture because I loved art. I wanted to build art, but my original intention was not landscape architecture.

"But when I started getting interviewed, I would get questions along the lines of, “why don't you want to be a doctor's helper?” I said, “because I want to be the doctor. I did not want to spend my time trying to prove myself. I would find artists whose work I liked, knock on doors, and tried to sell whatever it was that I was doing at the time."

When I started out, we worked with strange things that were not considered to be landscape architecture, rather manipulations of the land itself. I tried working in a real office in landscape architecture but I decided that it was not going to be very useful. I had to prove myself as a woman to be able to make presentations. So I said, pardon my French, "fuck it". I did not want to spend my time trying to prove myself. I would find artists whose work I liked, knock on doors, and try to sell whatever it was that I was doing at the time. There is a conceptual desire to make whatever you are designing into something that does the job of art.

I started off by doing a tiny little installation made of bagels and aquarium gravel. It was 12 by 12 feet. It ended up on the front cover of the Landscape Architecture Magazine. It was the Duchamp toilet in the museum, seemingly out of place. They asked me to write an article and I made the case that the bagel is the perfect landscape material. That blew things open in terms of the question, what is landscape and why is it defined? What do we think of it in our minds and do people need to be focused on what it should be?

Bagel Garden, Boston, MA, USA in 1979 by Martha Schwartz Partners

A landscape should be some facsimile of nature whereas architecture should be designed by people. They are different professions in terms of scale, material, and intent. We work with living systems and design with them in mind. That is what I have done for most of my career and I feel very happy. However, five years ago I dropped it. I needed to take a moment while reflecting on the reality of climate change. In one day I felt like what I was doing was not relevant anymore.

“We work with living systems, and design with them in mind. That is what I have done for most of my career and I feel very happy. However, five years ago I dropped it. I needed to take a moment while reflecting on the reality of climate change. In one day I felt like what I was doing was not relevant anymore.”

I began learning a lot about the science behind climate change. I got into thinking about relationships of the different cycles within the earth system. I began to apply the information I attained to what I could do within the landscape. It took me five years to understand what I was doing was not irrelevant. Rather, it is the most relevant of all practices in the built environment. The problem is that we have degraded our Earth to the point where we have put it off its equilibrium. We have made so many little pushes, adding up the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, setting it out of kilter.

We must work in conjunction with putting together and repairing the Earth’s systems because we screwed it up so badly. I am thinking on a larger scale about how the landscape can be integrated with the way we build our cities while taking climate change into account. Understanding how we, being architects, landscape architects, planners, and urban designers can make a huge difference in the climate change discourse.

Archslate: You have this broader vision and you are inviting architects to make a conscious effort towards building the environment. How much of an effort do you think architects, landscape architects, and urban planners today are making towards striving to deal with climate change and educating people?

Martha Schwartz: The momentum to address climate change in the last five years has gone up fantastically. People are starting to understand the depth of our problems with climate change. It has been hard to get even the Graduate School of Design to go forward but they are now. I believe we need education about the causes and the effects for us to stir our own creativity and be able to problem-solve.

We just finished a project that was the size of the country of Belgium. You have to protect areas that will best enable you to grow food. Areas that will be able to provide wind energy. To be able to create a self-sustaining environment, we have to think about making ourselves, our cities, and our countries independent. By 2050 we are not going to be sharing food.

"To be able to create a self-sustaining environment, we have to think about making ourselves, our cities, and our countries independent. By 2050 we are not going to be sharing food. You have to protect areas that will best enable you to grow food. "

We will need to work hard to provide food for the people in our countries because of the effects of climate change. There are so many issues regarding cities that need food, water, and protection from flooding. These are issues that we have to start thinking about holistically and collaboratively. For we have been put in this situation due to our linear thinking. Ecology, however, works in cycles that affect each other. Natural processes are characterized by circularity and the interchange between different systems.

We fucked up on the linear thing. We need to start thinking about a closed circuit where we do not need so many resources. If everybody were like us in the United States, we would need four-and-a-half times Earth's resources. It is a vast learning curve.

As landscape architects, we need a platform to have people understand what we do. One fantastic group that has been instrumental in the push for architecture to come to terms with climate change is Architecture 2030. It encompasses what needs to be done in architecture by creating metrics as well as being vocal. Pamela Conrad, who is a colleague of mine has been interacting with them to the point where they are going to the 26th Convention of Parties in Glasgow in November. There will be a declaration about architecture as well as a declaration about landscape architecture.

Sowwah Square, Abu Dhabi, UAE by Martha Schwartz Partners

There is an initiative growing in Europe called the New European Bauhaus. It turns out that they have been working with a roundtable of people. They are open to collaboration, new ideas, and working holistically. Landscape architecture started with Loudon. He coined the term landscape architecture but that passed on. Later, it picked up in the United States. The profession is still young in Europe, but I always look at its effort leading the way because they have been green and conscious about resources. I never understood nature as being so important until the last five years. If it is not to restructure, rebuild and regenerate natural processes that we depend on, what the hell are we doing?

God knows that we have killed a natural machine in the ocean that provides life for all these plants and animals. Coral reefs produce 58% of our oxygen. I worry about the cities and this emulator. We have to understand that we are not cave people anymore. We have conquered nature. It has been a big agenda for the human race. At some point in time, the challenge was to keep the bear from eating you in your cave. Now we exercise control without doing a good job. We have to work on controlling it in a way that can provide us what we need.

"I never felt the pressure to be an architect. We got to sleep in all sorts of buildings that my father was designing. I come from a family of five girls who are in the backseat, getting lectured on looking at the shadows and textures of a building. He was teaching us inadvertently on how to look at things and how to think while you are looking. It was that kind of family."

Archslate: Shifting gears a bit, you mentioned you come from a family of architects. Was that a blessing or a curse? Was there any pressure on you that you had to get into this industry or was that something you always looked at?

Martha Schwartz: I never felt the pressure to be an architect. We got to sleep in all sorts of buildings that my father was designing. I come from a family of five girls who are in the backseat, getting lectured on looking at the shadows and textures of a building. He was teaching us inadvertently on how to look at things and how to think while you are looking. It was that kind of family.

I would go to my dad's office which was two blocks up from Louis Kahn's office and play with the pencils and pens. I would spend all day immersed in it. I also saw these catalogs detailing window jambs and toilet templates. I made up my mind that it was not for me. I always knew that I did not want to be an architect because I needed sloppier, messier stuff to work with. Playing in the sandbox, that is my thing.

Archslate: What would you say to younger architects, some of whom might give up too easily because even after two or three years of them working somewhere, they have not had the opportunity of doing the projects they are passionate about. What was the work culture back then and today?

Martha Schwartz: I cannot talk to what it is like being a young person now, because I am not a young person. Going back to when I was young, when the dinosaurs were around it was a big risk to simply be in the office. I was going to be the first woman to become a partner. I asked myself if I wanted to spend time trying to prove myself and no, I did not. But starting on your own is a big risk.

Honestly, it is better to start early. I spent three years in graduate school learning landscape architecture, which I somewhat ignored. I did not know anything either but I had ideas. I did interesting work and I decided I wanted to go work with architects whose work I liked.

Barclays Bank Headquarters, London, UK by Martha Schwartz Partners

Swiss Re Headquarters in Munich, Germany by Martha Schwartz Partners

Even if you are not doing much of a job, if you are contributing to something that you believe in, that is enough. I went knocking on people's doors and most of them turned me away. However, once I had this crazy interview. He just took the clicker, asked me not to say anything, and gave me a piece of a project that he was working on. You have to keep trying and you have to go knocking on doors. You have to be able to deal with risk. It has been tough running a practice like ours. Working with people, you cannot know what you are going to get before they come to us. Although we work very collaboratively with people, it is never a big surprise. It takes you to different places.

The US is not our wheelhouse but it has a certain kind of openness and ambition. We advise our clients about what they are going to be facing by 2050 in regards to climate change. Are you going to flip your project or is this going to be an investment? If so, we can help to create infrastructure design for you that will maintain your building. When they agree, we shape the land around it to create a project that will be better protected.

"We advise our clients about what they are going to be facing by 2050 in regards to climate change. Are you going to flip your project or is this going to be an investment? If so, we can help to create infrastructure design for you that will maintain your building."

In terms of starting out, I believe if you can find something within yourself that you enjoy, explore it. It is always better to hop on that boat of companies or practices that seem to be going in that direction. For, in the end, you want to be working at a place that has value for you, personally.

Archslate: How has the pandemic reshaped your thinking? For you or your studio?

Martha Schwartz: Towards the beginning, we were frightened over whether the economy was going to collapse and whether anyone wanted landscape architecture. It turned out to be the absolute opposite. We have never been so busy with projects wherein they are looking for advice and direction in terms of how we can respond to climate change in the future. We work internationally so we spend all day on zoom, which has been tough.

Although, we get to meet people every day from all over the world. We are on calls from Australia, Abu Dhabi, China, Moscow, Canada, San Francisco. It is interesting but one thing we all miss is being with each other. Teaching was extremely difficult. In essence, teaching is like acting. If you are acting on stage and there is nobody there for you to interact with, it loses the energy it has. I had a hard time with that.

Another similarity in terms of teaching and the office is that when we are starting with a design concept, there is nothing that replaces sitting down on a table with a pen and a pencil. Laying down tracing paper, starting to talk and draw, you move your body and your hands, drawing over things and starting to riff on ideas. There is a fluidity of thinking that happens which is a way of visual thinking. Not having that ability when you are starting to formulate ideas with other people is tough.

Archslate: I know that when you are teaching, you start to get more confidence in what you are passionate about. How has teaching at the GSD for so many years shaped MSP?

Martha Schwartz: While teaching, you have to learn how to articulate what you are seeing. There is a whole process of your eyes taking in information. As your brain keeps looking, somehow you start to formulate what you are trying to say. You have to figure out how to say it. It takes time to be able to react in a way that is constructive as well as supportive. I became good at critically seeing things. Looking at it and wondering, what is it that is not making this work? What could be done to make it work? I have been taught to be very articulate.

Archslate: How hard is it to get a person or a talent who aligns with your vision to join your firm? Someone who understands what your studio stands for.

Martha Schwartz: Anybody who comes into the office is required to contribute their ideas. Our ideas and concepts are what it is all about. I am not in a hierarchy where I sit at the table and all my minions do what I command. I like all different kinds of art and music. I am not one straight line and I like to see ideas and listen to people come up with these ideas.

"Anybody who comes into the office is required to contribute their ideas. Our ideas and concepts are what it is all about. I am not in a hierarchy where I sit at the table and all my minions do what I command. I am not one straight line and I like to see ideas and listen to people come up with these ideas. "

When we start a project, we begin by saying, everyone loves today, everybody designed this project. I am not going to tell you much about it, just do stuff. Towards the end, everybody will put something up on the wall, and we do a one-minute presentation. We would then begin sorting out the ideas and how they fit together. We then have a vote. We cannot do it during COVID. But before, everybody would get five dots and you put them out. We take a look and see where most start.

We then begin creating clarity about what these good ideas are. Sometimes they are my ideas but not all the time. My job is to make sure the ideas are great. However, it is not my job to come up with ideas for everything because it is much better to see ideas from other people.

Archslate: How do you somehow balance being a professional, and having kids? That is still a very difficult thing to do for us women.

Martha Schwartz: It is very hard. A lot of architects find it difficult to strike a balance between being personal and professional when you are in a field such as architecture. The GSD has the worst reputation except for in science because women were supporters. But to have an ego, nobody likes that out of a woman. You have to be very strong to push out a design and keep the wheels on the tracks. You have to make sure people do it your way. That is so unacceptable for a woman. If you do that, you are a bitch, not a strong person. A woman having a design ego is culturally not acceptable but you cannot be a good architect without it.

Archslate: Are there any roles that Martha Schwartz Partners is hiring for our audience to know about?

Martha Schwartz: Something that became apparent to us due to the Zoom world is that because we are not together, we need people who have had more experience teaching. When you are separated, you do not have the luxury of walking around and trying different options. So we have been looking for people who have had more experience in the profession. People who can manage projects are also on our list. Everybody wants to come in as designers.

I want to mention something Chanel said- different offices have a different ethos. Different rules about what they are looking for with their people coming in and working. It has been bumpy for us to try to make this clear. One idea is that a person coming in can do everything. They should be able to draw, design, and be able to manage. They should be fully and holistically developed as a person. The people who are more fluid and more confident in their ability to draw are the people who have been doing this for a while or even since they were kids.

"It is very hard. But to have an ego, nobody likes that out of a woman. You have to be very strong to push out a design and keep the wheels on the tracks. You have to make sure people do it your way. A woman having a design ego is culturally not acceptable but you cannot be a good architect without it."

Drawings of the Doha Corniche, Doha, Qatar by Martha Schwartz Partners

You have kids who start off drawing from kindergarten. People who have whatever inside of them that creates are able to learn. They know what it feels like to make things and to put them on paper. Not being worried that people are going to judge them for not doing it right. These are big bumps that students have to get over if they are not used to designing because you expose yourself. Most people do not want that.

The fear of being judged is something that you have to get over to become fluid. Going to art school was terrifying. The GSD was a piece of cake compared to what you would get in a review in an art course. But they toughen you up and you learn how to become more confident.

"Not being worried that people are going to judge them for not doing it right. These are big bumps that students have to get over if they are not used to designing because you expose yourself."

Since we are having people coming from different backgrounds in the department, we need to have a boot camp. Let's get some figure drawing going and let's start to think about what we are looking at. The boot camp helps, but it is not enough time to teach everything. Right now, we are looking for people who can manage us. We are doing everything from art projects, landscape projects to doing master plans. It’s all over the place.

Archslate: What is one project that you are most excited about in the future?

Martha Schwartz: The last one we have been working on in the Middle East has been extremely interesting. I cannot say exactly what but it is on a large scale. I am interested in large-scale projects because I am able to do more in terms of ideas about reparation, regeneration, and integration of new technologies and new ideas. I can put in the idea of direct air capture machines. Mentioning that it is going to allow you to do this whole project with negative carbon.

By taking down carbon dioxide, we can use it to pump carbon dioxide into the saltwater as well as greenhouses that will produce the food. You will be able to provide for the community and from the food waste, we can regenerate your soil. By regenerating your soil you can make more food and grow more plants which will lead to the cooling of this area and will generate more greening. It is an engine where all these systems that are virtuous cycles feed each other.

In the meantime, you are designing things that will bring down carbon dioxide. It is an exercise to implement these new ideas and make something very beautiful, functional. In terms of ecology, those are a lot of fun. We have been allowed to think that way on many projects that have come up. We are doing a lot of projects in China where they are focused on addressing climate change. Those are great challenges we have learned a lot from. It has been an incredible journey for me to be able to have wonderful people who are willing to take risks and inadvertently expand the idea of what landscape architecture is.

"It has been an incredible journey for me to be able to have wonderful people who are willing to take risks and inadvertently expand the idea of what landscape architecture is." - Martha Schwartz

Check out Martha Schwartz Partners on Archslate

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