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Designs for strife

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Designer Martha Schwartz has always provoked awe and anger in equal measure.With a new book on her work already out of date, she shows no sign of slowing down

Massachusetts-based landscape architect Martha Schwartz is hot property. She is basking in the recent publication of The Vanguard Landscapes and Gardens of Martha Schwartz by Thames & Hudson (See Review, page 52), and has set up shop in Britain. Both RIBA and CABE Space enjoyed her pith and passion recently with conference talks, and she is pondering her next move: a new book for Thames & Hudson on the discrepancy between what we feel and do about nature.

Meanwhile, the 53-year-old designer continues to make her mark doing what she does best: designing. If only the publisher had waited before printing, it could have covered much more than the single UK job included in the book, Manchester's Exchange Square. When she is not up to her knees in coalfield regeneration and under the Channel 4 spotlight with BDP at New Fryston near Castleford, Schwartz is brushing herself down for the high-rise glitz of London's Docklands. Her work for Barclays with Pringle Brandon Architects involves a six-storey atrium with giant mobiles dangling over spaces decked with bamboo or themed on the tropics.

Elsewhere, Birmingham's Fort Dunlop warehouse is being Schwartzed in a hotel job with Urban Splash. This involves swatches of smooth grass and cobalt-blue courtyards and is Martha Schwartz to a tee. The bold colours, the edgy forms and the sheer front of a style somewhere between Pop Art and architecture stirs strong feelings.

The woman who gave us gardens with bagels and golden frogs loses none of her design energy on the frequent transatlantic hops to her outpost in north London's Crouch End.

Schwartz sees herself as an artist, having trained in fine art before moving into landscape. 'I'm eclectic, probably falling into the funky Minimalist category, and like Pop Art and the earth artists of the 1960s, like Robert Smithson.' Earth artists were to America what Picasso was to the Spanish Civil War, she insists. 'If Modern artists can make stuff out of junk, so can we. It's our mandate.' And Britain is crying out for this kind of creative junkie. She explains her move to London - along with managing director John Pegg - by saying: 'Britain chose me to work here.'

'It seems eager to embrace a more contemporary language of landscape, which is not so much the case in America. I'm a patriot but feel bad about the heavy, dark blanket of conservatism that has cloaked US culture, not just in landscape but in architecture and art. It's not just me who is underused at home.

'Most of our really talented architects are in the same spot. I'm here because there's a demand. I think British architects are better suited to doing more contemporary work than US counterparts, ' adds Schwartz, who lists Nicholas Grimshaw, Alex Lifschutz, and Jean Nouvel among the European architects she particularly admires.

Not that she expects to be greeted with universal enthusiasm. 'Some people think I suck and that's OK.' To Schwartz, this may just be a matter of British reserve. 'I like being controversial and depend on people being angry with me. I'm angry with them for being hypocritical about nature and settling for the man-made approach with a soothing veneer of nature.'

People who say her work is superficial should look in the mirror, she fires back.

They may like what they see less. There are a lot of double standards in the UK and America, she reckons. 'We're all brought up on the nature fantasy, but in reality we build our environments out of plastics and cement, reground stuff and junk because that's the price we give them. Plants are like dogs and children: you have to look after them and that costs money. Some of my budgets work out less than a carpet.'

'Our culture is very risk-averse, very bottom-line oriented and devoid of civic support and strong leadership.'

These are not the qualities Schwartz wants to see in her students. The adjunct professor at Harvard - a post she's held for a decade - likes the freedom from market constraints that teaching gives her. The 15 or so employees in the Cambridge studio, which she likens to a research and development firm without the venture capital, strive to push boundaries with materials and details. They do it in the sure knowledge that 'art and commerce are not happy together'.

Her work is guided by a conviction that 'it's crucial to see the environment as we really use it and not in sentimental soft focus'. This may help explain designs that leave people almost speechless with anger as often as awe. Giant concrete cones and zebra crossings at Disneyland and the green snaking benches of Jacob Javits Plaza are 'wry commentaries on the little support landscape receives' in the commercial world, or even art and cultural hot-spots like New York, home to the plaza.

Sentimentality will bring us no closer to solving our urban problems, she insists.

And the biggest problem is sprawl. 'You can no longer ignore the nasty places like car centres and strip malls. The UK is one of the most environmentally degraded places.

Design of the environment is therefore the most important issue of the 21st century because we are chewing up that environment at an incredible rate.'

Nobody thinks about the aesthetics of sprawl and we need artistic talent and visual thinkers - not for art's sake but for hard-headed environmental reasons, she warns. 'It's the job of artists to honk and horn and make us look at ourselves in a more truthful way.'

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