Thought-provoking designs have built Martha Schwartz's reputation overseas. But she's virtually unknown in her own backyard. (-Boston.com) [via]
By Susan Diesenhouse, Globe Correspondent | June 26, 2004
CAMBRIDGE -- Martha Schwartz, the 53-year-old mother of a toddler, is an international star of contemporary landscape design who is almost anonymous here where she lives, works, and teaches.
Europeans laud her for the public and private spaces she has designed at places like Berlin's Spree River or Manchester's Exchange Square, and for the new course she is charting between pop art and architecture. So distinctive is her style that her name has become a Euro design verb, as in ''Barclays at Canary Wharf is being 'Schwartzed.' "
But here at home, her town centers and residential gardens fashioned from AstroTurf, spikes, and tree-like sculptures have garnered far less attention. While she designed a plaza at the Jacob Javitz Federal Building in New York in 1996, she doesn't have one project completed or underway in the Boston area.
In its May-June issue, Metropolitan Home magazine listed Schwartz among the top 100 designers in the world, singling her out ''for revolutionizing the design of public spaces."
She works mostly in Europe and Asia and a little in the United States, but ''I don't pursue projects in Boston," she said during an interview in her live-work loft adorned with shredded Mylar curtains accented by green glitter dwarfs.
''There's an attitude here that closes out the contemporary, but I don't do historic landscapes or fake nature."
Americans, she said, still envision the environment as a Jeffersonian wilderness. But, she added: ''To solve urban problems we need to see it as it really functions."
Alex Krieger, chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of Design where Schwartz has taught since 1992, called her a major figure who has restored landscape design as an art form, not just a profession or social service.
''To her, it's magical, thought-provoking," said Krieger. ''She fights against it as a green mustache around a building."
Schwartz's iconography runs more toward fuchsia, room-size illuminated glass boxes, and serpentine acid green benches.
''In Boston," Krieger said, ''we don't tend toward the avant-garde."
That's fine for Schwartz, a principal in Martha Schwartz Inc. Last year, she opened a four-person office in London to complement her 15-person shop here.
While on a trip to London several years ago, she met her second husband, architect Markus Jatsch, 37. He's the father of 2-year-old Hannah, who parades through the live-work space of the loft at will, as did her older brothers from Schwartz's first marriage, Jake, 20, and Joe, 17.
''It's more humane than day care," she said. ''I think quantity time is more important than quality time."
Of her dozen current projects, a standout for Schwartz is the British government-sponsored redesign of the village of Fryston. Like many rural villages, it was decimated during the rise and fall of coal mining. By October, she will complete a new master plan for a village square, a scrubbed open-space system, and 300 housing units aimed at attracting private developers to transform it into a bedroom community for nearby Leeds.
Here, she would ''Schwartz" Boston Harbor, she said, which she said is ''our greatest natural resource." Instead of the planned 27-acre Greenway, Schwartz said she would ''sell off the density and invest to create a public space at the water where people can live, dine, and recreate."
Schwartz would also redesign Massachusetts Avenue, ''the most heavily used, ugly place around" with trees, new lighting, sidewalks, and traffic patterns.
''Using that street is punishment," she said.
For the leadership that such transformation requires, she said she would take city officials and planners on a tour of European cities.
''They value art, public space, and have learned to balance capitalism with what's good for most people," she said. ''Here, if we don't learn to take responsibility for the public spaces we share, we'll be living in squalor."
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