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June 1999

Avant Garden: Boston Landscape Architect has designs on Munich

Garden Rchitectect Martha Schwarz makes her mark in Munich

A few years after Martha Schwartz graduated from the University of Michigan School of Landscape Architecture, she made her first dramatic imprint on the field of garden design. The Philadelphia-born newcomer created “the bagel garden” — a courtyard beautification project consisting of paths lined with the New York breakfast specialty — behind her office in Boston’s ritzy Back Bay neighborhood. The authoritative trade magazine Landscape Architecture not only published an article by Schwartz, a tongue-in-cheek pan of the industry’s lack of creativity at that time, but featured a photograph of the work on its cover as well. “I was immediately hated,” laughs Schwartz, “People canceled their subscriptions. They couldn’t stand me saying they were asleep at the wheel.” Almost two decades later, Schwartz is anything but loathed. Owner of Martha Schwartz Inc., she is responsible for numerous installations in the U.S., among them New York City’s Jacob Javits Plaza, Minneapolis’s Courthouse Plaza, HUD Plaza in Washington, DC the Miami Airport sound wall, the Marina Linear Park in San Diego and temporary sets for twelve different 1994 World Cup soccer venues. Schwartz’s most recent breakthrough, however, is her growing popularity in Germany. The architect has opened a branch of her firm in Munich, near Rosenheimer Platz. “I’m not really sure how it happened,” puzzles Schwartz, “The Germans found me through various publications, and I’m glad they did!” Schwartz has already achieved top status with her European work. Her firm, together with Büro Kiefer of Berlin, recently won the commission to design the landscape at Berlin’s new central train station, Lehrter Bahnhofplatz, opposite the Reichstag. Pitted against ten other top international agencies, Schwartz and Kiefer grabbed the prize job by suggesting a five-meter-high, two-meter-wide outdoor aquarium. “It’s like taking a piece of the Spree River and putting it up top where people can see it,” explains Schwartz enthusiastically. Other projects now in progress in Germany include: Bayerische Rück insurance company’s new corporate headquarters in Munich, the International Building Association’s renovation of Emscher Park in Dusseldorf and a high-end housing complex in Berlin, where the MS, Inc. crew will create five courtyards based on Grimms’ fairy tales. A self-described radical, Schwartz claims to belong to a clutch of contemporary landscape architects who don’t conform to traditional, “romantic, botanical” design methods. Often including colorful, geometric and functional sculptures, her work is unconventional — sometimes there are few plants in sight. “I’m still considered the enfant terrible,” smiles the architect as if this were a compliment. “To some, only the green parts count. To me, everything is landscape, whether it be a parking garage, an alley or a building. Especially in a city, these things we encounter daily are our landscape.” Schwartz theorizes this may be why her work is so sought-after in Europe. “In America, we don’t make use of our outdoor space like they do in Europe. We have our entertainment centers at home and drive to work. But in Europe, apartments are for sleeping, and people make better use of parks, cafés and outdoor space.” The extensive and fascinating MS, Inc. website ( is a fine collection of photographs of the Michigan alum’s work and offers a look at the impressive résumés of her hand-picked staff. “I don’t do this alone,” stresses Schwartz, “This is a collaborative effort. I love to hire brilliant designers. The better they are, the better our product, the more innovative the ideas.” In leaving her ego at the back door, the architect corrals the best concepts from her staff and puts them to use. “This is the way we stay on top.” Current U.S. commission work for the collective includes Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad Museum and the Mesa Arizona Civic Center. In addition to running her company, Schwartz teaches landscape architecture at Harvard University, where she studied while working on her master’s degree. She also lectures widely throughout the U.S. and Europe. Extracurricular activities don’t appear to be in it for the world’s first bagel garden designer. “I have no life!” wisecracks the artist, “Between teaching, designing and raising my two boys, [ages 12 and 15] I don’t have time for hobbies!” But Schwartz will make time for Munich. An exhibit of her works, featuring photos, drawings and slides of past and future project sites in Germany, will be shown at the Gartenhaus at the Architekturgalerie on Türkenstrasse July 22.

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