In conversation with IA&B, Martha Schwartz talks about landscape being not only the colour, the shape and the volume of the city; but also being an arabesque by itself for the urban setup.

Martha Schwartz is a Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and teaches advanced design studios focusing on design and urban sustainability. She is also the Principal of Martha Schwartz Partners, with offices in Shanghai, New York and London. Her practice works internationally on a wide variety of project types and scales, focusing on developing sustainable strategies and public realm design. The practice is at the forefront of working collaboratively to develop sustainable strategies and new forms of artistic expression for new and regenerating cities. Schwartz has over 30 years of experience as a landscape architect and artist and has worked together with a variety of world-renowned architects.

IA&B: The cityscape has changed extensively over the past few decades. Could you describe the evolution of roles that landscape has played in the gradual development of these urban areas?


MS: The city scape has changed extensively because there is an on-going vast migration of people into the cities. This great inward migration of people and alteration of the demographics in urban areas is producing a new, extremely dense urbanism in many parts of the globe. Consequently, it is now recognised that the open spaces in cities have become much more valuable and their importance in a way that they were never previously acknowledged. More attention has to be given to these many left-over spaces available in the cities. Now, they are not just seen as negative or as residual leftovers from the buildings but as places that could actually have many urban and social functions that perform at a much higher level. At the same time, the expectations in terms of how these residual spaces must function have risen dramatically. Most importantly, the idea that a city must provide spaces for a public realm: spaces that represent the common good, represent the civic-ness of a city, has also come to the forefront.

It is now recognised that these spaces can additionally provide the opportunity for building environmentally sound cities which also offer a higher quality of life for the citizens as well as provide for ecological functions to operate within the city. People are beginning to insist upon healthier urban environments that qualitatively improve their lives. Furthermore, as cities have begun to compete globally for people, for capital and for business, planners and politicians have had to sharpen their understanding to learn how to improve their cities, to offer the lifestyles people are looking for and to provide people with what they want in order to attract them. Landscape plays a very major role in raising the quality of urban life with respect to all of these concerns.

IA&B: One of your recent projects is a state of the art hospital in Vienna, Austria. It deals with landscape serving as a catalyst for faster recovery of patients. Could you tell us briefly about the project? Also, could you describe the influence that landscape has on patients?

MS: We have been working on the Krankenhausanstalten Nord, for many years now, which is a public hospital in Vienna. I believe it is a ground-breaking hospital since this hospital has done a great amount of research on the relationship between health, speed of recovery and the access to the ‘green’: both visual and physical. Typically, towards the end of large projects, the budget for landscape gets constrained due to architectural over-runs. But wisely, in this case, the landscape budget was protected because they found a direct correlation between the speed of recovery and the amount of accessibility to the ‘green’. So the landscape was integrated as a significant part of the hospital’s economic pro-forma. The landscape benefits include the ability for the patients, the doctors and staff to have visual and physical access to park and gardens of various kinds, to venture outside and access greened roof decks. The gardens include healing gardens and therapy gardens. All of these are very important in lessening the amount of time that the patients have to stay in the hospital, hence affecting the hospital’s economic performance positively. The whole idea is based upon important, verifiable studies supporting a theory that is actually now being applied which shows having access to ‘green’ helps the patients to heal faster.

IA&B: The rise in urban areas foresees deforestation and lack of ground space for
landscaping. The high-rises in the cities give wider scope for vertical gardens, terrace and balcony designing. Could you elaborate on the pros and cons of this landscape style?


MS: I wouldn’t exactly call this a “landscape style”. Trying to green cities by using
architectural surfaces has to do with fundamental considerations for how to
incorporate environmental practices in architecture. This comes hand-in-hand with densification and the need to increase ecological functions at the same time.
The landscape or ground-plane of the city is an entirely different platform and has a much wider range of possible environmental strategies that are much more effective
in dealing with green roofs and walls when deployed and planned for. The use of vertical green walls and green roofs is a very important aspect of how we can offset carbon when building buildings. However, that has much less effect on the bigger environmental issues that only planning for and inserting landscape-based systems
for water management, and large-scaled greening can offer. We need to be much
more aggressive about the planning of our ground plane of a city which would be of more use than the more decorative application of vertical green on buildings.

I firmly believe that it is equally important that we provide enough open spaces in the city that serve a great variety of needs and purposes. As it turns out, in a dense city, providing a greater number of smaller spaces that will actually serve more people rather than one huge space, like a central park, in a city. It is often better to have smaller spaces that are spread throughout the urban fabric, like a network, so that more people can have access to the open spaces and create green connectivity throughout the city. This network of open spaces is greatly needed to offset the density and carbon emissions of the city and to make a city more liveable. So, it isn’t just a type or style; it is a highly consequential strategy that involves open-space planning so that open spaces are well integrated throughout the urban fabric. We cannot continue to see landscape as just the left-overs spaces between buildings. These “negative” spaces must be seen as “positive” spaces and planned and designed as we would buildings. The importance of this is to provide spaces for people to play and recreate but also to
function environmentally to sequester carbon dioxide, to allow water to infiltrate back into the ground water table, and provide habitat for flora and fauna. A functioning landscape can substantially help improve air quality and storm water management. We cannot just leave it up to the green roofs and green walls, which are helpful but certainly not to the extent a ground-based landscape system could be – we need the whole spectrum.
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Proposed layout of the Krankenhausanstalten Nord hospital, Vienna.


IA&B: There seems to be a wide scope in landscape urbanism in India and the world
as well. Could you describe the advanced techniques that could be used in a terrace
and vertical landscaping?


MS: I cannot speak with respect to the specific techniques used in such technically
driven landscapes, because the technical information changes all the time. However, I
would say that Singapore is probably the most advanced city in terms of not only developing these technical green surfaces, vertical and horizontal, but also incorporating them into the planning codes so that they can achieve high goals for the percentage of buildings that have green coverage. I would further reiterate the importance of understanding that the ground plane provides greater positive environmental and social impact if incorporated into city planning and site planning
rather than depending on the highly technical and less effective green technologies
applied to buildings. Singapore’s greatest contribution, and a model for all of us in the creation of healthy cities, is its planning approach to incorporate water management
systems and concerted, well thought-out green systems and parks.

Climate change issues cannot be solved simply by using technologies such as green walls and green roofs. We cannot relinquish our dedication to plan the ground plane and to act on that behalf.

IA&B: With projects across twenty countries, how do you work with site-specific issues? Does your design focus on their social and cultural contexts? How?

MS: Whenever we are working abroad, we always collaborate with local landscape
architects and other consultants. We cannot be expected to know the specific issues
of a site in terms of soils, plants, what will grow in a particular microhabitat, so we
must collaborate with the local landscape architects. In tandem with the environmental
concerns, we are very much interested in how these spaces are or can be used socially and culturally. We always research our sites and their environmental and social contexts in order to discover the story of a particular site. We create a narrative that may be based on the site geology, a recent history or a past historical event, a particular feature of the site or perhaps the aspirations of our client. It is important that we root our narrative to the story of the site itself as well as take into account how people use space in that particular culture. We pay great attention to this as we really want our spaces to be loved, used, and appreciated. This means that our work has to make an emotional connection with the people wherever we are working. So, the cultural content and the social milieu have to be understood by us and then we need to design so to reflect these values and aspirations of a culture.
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Proposed landscape of the Krankenhausanstalten Nord promoting a positive relationship between health, speed of recovery and the access to the ‘green'.

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Proposed landscape of the Krankenhausanstalten Nord promoting a positive relationship between health, speed of recovery and the access to the ‘green'.

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Proposed landscape of the Krankenhausanstalten Nord promoting a positive relationship between health, speed of recovery and the access to the ‘green'.

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Proposed interiors of the Krankenhausanstalten Nord hospital.


IA&B: You have taught in various institutions around the globe. What do you think are
the benefits of academics, teaching and discourse in the practice of Landscape Architecture?

MS: At Harvard, where I teach, I think that there is an excellent balance between
academics and practitioners to create balanced curriculum and develop relevant pedagogy. Academics who are experts on history, theory, and technologies, come
together with practitioners who are experts in the built environment because they have
“real” world experience. The knowledge from practitioners is invaluable to teaching
students who wish to become practitioners because they know what is happening
out there “now”, often before it gets into academia. This balanced curriculum helps
to prepare students before they are to be sent out into the world to practice. Without
having this balance, I think it is very difficult to teach students well. Many schools have
an emphasis on academics. I think is may not be a particularly effective way of preparing practitioners because they are missing out on the information and knowledge they will need when facing how and what to build. Teaching design is the most difficult subject to teach, yet we are the profession that gives shape to our built environments. We must design is so it functions, but is also meaningful and adds beauty to people’s lives. Harvard has historically always valued this balance between practice and theory. This includes other courses that will also expand the student’s understanding of the breadth of the profession. It includes learning about plants, grading, drainage, water systems and ecology. These all have to be comprehended
in unison as we are a profession of generalists and practice holistic thinking: there is almost too much to learn before you can go out there and really practice. Of course, teaching students to design is most important as we, as a profession, give shape to our built environment.
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Section through front Plaza (East-West).

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Section through inner courtyard (North-South).


IA&B: There is a dire need for sustainable designs in architecture and landscape offers
a wide canvas for eco-friendly practices. Could you describe any one project that widely follows the green architecture norms? What are the various technologies that you have adopted in that project?


MS: I am not sure I understand this question. In terms of green architecture norms, as
landscape architects, that is what we do all the time: we design with an environmental ethos as the norm. We always build with sustainability as a fundamental goal, from
the beginning. We are the green profession! We are taught from the very beginning of
our education about ecology. We are the professionals that actually understand and
ensure that ecological fundamentals are incorporated into every project we do. We
understand ecological systems, and how to build while protecting or inserting ecological functions. This is what we are taught, as landscape architects, so it is not a single application: it is an ethic that we carry with us to every site. It is the first thing that we think about: how can we best support ecological operations? 

In terms of technology, landscape architecture is not nearly as dependent on technologies as architecture. We are not a technology heavy profession. Our profession is driven through thoughtful planning and applying our knowledge to develop spaces and places on the land that support quality of life for people and promote natural processes that will help the earth to survive. We always make sure that water can percolate into the ground plane, that we use plantings that are meaningful, both culturally and environmentally. We try to plant as many trees as possible particularly in urban situations. Most people don’t want to pay for what it takes to actually plant in the city. So we are always on the vanguard of fighting for investing in and the greening of the ground plane and the creation of places where people’s activities and natural functions can exist together. 

Our goal when designing public spaces is to provide environments that people can enjoy and want to use, and provide a variety of different activities in order to make urban areas attractive places to live while promoting and using environmentally sound principles.