Author Archives: Dirk Sijmons

With the Year of the Historic Estate behind us I can safely make two confessions. The first, which I would term only half an admission, involves the presumptuous idea that I can claim some kind of clandestine spiritual right of ownership to Castle Groeneveld, because of memories that stretch back many more years than those of its ‘modern-day’ proprietors, the Dutch Forestry Service (Staatsbosbeheer, or SBB). Many us will be familiar with the phenomenon that, as soon as something is imprinted on your mental map, you are also to some degree its owner. As more and more memories adhere to that particular place, the stronger this phenomenon becomes. I was once with the parents of a friend from primary school on the day after one of the infamous 1950s parties hosted by the then inhabitants, Joop and Ali Colson. I remember the great mystery of the run-down building and I have a vague reminiscence of a room with a totally rotten floor (now perhaps the Hasselaer Room?) and a trio of old pianos with drawing pins in their little hammers. Only part of the castle was habitable. I also happened to witness part of the set-building process for Jan Vrijman’s film, The Reality of Karel Appel, with my own parents.

A second common phenomenon is that people resist alterations to places onto which they have projected their memories. Nobody can blame me for bemoaning in concord with the taxi-driver who complained that all the mystery, of the building as well as the garden, had been erased by restoration, as I made my way to the recently refurbished castle for the first time in a very long time. I was working for the Dutch Forestry Service at the time, and if the conference rooms at the Westraven main office were fully booked then you were allowed to reserve a room at Groeneveld, so I went there often. Later on that commitment was converted into a seat on the Advisory Committee of the castle that I had already spiritually appropriated many years earlier. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this Advisory Committee is composed almost entirely of persons who, via other paths, have undergone the same process: a company of unabashed lords and ladies of the manor.

No, the second admission is what concerns us here: the overconfidence of actually thinking that you might one day possibly go and live there. However, a pleasing quality of the country houses of the Netherlands is that they do not boast the proportions of English stately homes and are unlike France’s regal country houses of the first order. Our Dutch country estates are all of a scale that is just about ‘habitable’, but it can only be ascribed to youthful exuberance that, at the age of 20, I made a serious bid to take up residence in the house at Elswout in Overveen. I had been to the Elswout country estate often. We went on holiday to Zandvoort aan Zee on Holland’s North Sea coast every year. The modest bad-weather facilities to be found there were limited to ‘Kraantje Lek’ – the ‘Dripping Tap’ restaurant and environs – with its backdrop of bare, towering dunes, the hollow tree (a ‘gooseberry bush’ where the women of Haarlem reputedly went to collect their newborn babies), a huge seesaw and pancakes. To reach this little restaurant you followed a long, winding road through the fringes of the inner coastal dunes, with on one side a wooden fence that seemed to be never-ending, and which also continued after you had reached Kraantje Lek. ‘Elswout lies over there,’ my mother would invariably comment. ‘You have to buy a ticket to get in.’ She wasn’t much of a nature-lover, so it wasn’t until I reached the age of 14 that I saw what lay beyond the fence, and I have visited regularly ever since. The beautiful park with its exaggerated dune landscapes, stylized little bridges and strange little houses strewn along a meandering path, the beautiful woods with, as I discovered, mushrooms even in the spring. At a given point the walk fairly suddenly presents a spectacular view towards the country house. (I thought it a rather unwieldy piece of architecture, to be honest.)

Even when I was studying I liked to go there in the weekend. During one of those walks I noticed that the house was unoccupied. It must have been around 1970, in the years that the Jac. P. Thijsse Grammar School had already moved out and the Zocher Horticultural College had not yet taken up residence. A chat with the forester revealed that Bloemendaal Municipal Council was searching for a fitting new use for the property. At that time I was busy with a collaborative (and equally overconfident) project between Delft Polytechnic (TH Delft) and the Rietveld Academy to design and produce ‘flight suits’ – a sort of mini zeppelin for personal use – and we could have made good use of some extra workshop space. In addition, everyone was chronically dissatisfied with the prevailing post-war housing shortage, of course. Myself, and a dozen or so like-minded people therefore devised an intrepid plan to establish a ‘creative, multidisciplinary live/work commune’ for which we created a foundation (called WAVE, if I remember correctly). With such a name, designing eye-catching stationery was child’s play, and that is how Bloemendaal Municipal Council ended up receiving a formal letter from us. An informative telephone conversation confirmed to us that not only had the letter arrived, but that it would be given serious consideration as well. With a mixture of disappointment and relief (it was all slightly scary, for sure), six weeks later we read ‘that following a thorough appraisal the Municipality’s preference is for the other candidate’. So we had ended in the last two.

elswoutElswoud (Foto: Harm Botman)

A year and a half later, a warm summer’s day prompted us to go for a picnic at Elswout with several friends – a number of former members of WAVE among them. We settled at the edge of the woods on the meadow that border on the south side of the large house. Musical, culinary and alcoholic refreshments and fine conversations combined with the fantastic location in a mind-expanding manner. At around 6 o’clock we noticed that a table was being set for two on the large balcony of the house opposite, a pair of handsome candlesticks included. Our curiosity was aroused. From the balcony the new inhabitant also noticed us. This slight man with a bush of unkempt hair walked to the edge of the balcony and admonished us: ‘Would you mind leaving?’ And a few minutes later, without much conviction: ‘Do you mind leaving? You’re spoiling the grass for our pedigree cattle!’ We didn’t react, aware that here we were not dealing with the owner, but ‘just’ the party preferred by the Municipality of Bloemendaal. He and we left it at that and enjoyed a wonderful evening on either side of the lawn. Later on, Dutch courage prompted us to beckon him to join us as we lingered on the picnic blanket. He introduced himself as Peter van Gogh and joined us for a drink and a smoke. When he found out that some of us were studying architecture he insisted that we should go with him. He wanted to show us something. In the main hall on the ground floor hung a gigantic charcoal drawing that covered a whole wall with rapidly sketched lines that suggested movement, a barely recognizable topography and a mass of clouds. He pointed out a glittering silver ring in the middle of the drawing and had us guess what it was. By that stage of the evening we wouldn’t have been able to distinguish a rabbit from a hare, and gave up after a few half-hearted attempts. ‘That is the climatological city,’ said Van Gogh, ‘as seen by astronauts from a Mercury capsule.’ ‘Yes, the cli-ma-to-lo-gical city,’ he repeated, as if dictating, ‘a city for 1.5 million inhabitants in a superstructure 10 to 30 kilometres in diameter in a 1-kilometre-high ring that is dimensioned so that the city can cultivate its own food in the middle. My solution for the urbanization problem.’ The imperious tone made clear that there was no escape and that we were in for a pithy tail-end to the evening. An extended monologue ensued, supported by him showing us countless drawings. He also produced a scale model of a test frame for the giant ring, which according to him had already been tested in the wind tunnel of the aircraft manufacturer Fokker and boasted such superb aerodynamic properties that the wind was deflected across the structure, creating a microclimate for optimal agricultural production.

Climatological City

The climatological City

There was a strict zoning scheme: the industry below the ground in the base of the ring, transport and services above that and then a few dozen layers of housing on top of that, followed by another transport ring with services and a further dozen or so floors of accommodation, this continuing until the ambitious construction height of 1 kilometre had been reached. Van Gogh also held a disquisition about a cable radio system, via which all the inhabitants could remain in constant contact with the ring’s administration and could also vote interactively (25 years before the internet!). The ring city was the ‘cutting edge’ of 1970’s technology in every regard. No matter what we asked, everything had already been taken into account and solved, as befits this kind of utopian design project. Van Gogh was a vehement detractor of urban planners who, in his words, imposed a way of life on people. We looked at the enormous ring and asked: ‘So what does this represent then?’ No, his own city was a ‘neutral apparatus’ that would bring an end to such moralizations and provide the relationship between city and countryside with a definitive form. When the ring was full you simply began building a new one. As students we had of course studied the ideas for superstructures of Archizoom, Superstudio and Buckminster Fuller and caught glimpses of the utopian architecture of the Enlightenment, but never before had we encountered a utopian architect in person. We felt like we had met with an alien. We put up a good fight, which was hardly difficult when confronted by such a weird and wonderful utopia, but Van Gogh enjoyed sparring with us, making it a magical evening.

Only when I started to explore landscape architecture in greater depth did I realize that the name of the ‘Dripping Tap’ restaurant referred to the system of dune streams and ponds – the duinrellen – which spring forth from the high dunes there due to seepage, that the springtime mushrooms must have been morels, that the dune’s oversized contours are meant to evoke an Alpine illusion, that the rustic little bridges are supposed to play a supporting role, the strange little houses are called ‘follies’, that the scenic route is one of the standard ingredients of landscape architecture and that the house was inspired by the Villa Farnese in Caprarola (and my appreciation of the house hasn’t really changed in the meantime: it’s still a storey too high). But the main thing I had failed to understand until then, was that some of the magic of that evening resided in the wonderful but also tragic coincidence of a utopian architect positing a new, albeit unfeasible city/countryside model in the midst of, of all places, an estate: the centuries-old, tried and tested formula for a stylized and refined balance between town and country. It turned out that the erstwhile Bloemendaal Municipal Council had taken the right decision.

Peter van Gogh

Peter van Gogh with his model of the Climatological City

The question mark in the title of our blog can be removed. From Tuesday 9 October 2012 we do landscape TOGETHER with TU-Delft and Wageningen University. The two happy gentlemen on the photo are no other then Kees Slingerland, the General Director of the Environmental Sciences Group of WU and Dirk Jan van der Berg, the Chair of the CvB of the TU-Delft. They just signed the agreement between the TU-Delft and Wageningen University to work more closely together on Landscape Architecture both in the fields of research and education. They look like they both have a lot of experience in signing sessions but it was not for a moment routine. In what could be called a battle of charm and diplomatic skills both chairmen excelled in meaningful speeches to underline the importance of the collaboration of the two universities in this field. Starting out from their respective scientific context, being the life sciences and the building sciences they see the enormous potentials (“best of both worlds”) when these two lines of research and education would work together more closely.

In the select company of Adri van der Brink, Adriaan Geuze, Karin Laglas and Krik van Ees a little ceremony took place. Sven Stremke and I were asked to report back on the first collaboration project, the mixed master studio kWh/m2 where the landscape architecture students from both Wageningen and Delft were working together.

In the agreement common ground is found in collaboration on research and PhD conferences. Wageningen University and the TU-Delft will be complementary in the field of education. Wageningen will offer a course for our future Master-students in the cluster of geo-morphology, ecology and soil science. Delft will offer a Minor in urban processes, urbanism and urban planning. The elaboration of these goals will take place in this year in order to be operational in 2013-2014. Some elements will even be ready for implementation in this academic year.

Dutch elections aren’t completely over yet, the exit polls have given their preliminary results, the outcomes of the big cities aren’t clear and the last votes are still to be counted, but the first lobbyists are making themselves ready to present their case at the political celebration soirees of the winning parties. Some more restrained lobby groups politely wait some days or weeks till the formation of a new cabinet actually takes shape but one can recognize the real successful and accurate powerhouses by the swiftness they make their moves. This election, I must say, the absolute winner was the climate lobby. And they made their point in a very compelling, poetic and original way. It rained and rained and rained over all these politicians of the last administration who had negated, downplayed or even ridiculed the climate problem.

Only two little faults I could find in this highly original action. First: It also rained on the politicians that were fighting for a better climate policy. Secondly, I’m afraid we were the only ones that saw the poetry of it all (were there other witnesses?). With some friends we were stepping out of a restaurant after a splendid dinner party when the rainstorm hit us. Under the umbrella we were deliberating whether to call a cab, go home by tram or bicycle and decided to consult the rain radar on the IPhone. We suddenly saw the sheer precision with which the action was executed.

The clouds of the forceful summer-storm not only mimicked the coastline of our country but also in the east and south (with neighboring countries with a sound climate policy) the precision rain bombardment restricted itself exactly to the Dutch territory. Even the open space of the IJsselmeer (no politicians there at that moment) is cut out of the cloud cover. The picture shows the operation some half an hour before complete coverage was reached over the guilty Netherlands. Limburg, close the formation! We’ll miss Blondy! Let it rain.

If Australian landscape architects are still wrestling with the question which animal to adopt as their mascot they can call off their quest. Scientific research helps them to make their final choice. The Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis, native to Australia) presents itself as the best choice.

The great Bowerbird not only builds a bower as a little tunnel to attract females but doing so adds a final touch that makes this bird the obvious candidate to be lifted to the heraldic shield of Australian landscape architecture. All male Bowerbirds stand behind the bower and try to catch the attention of the female bird by throwing objects alongside the back of the tunnel. Everything will do, stones, little bones, shells but the most interesting objects, like bottle caps or a blue plastic clothes-peg, are saved for last to make the best impression. The amazing thing is that the great Bowerbird arranges the objects to size thus creating a false perspective.

For me Chlamydera nuchalis may call itself the Great Bowerbird because it not only creates a scenic (and romantic) route that seems to come out of landscape architecture textbooks, but as an extra the false perspective looks very much like the stunning prospettiva forzata that Palladio build in his Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.

Needless to say that the suggestion that birds would create romantic illusions is sheer human projection and that this beautiful construction has evolutionary advantages. The illusion may hold the female’s attention for longer than a poorly arranged gesso, the researchers say. But then again, if modern environmental historians are confronting us with their insights that Nature is mainly a cultural construct (Cronon) and post modern sociologists like Donna Haraway (Cyborgs) and Bruno Latour (Hybrids) are confronting us with the constant hybridization of culture and nature why not take a less anthropocentric view on the Bowerbird and grant him a hybridization from the side of nature. To coin a term let’s call it Nulture. And let us perhaps allow ourselves to look at our Culture as something that indeed is evolutionary advantages but nevertheless an inalienable part of nature. For the sake of being congruent let’s call it Cature. A deep bow for the Bowerbird!


Kelley, et al. Illusions Promote Mating Success in Great Bowerbirds. In: Science 20 January 2012: 335-338. DOI:10.1126/science.1212443

“People feel better outside than inside”. “People feel better in the park/woods/nature than in the city”. These are some of the conclusions from a project with the telling title ‘Mappiness’ Good news for landscape and Landscape Architecture on first sight. But are these only one-liners or firmly based scientific statements? Well, that depends on the quality of the empirical evidence of course. Most experience sample methods (ESM) have a hard time getting a representative group (in the end almost only colleagues) that has to struggle trough tedious interview forms (“it will take only twenty minutes”) to step-by-step end up with modest results. How about a sample group of 47.331 people (and growing by the day) who willingly support their data three times a day to the researchers that by now collected over three million forms in a few months? I stumbled upon these remarkable Experience research feats in a TedxBrighton 2011. In this “Twenty minutes lecture” George MacKerron explains why and how he and Susana Mourato (both from the Department of Geography & Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science) created ‘mappiness’. They want to better understand how people’s feelings are affected by features of their current environment. Things like air pollution, noise, and green spaces influence your well being is their hypothesis.
This is how it works. They developed an app that can be downloaded for free. It must be one of the most irritating apps around on the web because it rings you (with your approval, you can influence the settings) three times a day to ask you three simple questions. The screen looks like this:

How do you feel? You can shift a slide on the Happy-scale from ‘Not at all Happy’ to ‘Extremely Happy’ A glider on the Relaxed-scale from Not at All to Extremely and finally you can shift on a scale How Awake you are from Not at All to Extremely awake. (In my case being awake or not is rather digital, but this might be different in the UK where the research is focused). Then, if you are able to, you may take a photograph that is transferred with your answers to the Mappiness server. The tricky thing is of course that, with every response you provide, with every shot you make, your bearings are also exactly known thanks to the GPS in your phone. Furthermore Mappiness uses the microphone of your mobile to measure the ambient noise level. For you personally it gives feedback on the development of your personal happiness including when, where and with whom you’re happiest. For the research the data together show a wealth of information and a lot of conclusions that can be drawn from it are far from exhausted. The GPS data show that the whole of the UK is almost completely covered by contributors.

When these guys put it through a big regression model they can gauge the happiness as the function of habitat type, activity, companionship, weather conditions (there is of course a link between meteorological data and the GPS data), daylight conditions, location type (in, out, home, work, etc), ambient noise level, time of the day, response speed, and individual ‘fixed-effects’ (that come out of your personal Mappiness-history).
Factors can be plotted out against each other. Not only the researchers conclude that outside people feel happier than inside, they can even, thanks to the GPS, focus it to the landscape type. Marine shores and margins score best with between 2,5 and 6,5 more points then the average urban happiness. Waste land between minus 1 and + 2 points is tailing the list of the outdoors. Amazing for me is the score of broad leaved and mixed forests (between 1,5 and 2,5 above average urban) is considerable lower then coniferous forests (not my taste, but ranging between 2,5 and 6,4 above the average). One can immediately see that these observations are highly culture specific, and of course people wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about the outdoors if there wasn’t a city or a house to come home to and yes, there will be a bias because the group that owns a smart phone might not be completely representative and yes this will open up opportunities for governments to measure happiness and more important to figure it into its policy making and yes again there is the danger of the domination of the ‘gesundenes Volksempfinden’ But before we start summing up all the dangers and disadvantages chapeau for these two geographers. I think we should see it as a breakthrough in Experience research that can develop in a powerful tool for planners and landscape architects.The possibilities are almost limitless if this instrument will mature out of its growing pains. Think of an application and enter this blog! Let’s introduce it in the Netherlands (or make it global) I would say.

Mappiness website