Friday, 13 February 2009

Public Spaces the Martha way

I would start by urging anyone with an interest in the design of public spaces to read the following article recently published in Building Design:

The title of the article is ”Are the British any good at designing public space?”, and it has internationally renowned, landscape architect Martha Schwartz arguing ‘no’, whilst CABE Space Director, Sarah Gaventa makes the case for ‘Yes’. Actually both have some interesting views, which aren’t necessarily opposing.

Schwartz doesn’t argue that we can’t design public spaces, but she makes the point that the British as a nation have only a limited and romanticised view of what constitutes ‘landscape’. She argues that many people (the public, clients, politicians, architects?) don’t really appreciate the value of well designed spaces, unless they are green. The result is that many of our incidental spaces are unloved and poorly designed. Certainly there is little public acknowledgement of landscape architecture as credible or worthy, in the same way that the design of buildings is regularly celebrated.

On the other hand, Sarah Gaventa makes the point that things are improving and that the recent public realm works in Sheffield are a good illustration of this. The suggestion that we should look at “place making” rather than dealing with “left over” or “between buildings”, is a very good one and certainly laudable. However, I suspect that the vast majority of designers dealing with external space, will find that their starting point is invariably the left over bits between buildings. In all honesty, architects unilaterally accepting that landscape architects have a valuable role shaping the spaces around their buildings, would be a big step for the profession.

A rather poor image of Sheffield's 'Gold Route'

For those who weren’t aware, CABE is the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, a Government quango which gives advice and provides guidance on architecture, urban design and public space. CABE Space deals with the non-architecture bits. Personally, I think CABE have produced some excellent guidance in recent years and done a lot to promote and provide justification for the design of public space, and by association landscape architecture.

By contrast, Martha Schwartz is often as seen as something of a pariah within the profession, but is almost certainly the most famous landscape architect in the world. Being a famous landscape architect is something of an oxymoron, akin to being the world’s tallest pigmy or the world’s thinnest sumo wrestler. If you were to ask me to come up with other famous landscape architects, I’d probably be scratching around to come up with Katherine Gustaffson, designer of ‘Slab Square’ in Nottingham and the Diana Fountain (what a resounding pr success that was), and at a push Peter Walker (aka Mr Martha Schwartz), who is currently designing the remembrance garden at the site of the World Trade Centre and is a genuine design hero of mine.

Martha Schwartz's scheme as featured on 'Big Town Plan'

As it happens, you may have recently seen Martha on TV, cast in the role of pantomime villain on the Grand Designs spin-off, Big Town Plan. She was the highbrow, urbanite American designer (naughty Kevin McCloud never used the term landscape architect), who went against community wishes for a place to play bingo and walk their whippets, to force ahead with an art/paving/big-coloured-stuff fusion, which pretty much everyone else hated.

Certainly, Ms. Schwartz has her detractors and her most recent high-profile scheme, Grand Canal Square in Dublin, caused the usual flurry of publicity and criticism. Generally comments revolved around the fact that it is abstract, expensive and, I suspect, goes against the expectations of both the public and what many landscape architects, think landscape architects should be designing. From a personal perspective, I find it hard not to feel pangs of jealousy when I see the many bespoke elements, which frequent her designs, but perhaps more importantly the trust, scope and shear free-reign clients give her to create. How many other projects could have benefited from the budgets and creative freedom that Martha Schwartz enjoys? I also feel that perhaps her designs seem to work better in theory than in practice, although I’d caveat that by saying this feeling comes purely from looking at the initial visualisations of the project against press coverage, rather than having visited the scheme.

Grand Canal Square, Dublin - Finished image

Grand Canal Square - Initial Visualisation

But why is it that she is so unpopular with many landscape architects? In my opinion, to get the answer to this you need to have an understanding of one of the fundamental elements of design. For me, there is always a spectrum of how much your design inspiration comes from within a site or it’s context, and how much you bring in from outside. I don’t necessarily believe that either end of the spectrum is intrinsically right or wrong, but landscape architecture always begins within a site, in a way that the building doesn’t really have to. I suspect that many of the great works of architecture were actually dreamt up independently of their sites, and for want of a better word, ‘imposed’ upon them. Landscape architecture always begins with a site. For a variety of reasons, (such as legislation, poor standing with clients and a focus on landscape character assessment), many landscape architects see landscape design as valid only when it is realised in the character or context of the site. Thus, I believe that many see Martha Schwartz’s designs as being imposed. Ironically, I suspect that she herself sees the designs as having originated from within the site, only that they have been extracted and elaborated beyond where it is easily understandable.

Now at this point, I had meant to write about Martha’s conversations with the architect Will Alsop, however I think most people will have read enough by now. Needless to say, I’ve been impressed by Martha Schwartz’s recent comments to the press and think that she has articulated the difficulties faced by landscape architects in the UK better, and more intelligently than, anyone other else you could care to mention. I’ll finish with a comment someone left on a website regarding the Grand Canal Square scheme:

“awful BS. it does not look a like a sensual work to me, not what I would call landscaping, more like terrible art work.”

The mere fact that Martha Schwartz is there stretching peoples definition of landscape is the best justification of her work possible to me.

Go Martha!

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