The collective genius of Bureau B+B

Since its establishment in 1977, Bureau B+B, a collective whose name still reminds us of its founders Riek Bakker and Ank Bleeker, can without exaggeration be called the key player in innovation and the launch pad for new talent in urbanism and landscape architecture in the Netherlands. It is therefore only right that the history, the output, and the significance of the office has been documented in a hefty monograph by Marinke Steenhuis.

Although it’s nothing out of the ordinary today, the decision of the two young landscape architects Riek Bakker and Ank Bleeker to open their own office wasn’t such an obvious thing to do back in 1977. At that time, you could count the total number of independent landscape firms on the fingers of one hand. Besides that the founders had ambitions that would drastically expand and alter the profession, or at least the scope of work. Up until that point, landscape architects either worked at the very large scale of local-authority plans, motorways and land consolidation schemes, or they worked at the very small scale of gardens and parks. And invariably the assignment and context was about ‘greenery’, which was essentially a matter of planting. What is more, the field of study comprised two ‘cultures’ that were linked to the two most important training colleges: ‘green’ Boskoop, where Riek Bakker was educated; and the more academic Wageningen, which dealt with the big scale and where Ank Bleeker studied.
It was in the face of this self-evident yet now extremely forced divide that Bakker and Bleeker wanted to work together in an integral manner, not only to integrate the two cultures but also to explore the scale in between and especially the city and urban design. The last of these was both professionally and commercially a daring though in hindsight successful decision. In the early years the office discovered and explored the retail street and the shopping precinct as an assignment that had been forgotten. The work invariably concerned integrated plans for the design of public space with a high degree of refinement and precision in its detailing. That usually involved more hard surfaces than greenery. The drawings largely focus on surface patterns, subtle height differences, related street furniture and the prudent introduction of the car (which had in fact been banished from the retail street over the course of the 1970s). Greenery was, at most, just one of the spatial components, and certainly not always the most important. This approach turned out to be a ‘gap in the market’, and for a long time Bureau Bakker en Bleeker was leader in this field. Later the office repeated the trick with the project De Kern Gezond (=In Perfect Health) for The Hague, which it worked on from 1987 to 1995, and in which it was one of the first to explore the new terrain of integrated inner-city redevelopment. With that, the office opened up a totally new urban or perhaps ‘urban-design’ field of activity for the profession that later generations of landscape architects could benefit from.

Almost all of those generations that followed, by the way, started their careers with Bakker and Bleeker. The list of staff and ex-directors reads as a who’s who of the New Dutch Landscape Architecture. Michael van Gessel worked for the office for a long time, Adriaan Geuze was an intern and freelance employee, Alle Hosper, Sylvia Karres and Bart Brands, Jos Jacobs, Tineke Blok, Marieke Timmermans, Berno Strootman, Danielle Huls, Freek Loos and Martine van Vliet, Anneke Nauta, right up to Ronald Rietveld: they all worked at the office and many of them even became directors for a period. And I’m sure I’ve left out a few important names. No wonder that the book’s subtitle refers to the office as a ‘collective genius’.
The ease with which the office absorbs new staff and allows them to move up is undoubtedly down to the organisational structure and office culture. Bureau B+B is structured as a foundation, works in an interdisciplinary manner, and is organised on the idea of equal involvement of all staff. Both of those who gave their names to the office left it fairly soon, Ank Bleeker in 1982, Riek Bakker in 1986, but that had scarcely any influence on the nature or quality of the work. A collective office culture evidently established itself within a short space of time and remained unaffected by the stamp of the original directors and chief designers and that continued smoothly after their departure. That, too, is a managerial achievement of the highest order. Just imagine doing it as a creative entrepreneur. It was attempted often in the 1970s but pulling it off is another matter altogether.

The danger of such a fast turnover of talented individuals and of the flat, integral organisational structure is of course that the work of the office becomes anonymous. Is there such a thing as a typically recognisable B+B style? Marinke Steenhuis asks the same question in her text and answers it with a cautious ‘Yes’. The staff and directors she interviewed generally emphasise the combination of reason and emotion, of analysis and intuition. Indeed, a fusion of the two ‘cultures’, but also a little bit of everything. That said, the designs by B+B are indeed recognisable, particularly in the elaboration of ‘traditional’ landscape assignments such as the early park designs for Prinsenland and Zevenkamp. Marinke Steenhuis introduces Edmund Burke’s notion of the ‘sublime’ as a typical hallmark of B+B. Perhaps rightly so in some cases, but at the same time, the designs are often just too objective and/or too sweet and soft to evoke the awe-inspiring beauty of nature that Burke associated with the notion of the sublime. What is clear is that the office introduced artistic and aesthetic considerations into landscape design, something that is common practice today yet was certainly not the case thirty years ago.
That aspect is perhaps explored most successfully in the essay ‘Cool Warmth’, in which Noël van Dooren traces the development of the office through the many design and presentation sketches, drawings and collages. This body of work is splendid, rich and varied, and it is very recognisable as a ‘style’. Up to now, B+B has managed to escape from the representations of work dictated by software and the conventions of fashion. And it is precisely in this area that the office reveals its preference for beautiful and effective imagery, and it is perhaps this artistic contribution on top of the analytic character that lends the completed designs of B+B their particular character — sometimes dry, sometimes expressionist, sometimes awkwardly cute, sometimes searching, sometimes hard, to the point, and indeed sublime, but never easy and obvious.

Bureau B+B has received an overview of its work that the office deserved: self-assured, 600 pages thick, half of them devoted to project descriptions, yet also involved and detailed, because the other half of the book consists of essays, overviews, personal memories, office photos, lists and charts. And certainly not glossy, no big photos, no shiny paper, calmly designed — a breadth of fresh air.