The Cooper-Hewitt Landscape Design Awards, 2006

Guest post by Renee Garner

The Cooper-Hewitt recently announced their 2006 National Design Awards. Three lucky Landscape Architects were recognized for advancing the fields of urban planning, park, and garden design. I , myself, am a gardener who leans towards ADD styles and eclectic designs, I often find the field of Landscape Design fairly dull and overintellectualized. I guess a nicer way to put it: Landscapes are all-too-often groomed to perfection, giving a hands off appearance. To me, its about as inviting as a glass wall, appealing to my voyeuristic self, but an over-exposed and generally unrelaxing space. So, in an effort to understand the judges’ approach a bit better, I asked around to see what others, more trained in the field, thought. Not surprisingly, they schooled me.

Tom Christopher, House and Garden Magazine: I was shocked – no, mortally offended – the first time I came across Martha Schwartz’s work many years ago in photographs of the notorious “bagel garden” that she created in 1979 for her then husband, Peter Walker. To someone like myself with a horticultural background (and maybe a deficient sense of humor) Schwartz’s gardens were a slap in the face. They still are. But today, I find that bracing.

A painter in three dimensions and a sculptor of space, Schwartz is a very serious artist who doesn’t take herself too seriously. Who can help plant-centric types such as myself to relate to the outdoors in a new way. Schwartz’s work still makes me nervous, but that I think is part of her aim. She takes risks and demands the same of her public.
What Martha Schwartz is doing is both new and not so. In her treatment of garden design as a fine art, and in her blurring the line between landscape, sculpture, and the graphic arts, she is, consciously or not, reaching way back to a time when it was a Raphael or a Michelangelo the pope would hire to design the Vatican if they had responded with bagels, excommunication would have been a sure thing.

Ken Smith worked with Peter Walker and Martha Schwartz early in his career and the experience may be partly responsible for the sculptural quality of his own work, notable especially in the glowing topiary garden he created as a winter solstice celebration at New York’s Liberty Plaza. Coupled with this, though, is a fascination with natural processes that I suspect must date to his childhood on an Iowa farm. As a gardener, I respond especially to his involvement with natural processes: the bloom of the great dumpster planters he created for a city schoolyard, or the rain curtain (a curtain of icicles in winter) that he installed in a Toronto Park.

Which brings me at last to Andrea Cochran who also reshapes traditional concepts of the garden, but does so, in my opinion, as a musician. I have no idea whether Cochran has ever even picked up an instrument, but her use of stone, glass, steel and plants has a lyric, rhythmical swing that sings out wherever she sets to work. Sometimes in symphonies, other times in just a brief harmony, but always clear, sweet, and strong.

Heather Rhoades, This Garden is Illegal blogger: I always think of this kind of this stuff as similar to fashion shows. In fashion shows you see all sorts of gorgeous models in funky but stunning outfits. Of course you will never look like that model and you would not be caught dead in public in that outfit, but on a runway, that outfit is awesome. Same deal here. Wow. Looks stunning, but would you really want it in your yard? It will make changes to the future of landscaping, maybe. But interesting to look at in the mean time.

Ivette Soler, The Germinatrix: Could anyone BUT Martha Schwartz have won the Cooper-Hewitt Design Award for Landscape Design? Hers is work not to be ignored – it takes you by the lapels (if you happen to be wearing a jacket) and shakes you, screaming “Is her work deserving of the award? Well, yes. Her work has without a doubt contributed to the field of landscape design – but I must confess an ambivalence about it. I’m not sure that I want landscapes to be as aesthetically rigorous as hers are. Or as aware of their own greatness as hers seem to be. I’ve always loved the work of finalist Andrea Cochran, which is bold, forward – thinking and architectural, while retaining lyricism and a sense of ease. Martha Schwartz has worked very hard to earn this award, and I think you really see the effort. Not to be bitchy or anything.

Gayla Trail, You Grow Girl Human – of – All – Trades: The prize is for “exemplary work in urban planning or park and garden design.” These designers are pushing the limits of park design but I have a tendency to view gardens and parks as places with plants… I’m not a fan of these concrete “parks” that are showing up in cities. Examples “Millennium Park” (with the giant bean) in Chicago and “Dundas Square” here in Toronto.

I prefer the work of finalist Andrea Cochran because her designs include plants… but then again there’s a lot of lawn instead of concrete… I like the first one by Ken Smith, “Queen’s Schoolyard.” It looks warm and inviting… like a garden.

So really my abrupt comment: “Too much lawn for my taste.” is succinct but appropriate. Although perhaps it should read, “Too much lawn and concrete for my taste.”


Subscribe to get weekly updates from Gayla

5 thoughts on “The Cooper-Hewitt Landscape Design Awards, 2006

  1. I had the pleasure of going to the annual ASLA (that’s American Society of Landscape Architects for the folks at home) conference this year in Minneapolis, focus: Sustainability. Ken Smith and Martha Schwartz were both there presenting. Some friends dragged me to see Martha, though I thought her work was too concrete and metally for me. I have to say, Martha got up there and challenged all the people who claim their Landscapes are sustainable, and told us all to look to Europe for some real standards. And I’m a plant geek myself. But when 100 years go by and someone comes to one of my designs, it wont be my roses they’ll see, but the metal and concrete I left behind. Plants take maintenance, and most cities don’t want to pay for it. When the maintenance falls behind, things die and look bad, and people stop going to the park. It happens all the time.
    Not that I’m offering any solutions, but I wanted to acknowledge that Landscape Architects are limited by constraints they may not like.

  2. I get that. Every job, no matter how creative is constrained by the expectations of the client. My point was wholly personal and subjective.

  3. It’s interesting the comments I’ve received on my blog (where I also posted this) how people react to critiques of landscape design, which is a form of design, like visual art. It should be subjectively dissected, and the designer is just as responsible for the asthetic choices of building materials as the accompanying plants.
    In a blogging atmosphere, opinions are often misinterpreted as qualified and official statements, which is funny but a tangent for another day.
    However, the Landscape Architect or Landscape Designer both must find a resolve to make places just as pleasing without the plants. Is this a place the public will visit if the green life has left?

  4. Hi all – I was reading Tom Christopher’s post on about his contrribution to this post. He thinks the rest of us who commented are fussy hort-heads who can’t (or won’t) appreciate the sublime and the simple. What I find simple was his old- fashioned polarized attitude. Why is it a matter of landscape architecture (hardscape) vs horticulture (plants). In my opinion, the best designers in our field balance both – I love concrete… I have yet to design a garden w/o it. Metal – hell yes! But the reason I make gardens, not ‘yards’, is that I use plant material to define spaces and uplift the senses. I don’t like Martha Schwartz’s work because I find it too ‘tricky’, too self-conscious, not because I don’t like hardscape.
    Read his post and see what you think, Renee… Thanks for providing a space for debate!

Comments are closed.