Salt, reeds and dunes

It’s not very often that Arcam invites a landscape architect to hold the monthly architecture lecture at the Brakke Grond. In an exciting presentation, Maike Van Stiphout outlined her view of the profession and explained why and how she works as a landscape architect.

For more than fifteen years Maike van Stiphout and her office DS landschapsarchitecten have been working on a wide range of landscape commissions. Her portfolio comprises all scales in both urban and rural areas. She has worked on such projects as the public space in the centre of Almere (with OMA) and the Tilla Durieux-Park at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Now the focus of work has shifted from city centres to rural areas. Every scale demands different skills from the landscape architect. In urban areas the main requirement is landscape design and a sound knowledge of materials, while designs in rural areas demand an ability to establish the right conditions and manage the process. Van Stiphout expounded upon her work and, in the process, explained what she thinks landscape architecture stands for. The examples comprise both urban architectural projects and rural policy projects.

Right from her opening remarks, Van Stiphout the landscape architect emerged as she reflected on the Brakke Grond venue itself. ‘Brakke grond’ (Dutch for brackish soil) was caused by the salinisation of the soil by the ancient IJ waterway. This was significant for the site and the transformations that took place there over the course of centuries. This quick profile was enough to reveal her signature as a landscape architect. ‘Our profession differs from architecture, for example, in that it always addresses the context.’ That’s why Van Stiphout bases her designs on an understanding of the context. A recurring theme in her work is the search for new elements can be united with the most valuable elements from the past. She acknowledges that in many projects the landscape architect is just one small factor in the whole process. ‘But you are the one holding the pen! So you can accumulate all the knowledge, which is something the other parties at the table often cannot do. And as long as you’re holding the pen, you can make design decisions, from the past to the future.’

In her projects Van Stiphout gathers the historical information and the maps of an area to discover its collective memory. She has even developed her own methodology based on the work of Ian McHarg and the Wagening method. Careful study of historical layers produces an ‘index’ that can be deployed in the planning process and, importantly, in communicating about an area undergoing development. The residents of the Polder Rijnenburg, for example, were given a CD containing all the maps produced by Van Stiphout. As a result, they became the new conservators of the collective memory of the area and a partner in the ongoing plans by the municipality to build a neighbourhood in the polder.

The designs by DS often feature an all-embracing theme, a motif that is deployed consistently in the design. Creating dunes, for instance, is the focus in the design for the World Forum in The Hague. A reference to the dunes that once existed on the site, the soft association of this new landscape to its former self lends the site an identity. The urban atmosphere of the World Forum square is defined by the materials used: sand-coloured stone and dune-like grasses and greenery. The project for the Poelgeest polders also boasts an all-embracing theme, namely ‘creating reeds’. Purifying the water from the surrounding area plays a big role in the design of the new landscape park. The reeds form a functioning landscape since they purify the water, attract new fauna and create a totally new identity.

In her lecture Maike van Stiphout demonstrated the scope and importance of the profession of landscape architecture, the most important pillars of which are the cultural history of an area and the functioning of the landscape. ‘In fifteen years of working with this office I’ve learnt that it’s not just about beautiful things, since the atmosphere is more important than the design.’ Nonetheless, the rural work seems very careful and occasionally even overly controlled in comparison to the aesthetic, urban work. She herself admits that the architecture she designed for Park Brederode doesn’t comply with the conditions established by DS – a fact that irritates her visibly, for she would like nothing more than to keep control of everything so that she could bring the project to a perfect completion. The fact that not all projects match her ambitions makes one curious about her future work.