Ode to the polder

The exhibition Polders – The Scene of Land and Water is on show at the NAi as part of the second International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. Historical prints, models and plans of fifteen polders provide visitors with an overview of the past, present and future of the polder. Five themes – Aesthetics, Urbanisation, New Nature, The Big Challenge and Watershed – show different ways forward. Onwards with the polder!

Urbanisation, water retention capacity, and agricultural changes are all putting pressure on the ancient Dutch landscape of polders. Is the landscape architecture of the polders so interesting that it merits preservation? Or is there much to be gained through urbanisation, new nature, or other future scenarios?

Three types of polder are distinguished in the exhibition: peat polders, land reclaimed through dikes, and drained polders. Despite differences in appearance, the primary aim was always the same: to create more farmland. This resulted in the classic image of the reclaimed polder: an agricultural area divided by straight ditches and roads. Buildings are mostly considered undesirable or out of place in this landscape. Nonetheless, ‘colonisation from the city’ had started as early as the 17th century. In the De Beemster (1608-1612), for example, so-called pleasure gardens were constructed. These country estates for affluent town-dwellers were integrated into the square grid of the polder and bordered by rows of poplars and alders. Later, the polder structure often determined the scale of urban development. The design of the Prinsenland housing district in the 1980s retained the characteristic pattern of plots in the Alexander Polder. The pattern can still be discerned in the lines of ditches and roads. No wonder it is said that ’the polder plot is the basic module on which the entire Dutch landscape, both urban and rural, is constructed’.

Besides an ode to the geometric forms and splendid views of the classic polders, the exhibition looks at polders that have been turned into nature areas. Featured is a complete overview of the development of the Naardermeer. Despite being drained on numerous occasions, this polder remained unsuitable for agriculture because of the seepage of saltwater in the ground. The Society for the Preservation of Natural Monuments then bought the polder and it became a symbol of nature preservation in the Netherlands. In the 1970s government policy shifted form nature preservation and maintenance to nature development. The Lauwersmeer is a polder handed back to nature in that period.

But there’s more. Entirely in accordance with the theme of The Flood, the office La4sale proposes inundating the Horstermeer Polder. The relatively low-lying polder situated amongst the Vecht lakes requires intensive pumping to keep the water out, which is why it’s often called ’the drain of the Vecht region’. The disadvantages of intensive pumping are that water levels drop in the surrounding lakes and saltwater makes agriculture almost impossible.

A watershed has therefore been reached. The current situation is untenable and a radical transformation seems the only option. But that’s not so easy. Plans for the Horstermeer Polder have been blocked by locals. Have the TV ads by Peter Timofeef (the Dutch Rob McElwee) on climate change proved ineffective?

On display in a separate section of the exhibition is the Polder Indicator, based on studies carried out by the Institute for Environment and Nature (RIVM). The indicator features four future scenarios for the Netherlands in 2030, varying from a model based on a strong economy to more sober scenarios: Global Market, Secure Region, Global Solidarity, and Caring Region. De Volkskrant newspaper recently conducted a survey of 2500 people, and the most popular scenario (45%) was also the most conservative one, Caring Region. For the future this means there will be no major changes such as complete inundation but, rather, the somewhat uninteresting option of ‘agrarian nature conservation’ and a countryside where development is prohibited.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that people aren’t open to the idea of major change in what is the best evidence of victory in the struggle against water. Polders have a strong symbolic significance that cannot be overlooked. That symbolism is expressed in the typical forms of the De Beemster, for example. The immense space, emptiness in fact, of the polder landscape, the rational division into plots defined by straight roads and ditches, and the bare horizon –  the appearance of polder is inextricably linked to the history of Holland. The question, now, is how much of this cultural heritage will survive a number of the proposed transformations. Is an inundated polder still a polder? And how can we reconcile the rustic scene of wild-looking Galloway cattle with the historical significance of the polder?

But the fact is that big changes are imminent and drastic choices have to be made. The exhibition offers a good overview of the 15 polders and sheds light on their historical development and the problems encountered in their construction. Opinion on the future scenarios seems divided. Who knows, perhaps a solution can turn up in the ‘What do you choose’ section of the Polder Indicator