The Vanguard Landscapes and Gardens of Martha Schwartz Edited by Tim Richardson. Thames & Hudson, 2004. 224pp. £36 Martha Schwartz has a mission: to make landscape architecture 'a medium and a vehicle for personal expression, much as a painter would view a box of paints'. Given the expressive delights now on offer in many a garden makeover show, this might be thought a done deal, but when she was at university the landscape profession in the US was dominated by an ecology-inspired model that saw 'art' as a capricious diversion.
Schwartz came to fame - or notoriety - early. In 1979, while her then partner Peter Walker was away on a business trip, she transformed their politely formal garden in Boston's Back Bay with rows of neatly spaced bagels. Documented like a 'proper' project - rendered plans, working details, large-format photographs - this critique of 'the artistic malaise' afflicting the profession was soon on the cover of its industry magazine, Landscape Architecture.
Bagels were, Schwartz explained with mock seriousness, freely accessible, low on maintenance, and flourished in the shade. It may have begun life as a practical joke, but the Bagel Garden epitomised Schwartz's emerging style, combining a love of patterning the ground learned from Le N¶tre via Walker, debts to land art and Minimalism encountered at art school in Michigan - colourful, Robert Smithson-inspired containers are a recurring device - and a trademark sense of humour. Hence, the fountain of 350 gold-painted frogs in Atlanta, the giant concrete cones and zebra crossings of the Hyper Highway at Disneyland, and the sinuous benches, arranged like the broderie of a French parterre, that replaced Richard Serra's Tilted Arc at New York's Jacob Javits Plaza.
Many of Schwartz's projects have the self-consciousness and temporary quality of installations - and some of her best actually are installations. The Turf Parterre Garden that folds up across the gridded elevation of Cesar Pelli's World Financial Centre, for example, is a witty critique of the inappropriately suburban character of Battery Park City.
Permanently installed, such commentaries raise different questions. The 'quick, cheap and green' roof garden for the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research - an assemblage of astroturf and aquarium gravel, raked in Japanese Zen style - just about works. But at the Davis Residence in Texas, the allusions verge on the vacuous, even offensive: a cone of gravel is intended to conflate the Rocky mountains and local slagheaps, while a Minimalist grid of spikes purports to 'refer' to the barbed wire at the nearby Mexican border.
Translated to the public realm, similar attempts to build in 'meaning' can be even more problematic. The drumlin-shaped mounds and drifting logs of the Courthouse Plaza in Minneapolis are elegant, but I'm not sure if even they - like those endlessly squirting frogs - serve well the casual, repeated encounters of everyday life. Despite her obsession with meaning, Schwartz is at her best working abstractly - nowhere more so than in the recent Swiss Re headquarters in Munich. The strips of colour may allude to the ploughed fields that previously occupied the site, but this 'reading' is not intrusive and they work well as a counterpoint to the cool Modernist building.
As befits its subject, the book is in Thames & Hudson's new 'jolly' style - filled with photographs, woefully light on drawings, and with minimal, uncritical, texts. The 'vanguard' of the title and the bold claims on the dust jacket lead one to expect a stronger argument.
Schwartz is clearly a gifted designer, but her view of art appears to be rooted in an expressionistic model that is both shallow and, as a paradigm for making public places, misguided. Pursued so literally, the search for meaning has more in common with the advertising industry than with the complexity of authentic artistic images. Any painter who was so wilful with his/her box of paints would merit no more than 15 minutes of fame.
Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University.