An “historical” edition of the yearbook Landscape Architecture and Urban Design

The yearbook Landscape Architecture and Urban Design in the Netherlands, featuring the most exemplary designs from the period 2003-2007, was recently published. The selection forms a cross section of work in the profession. Time to take stock of five years of landscape architecture and urban design in the Netherlands.

Scans from the reviewed book:

4-6 repair of Merovingische ringwalburcht, Michael van Gessel and Wim Wijsman

The restoration plan by Michael van Gessel and Wim Wijsman for a Merovingian stronghold near Rhenen reveals a totally different approach to the past. The fifth century stronghold is revealed again in a subtle manner. A floating balcony over the steep ramp emphasises what the fortress was once intended for: providing a view. The design by Sant en Co for the public space in Roombeek, a neighbourhood in Enschede destroyed by a fireworks explosion, also brings history to life in another way. The design is based on the restored Roombeek, an historical landscape element. This, in combination with the stepping stones in the form of splinters, forms an ensemble that respects the memory of what was once here yet also caters for a lighter future use of the outdoor space.

One can make a distinction between, on the one hand, projects in which morphological characteristics from the past form the main starting points for new design and, on the other, projects based on redesigning historical meaning, the function of the object or structure. Elaborating on structures and elements from bygone times results in plans that nestle perfectly into the existing landscape but, precisely because of this, add less new meaning.

The question arises whether a design method that is so explicitly based on historical or morphological characteristics leads to a certain reduction in meaning. When you have so many small-scale settlements based on history and location, can one still speak of a unique concept? Can history actually lend new form and meaning to a place and time? A pleasant oddity in the yearbook is therefore a project that steers clear of existing frameworks. It lends shape and direction to a phenomenon that is difficult to design, or is perhaps even the very opposite of planning, namely population decline. For the northern peat districts, Must and Bosch en Slabbers introduce so-called ‘wild development’. A rather rigorous spatial scenario in which the colonies are again ‘developed’ as an abandoned, wet and overgrown area containing extensive forms of living, working and leisure. Renewed meaning is given here to an historical fact, linked to contemporary social questions and forms of use. Finally, the use of the design determines whether it possesses the right characteristics to absorb changing demands and conditions in the future. Or, as Eric Luiten writes in his essay: ‘history itself will determine whether a plan adds a new layer to history’.

This yearbook offers a clear overview of the state of affairs in the profession. We will have to wait for the ’test of time’ to find out which of the schemes presented in the yearbook have dealt with the past to advantage. This is all the more so for the plans in this volume that have yet to be completed. And we’ll also have to wait to see how things pan out for the other main theme in this volume, designing with water. Let’s hope the profession finds a way to do away with the ‘water division’ between the disciplines in order to facilitate at integral planning for the Dutch Water City. Then we will know if this yearbook really was an historic edition.

Leafing through the yearbook, which boasts an entirely new layout, you immediately notice the large number of landscape plans. Included are not only large-scale projects such as the Drentse Aa and the Zuid-Limburg Heuvelland hill landscape but also country estates and a forestry area. True to tradition, there is also plenty of attention for parks, gardens and public space. The urban projects reveal a remarkable trend. For years urban expansion schemes dominated the yearbooks. But the completion of the Vinex projects signals the limits of large-scale urban expansion in many municipalities. So no large-scale expansion districts this time round. Instead, there’s plenty of urban restructuring. The transformations of harbour areas, industrial sites and post-war districts raise two other themes: attention for the past in all its manifestations, and projects dealing with water in towns.

One of the five essays in this yearbook, written by Robert Broessi, deals with the issue of water. Broessi argues for removing the existing ‘water barriers’ that divide the spatial disciplines. He states that ’the dividing line between water and the bordering built environment is razor sharp’, that water is still dealt with as a civil engineering issue, and that there is not really any interaction with the surrounding development. Water, therefore, is reduced to just a ‘backdrop for real estate’. Broessi wonders what perspectives might open up if we were to think of water in the city as the backbone of public space. The water network as a network of squares, streets and parks? Something like this is visible in the design of the Weerwaterplein in Almere by Landlab. Water is at the centre here, literally. A wide flight of stairs leads the visitor to the water level with piers and jetties, which form ’the entrance court’ to the city from the water. In its design for Het Lankheet water purification park, Strootman Landschapsarchitecten explores the possibility of using an assignment involving water to make a public park. The selection committee rightly described the project as ‘a poetic water spectacle’. There are, however, also a number of possibilities to continue the tradition of the modern Dutch Water City. Neither of the projects already described involves much in the way of new buildings, which is a consequence of the sectarian division of the assignments. Broessi notes that the most significant obstacles to integral planning are the different speeds of the assignments, the recognition of their urgency, and the lack of an institutional framework.

Placed before Broessi’s contribution is a pictorial essay by landscape architect and photographer Peter van Bolhuis, who died in 2005, featuring a selection of aerial photos that convincingly portray the manmade Dutch landscape.

Just as current assignments involving water are linked to the tradition of the historical Dutch Water City, a striking number of projects in this yearbook turn to history to legitimise design choices. So you could argue that the Belvedère Nota has had an effect. The aim of this government paper was to make history a prominent issue in design. This aim would seem to have been accomplished, but there are big differences in points of view.

In the Hessenberg project in Nijmegen (AWG architecten with MTD Landschapsarchitecten) the designers extrapolate spatial ingredients from the historical composition of the city. And in Jabikswoude near Leeuwarden (Franz Ziegler), elements of the existing landscape and the typical Friesian village are deployed as starting points in design. These are then applied in the new situation. It’s clear that you can’t create the intangible characteristics of the village – sense of community, social cohesion, security – with winding streets, cleverly angled houses and a central place (for the church spire?). The reason for this focus on village-like residential settings, which are also manifest in the Nieuw Cabergh project near Maastricht, should perhaps better be sought in market wishes. Bigger dwellings on more spacious plots are in demand, whereby the parking issue can be solved in a less forced manner, for example on the individual plots. In combination with a stronger leaning towards the past and a focus on the landscape, the result is village-like plans that succeed in attaching themselves seamlessly to their surroundings.

The development of the Waalfront in Nijmegen shows that deploying different layers from the past can also lead to a cocktail of patterns and references. The pressure exerted on the design by dealing with the past results here in a multitude of neighbourhoods, each of which relates to history in its own way.