Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The world framed by a bagel
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
Martha Schwartz’s ideas for East Darling Harbour may depend more on us than her, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Postmodernism delights in irony. Just as well, since it’s full of it (irony, that is). Like this one. While the post-modern audience is expected to participate, providing a BYO interpretation of the work, everything, at the same time, depends on the accompanying, artist-written narrative. This tends to cast the artist as just another, unusually well-informed, spectator and to remove the burden of meaning almost entirely from the work itself. In the conversation between the artist and her audience, postmodernism seems to say, the work is a mere conduit: what matters is the talk. You can see why it struck a chord in politics.
You can see, too, why it resonated in the US, where postmodernism has lingered longer than elsewhere, and in landscape architecture (since modernism, to be frank, wasn’t terribly interested in public space). Martha Schwartz, being both an American and a landscape architect, could be expected, therefore, to talk the talk.
Schwartz, who is credited, perhaps rightly, with revolutionising the profession, took time out from working on her East Darling Harbour proposal (with Richard Rogers, Ed Lippmann and Lend Lease Development) in Sydney recently to speak briefly at the revamped Yellowhouse in the Cross. And in talk terms, she didn’t disappoint. Schwartz is a master performer: likeable, articulate, funny and (so far as you can tell) candid. “I’m not going to show you anything profound,” she said. “I just want to show you a bunch of pictures, so we can all go and eat.”
Not that the work itself isn’t interesting. It is: colourful, playful, seductive and brimming with ideas. (She likens herself to a vampire: “I suck ideas, I just love ideas.”) It’s just that it is way more interesting, and the ideas way more accessible, when you have the narrative under your belt.
Schwartz opened with her famous Bagel Garden from 1979. Her first project after leaving Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Bagel Garden catapulted her into stardom, giving her, she says, such a “bad-girl image” that she shows it, even now, with reluctance.
The story goes like this. “Pete” (Peter Walker, the celebrated landscape architect who was Schwartz’s inspiration as well as her first husband) was away on a business trip. “I wanted,” she explains with characteristic nonchalance, “to transform the garden and have it finished for when he came home. So I went and bought a whole bunch of bagels and shellacked them”, then pinned them down at grid-points into a parterre garden with a background of beds of blue-purple gravel. As you do.
Then she had a party and invited a friend to photograph the result. The pictures, accompanied by an article in which she made the case for the bagel as the ideal landscape material (cheap, democratic) made the front cover of Landscape Architecture magazine, and it made Schwartz a star. Just like that.
Was it genius or was it luck? The answer is a bit of both, probably. Or maybe two types of genius: genius in taking the medium to a new space, genius in selecting the moment. Just when Michael Graves, Robert Stern and the boys were beginning to rock the world by reinventing the squares and grids of formal classicism, Schwartz did it in bagels. Plus she made it funny, feminine, Jewish and Big Apple-ish.
Schwartz comes from a long line of European tailors who, on becoming American, morphed into architects: both parents, her husband, sister, son and cousins. Even friends. So she grew up in ignorance of any landscape architecture profession – and, when she did find out, presumed it second rate. Such is architecture’s hegemony.
She also grew up with no desire to design landscape in the Capability Brown or Frederic Law Olmsted tradition. What Schwartz wanted was to make “big art”. Her gods were artists who happened to adopt landscape (and, indeed, architecture) as their medium. People like Mary Miss, with her plays on gates and passageways, and Robert Smithson (1938-73), with his “Nonsites” and upside-down trees. From the moment she enrolled in Landscape Architecture One, therefore, Schwartz was an oddball. “They all wanted to save the world. I just wanted to make art.”
Which explains why, although Bagel Garden is widely given revolutionary status, to Schwartz it seemed like simple fun. “Creating a ruckus in landscape architecture,” she explains, “was like shooting fish in a bowl.” In the art world, remember, people were pinning themselves to the tops of cars and “Vito Acconci was masturbating on the stairs”. Sticking a few bagels to the ground didn’t seem like such a big deal.
Doing it, though, taught her a few things. First, that the landscape architecture profession was so unformed she could make it whatever she wanted. “Landscape architecture can be anything; it can even be temporary for godsakes – it’d probably be better if more things were.” Second, that since “no one trusts artists, quite rightly”, she should think like an artist, but present like a landscape architect; then people would trust her, give her work, pay her. Further, that art was at one level inviolable. “I mean they could hate it, but it’d still be bagels.”
Bagel Garden also reinforced Schwartz’s determination to do the work she wanted to do. It was, she admits, hardly a get-rich-quick strategy. Only now, 25 years on, is she starting to gather patrons, rather than clients, people who “turn up and ask me to do, y’know, what I do”.
So what does she do, exactly? An enormous range of work, from residential gardens to urban masterplans, from corporate atria to penitentiary prettification to aristocratic country gardens. It’s pretty formal, often highly symbolic and draws extensively on repeated motifs – bosques of white willows or purple plums; grids of gravel mounds, garden ornaments or big tomato-red flowerpots. Schwartz’s habit of establishing a geometry then breaking with it is executed with a formalist wit reminiscent of early Hans Hollein or Rodolfo Machado and a similar pleasure in play.
But there’s also the meta-story, the narrative. Take, for example, the recent project for a performing arts centre in Arizona, where strong light and a curving blue wall create a “shadow walk” where cacti become “actors” on the stage; where a rock-filled “arroyo” mimics the flash-flood water system of the region and a flowing “water table” cools your wine glass as you sit. “I do think public space can be a work of art, but not if it’s a risk-averse public to start with. You do need to take a risk in order to get something seminal.” Is Sydney, then, in the running for such an art-scape at East Darling Harbour or elsewhere? The answer, Schwartz seems to suggest, depends more on us than on her. “Having a garden,” she says, “is like a decision to have a child: you have to have money and you have to be prepared to look after it, long term.”
Are we up to it? Have we got what it takes or would we rather just talk about it?
TWO PHOTOS: Food for thought … the new headquarters for German insurance company Swiss Re in Munich is based on a “doughnut shape” or bagel design for which Martha Schwartz (pictured below) is famous. PHOTO: MYRZIK/JARISCH