Heritage landscape


“… it may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.”[1]

A landscape architect for president. How about it? In Thomas Jefferson landscape architect. Part I this idea turned out to be not as far-fetched as it sounds…. All first American presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be, with Thomas Jefferson as their champion. In part II of this feuilleton let us zoom in on his life work: Monticello.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house and plantation, wasn’t the first American pleasure garden, but certainly the most influential one, uniting arts, science, production, experimentation, expression of both power and of democracy, of renewal and tradition.


Already in college Jefferson started planning his own house and garden, and never stopped planning it for the next 50 years. He inherited most of the land from his father, and his first action was to level the top of what had been his favourite spot since childhood, a hill that rose 170 metres above the river, and which he named Monticello [little mountain]. Two years later, he started building his house, inspired by Palladio. Although some Palladian plantation houses existed at the time, none was as sophisticated as his, and with the house he had a strong statement about who Thomas Jefferson was and would be: fashionable, powerful, looking toward the future. For him Palladian architecture, looking to the ancient past for models of the future, wasn’t old in essence, but modern.


As with the house, he had been planning the garden from early on. Before beginning to build the house, he was already planting fruit trees on the hillside. His first plan for the grounds laid out an astonishing landscape vision: somewhat lugubrious, fairly decadent and shamelessly romantic for someone who is celebrated as a master of sober and statesmanlike prose, totally unlike the no-nonsense Jefferson he was as a president.

To present an image of his ideas, let me describe one of these never-built phantasies. The graveyard, which he described as a circle surrounded by a hedge of cedar, among ancient oaks interspersed with some “gloomy” evergreens, with “no mark of any human shape that had been there, unless the skeleton of some poor wretch, Who sought that place out to despair and die in.”[2] Temples, a pyramid and statues would mark the graves, with inscriptions in pseudo-classical Latin describing water and grottoes. The whole arrangement would be planted with native beech and aspen trees, and a vista would be cut open to the river. There would be fragrant plants and an Aeolian harp would play mournfully by the shifting winds, unseen.

These and other visions were derived directly from his European books, and from the many travels he made when he was a Minister in Paris, spending most of his time touring gardens in France, England, Holland, Germany. His favourite was the jardin anglais, which he saw as the expression of Enlightenment, as a reaction against the autocracy and the oppressive rule of the privileged few (disregarding the reality of hundreds of poorly paid servants needed to keep up these gardens). The new naturalism was an expression of politics—the progress of civilisation moves toward greater liberty and justice, claiming the political powers that be were “natural” —, of the scientific revolution, geared toward empiricism—true knowledge can only be derived from the physical examination of things themselves—and of a new philosophy, with reason replacing faith and religion as the central organising principle, all of which fitted Jefferson’s views.


He kept perfecting his house and garden, living for years in a building site, tearing half the building down and replacing it with a taller portico and a single dome (modelled on Villa Rotunda) to make it aesthetically perfect. In the meantime, all his ideas to make money from his large plantation, such as introducing crop-rotation systems and soil-improving crops, did not deliver, whereas the nail-factory that he started, worked by boy slaves, did, presenting a total contradiction of Jefferson’s deepest-held belief that the United States should be a nation of farmers. This made him one of the first factory owners, the forerunner of what would transform the nations’ economy and social structure.


Despite his ideals, Jefferson was less a farmer than a plant-obsessed gardener of scientific bent, using his garden as an experimental laboratory. Even as an old man, he supervised the plantation almost daily. He was a zealous record-keeper, writing down all his observations, whether the wind direction, the blooming dates of wildflowers, or the life cycle of a destructive insect.

After retiring at Monticello, all his previously designed, unexecuted plans eventually led to the plan that was put in action. Working carefully with native material, although he was constantly experimenting with exotic plants, he created a very original version of a landscape garden. Based on his love for botany, agriculture and surveying, in this final vision he imagined the hilltop as a ferme ornée, an ornamental farm, with temples, clumps of trees, a swooping drive surrounded by flower beds called “roundabout”, a grove, a fish pond, a vegetable garden, fruit garden, and orchards. Outbuildings were moved out of sight, vistas were created, and the wooden fence replaced by a ha-ha.

Monticello is the quintessential expression of the ideal of a virtuous rural retirement, of a country of farmers in the tradition of Virgil’s “Georgics.” The rational exploitation of agricultural lands for profit (utility) married to a concern with pleasure and taste (beauty).



For further reading: Graham, S. (2011). American Eden; From Monticello to Central Park to our backyards: what our gardens tell us about who we are. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[1] Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782.

[2] From Jefferson’s Memorandum Book

Middagterallee in Dieren (G.Verschuure-Stuip, 2015)

During the last six month, the discussion on the cutting off trees next to Dutch N-roads, provincial roads, was intensified. It started as a ‘soft’ rule in the ‘Handboek Wegontwerp 2013’ which was published by the knowledge platform CROW, which stated that a tree should be planted away from the road for at least four and a half meters. But it escalated in a question list and discussion on ‘dangerous’ provincial roads by the ANWB (which actually was filled in by only a small group of its members). Many of these ‘dangerous’ roads are flanked by rows of old trees or these roads are in the midst of natural reserved areas. It was argumented that these roads and especially the trees next to it are leading to more injuries and deaths by car accidents. A group called ‘Knights of Trees’ (Bomenridders) collected –with success- many thousands of signatures of worried people, fearing the cutting of trees on large scale in the province of South Holland. But this fear is not over yet!

Cutting Trees a Solution?

No doubt that every death or traffic injury is one to many and this should be prevented. Traffic safety is of great importance to us all. But the question rises if downing rows of trees, even 200 or 300 years old trees, is the solution? Of course, it is very pitiful when a car loses control and crashes against a tree. But what would be the consequences if, because all trees in the middle of the road (parkway) were cut off, a troubled car is ending up at the other side of the road facing the oncoming vehicles? What would happen if a group of biking youngsters on the biking lane next to the road would be driven over because of the lack of a row of trees to safeguard them? Is it not the displacement of another problem? Is the basis of the traffic problems this long row of beautiful trees or do we need to take a closer look at specific, dangerous spots? And is the tree, which is standing on the same spot in all cases the most guilty party or do other factors, not at the least the way people drive, play a much more decisive role? The research of the ANWB didn’t answered all of these questions in their story.

The beauty of a avenue flanked with trees. Fonteinenallee in Renkum (G.Verschuure-Stuip, 2015)

Ecology and Environmental Issues

Traffic safety is one of the users arguments. But there are many more arguments not to cut off trees, which should be taken into account every time when is decided if a tree should be cut off or not. First and foremost, trees play a crucial role in the ecology and environmental issues of an area. Trees contribute of course in the production of oxygen (trees are most effective when they are a little older), are cooling the air in the summer and reduce wind and storms and make people more relaxed. Next to this, trees are housing birds, bats and other animals and smaller plants. And they have a function in reducing noise and fine dust, humans bad ‘habits’. Although the ecological and value cannot be named in euro’s, images of the thick smog of Beijing show how things can go wrong with fine dust. Next to this, world leaders- we- have decided this weekend, that our planet should not heat up more than ‘really less than 2 degrees’ in the future. We need all the help –however small- to make it to our climate goal targets and every tree is helping.

Identity and Cultural History

Trees are contributing to the regional landscape identity and cultural history of the place and this should be an argument in the discussion as well. Because trees, individually planted or in rows, which we call avenues or alleys, are part of the history of our cultural landscapes. They play an essential role in the character and identity and branding of a specific area. Many people are thinking now, so what? But landscapes with incensed avenues and forests, like on the boarders of the Veluwe, are being appreciated higher than open, flat landscapes with few trees by tourists, visitors and owners. And happy tourists and visitors are drinking more coffee and tea, staying overnight and shop and therefore, contribute to local economy. And this is leading to more functions for residents and higher house prices, which was shown in the clear graphics and numbers in the ‘Gemeenteatlas 2015’.

And the beauty is not only in the presence, but also in its size, which cannot be restored easily and quickly. When a part of the city is restored, like Utrecht is doing, the process will take 10-15 years. If an old tree needs to be replaced with another rather big one, it takes much more effort to do so. In the Netherlands there is a saying; Tree big, planter dead! (Boom groot, plantertje dood!).

Lost Beauty

Meanwhile, many trees and avenues have lost so much quality already. Recent research at the chair of Landscape Architecture at Delft University of Technology shows figures on the avenues in the Renkum community, a municipality on the boarders of the Veluwe. Over the past 140 years the presence of avenues diminished heavily. While Renkum had 140 different avenues or alleys in 1870, only 40% of these avenues were still intact in 2013. The quality of these avenues has diminished even further. While in 1870 65% of the avenues were still intact, in 2013 only 20% of the avenues were still in good condition. These are just a few numbers of what has happened, but you can already imagine how the appearance and quality of this area has been altered by the loss of the previously present avenues.

Future Driving

The timing is so to say a little wry in this period of time, when specialists are testing systems for cars to drive safely on roads in a ‘super-cruise control mode’ on long distances, which we saw on the news a couple of month ago.So, trees cannot drive cars, but people can. Let’s find specific solutions in which cars can drive safely and trees can stand next to the side of the road.

Hereby, I want to thank Lotte Dijkstra, Karen Cubells, Michiel Pouderoijen en Frits van Loon for their contribution to the blog.

More readings and links:

- Blog of Piet Vollaard ‘Kappen met kappen’ on Archined (11-11-2015):

- Knights of Trees, site of Rotterdam: and site to the IJsselsteijnse Knight of Trees:

- Manual of CROW:

- Research on the Changing Quality of Lanes in Renkum by C.M. Dijkstra, K. Cubells Guillen, G. Verschuure-Stuip will be published soon.

The dike as a landscape element takes on many shapes [1]. Depending on their form and location, dikes determine the ‘face’ of the Dutch polder landscape. Of course vegetation, land allotment and building development patterns also play an important role. Yet dikes are vital to the landscape’s appearance: apart from their form and location, their uninterruptedness defines spaces in a landscape and connects areas with each other. Dikes make differences in the polder landscape legible: a dike in a river landscape is different from one built in a sea-clay or peat landscape or the area around the IJsselmeer lake. Dikes therefore contribute to the identity and variety of the landscape. They simultaneously provide coherence, a sense of space and a rich variety of appearances. But how do you get a grip on the dikes’ spatial significance?

The seminal publication Het toekomstig landschap der Zuiderzeepolders (literally, ‘The future landscape of the Zuiderzee polders’ [1928]) provides some leads. In this manifesto of Dutch landscape architecture, planning experts such as D. Hudig and T. van Lohuizen described the importance of dikes as follows: ‘The dike is a significant element in every polder. Located on the border, it provides a view on one side of the landscape at its foot, unfolding its particular structure; on the other side it provides a view of the surrounding land, which often has a completely different character. The long, broad slope is one of the dike’s most beautiful features (. . .)’. From this, it can be inferred that a dike’s spatial significance depends on your vantage point, on the perspective you choose for reading and understanding dikes in the landscape. There are at least two different ways of looking at dikes: from the air and from the ground. In these vertical and horizontal perspectives features such as the dike’s course, cross-section and revetment always play a different role.

The course, cross-section and revetment of the dike exert great influence on its spatial significance. Plan for a new sea dike in the IJsselmeer area (Netherlands), Jacob van Hoorn, 1737 (source: TU Delft Library, Kaartencollectie Trésor TRL33.5.07)

The course, cross-section and revetment of the dike exert great influence on its spatial significance. Plan for a new sea dike in the IJsselmeer area (Netherlands), Jacob van Hoorn, 1737 (source: TU Delft Library, Kaartencollectie Trésor TRL33.5.07)

The view from the air

You get a bird’s eye view of the dike system regardless of whether you view it from the air or on a map. It becomes clear that dikes form spatial patterns that endow the landscape with structure. They provide cohesion in the landscape and are also the interface between land and water, or between different polders that are enclosed as spatial units. Dikes ‘frame’ different types of landscape and landscape units. Like the black lines that separate the pictures in a comic book, the dikes are the green lines that demarcate the Dutch landscape. This also means that dikes are connecting structures:  through cities and nature, they meander everywhere and connect the coast with the hinterland. This is significant, not only for plants and animals but also for humans.

Dike patterns also make the history of reclamation in the polder readable: in Friesland (NL), for example, you can see an intricate, irregular pattern of dikes and quays, an echo of the early individual reclamation that from the time of the Romans gradually developed into ring dikes; you can discern the haphazard process of diking accreted silted soil in Zeeland, and the systematic reclamation of the West-Frisian and Holland-Utrecht peat areas that started in the early Middle Ages. The ring dikes mark the areas of reclaimed land that have lain low in the landscape since the sixteenth century. Dike patterns are a record of the formative force of water and the way humans have dealt with it. Natural processes of sedimentation, erosion and stagnation through water provide the foundation for a rich variety of polder landscapes in the coastal, river and peat areas. Dikes also reflect technological progress, such as the Dutch Delta works, the Afsluitdijk (the enclosing dam of the IJsselmeer) and land reclamation in the IJsselmeer area. In a nutshell, the shape of a dike makes it possible to read how we have dealt with water: from the small-scale and winding in early times to the very large-scale and rectilinear today.

The development of the landscape expressed by the pattern of dikes, here visible on the island of Goeree Overflakkee (SW-Netherlands)  (drawing by: Michiel Pouderoijen, TU Delft)

The development of the landscape expressed by the pattern of dikes, here visible on the island of Goeree Overflakkee (SW-Netherlands) (drawing by: Michiel Pouderoijen, TU Delft)

The view from the ground

Viewing the dike from the ground means you stand on or next to the dike or see it from a distance. Here, conditions affecting visual perception such as vantage point, the viewer’s elevation and viewing direction, movement, and the weather play an important role. The interplay between the dike’s sideways slope, structure and revetment determine its spatial significance at eye level.

In the field, dikes are spatial borders: they determine the form of the landscape, the two- and three-dimensional composition of vertical elements that define the landscape space. The composition determines the scale, proportion, orientation and significance of the space. Every dike has its own specific characteristics, with form creating the connection between a landscape’s history and our spatial experience. Apart from the sideways slope, the cross-section and revetment are also important. The dike cross-section describes the dike’s height, the angle of inclination of its slope, and the width of the crest and the toe. This is important because a high, steep dike creates a different spatial effect from, say, a gently sloping wide dike. Whereas a steep dike makes a spatial border palpable, a dike with a gentle slope tones it down. Whether a dike is revetted with stones or only with grass also plays a role. The revetment is an indication of the function and use of the dike’s inside and outside, and it can create visual continuity or, in fact, contrast. Trees reinforce the three-dimensional effect of the dike but due to technical considerations they cannot always be planted.

The dike as landscape balcony at Wörlitz, Dessau (Germany) (photo: S. Nijhuis, 2013)

The dike as landscape balcony at Wörlitz, Dessau (Germany) (photo: S. Nijhuis, 2013)

Standing on a dike is like standing on a landscape balcony with sweeping views on either side – stretches of water or polder, or both. Movement plays an important role in how we experience these landscapes because there are often roads or cycle-paths on top of the dikes. Seen from the car or bicycle, aspects of the landscape succeed one another like a cinematic experience, as we float above the landscape. The straight or curved course of the dike then provides variation or calm and opens up perspectives on the landscape. Here, too, the cross-section strongly affects spatial experience: if the road and cycle-path are both located on the crest, for example, their width might diminish the special experience of the dike, whereas if the cycle-path is located on the dike’s flank more of the dike remains.

The dike’s continuity makes the landscape’s cohesion visible and connects the local with the supra-regional: in the Rhine-Meuse river area dikes follow the course of the rivers with  occasional sharp bends around deep lakes that bear silent witness to past dike breaches; in the peat area dikes support a system of drainage lakes and cut through the low-lying polder land; in the coastal area dikes are like the layers of an onion, enfolding and merging the land as it grew; and the dikes in the young IJsselmeer polders and the ring dikes around the polders of reclaimed lakes make it possible to experience the former stretches of water as landscape spaces.

Research through design exploring spatial qualities of re-enforced river dikes (source: Y. Feddes & F. Halenbeek, 1988)

Research through design exploring spatial qualities of re-enforced river dikes (source: Y. Feddes & F. Halenbeek, 1988, compilation: S.Nijhuis)

In conclusion

Taken together, these ways of looking create a basis for approaching the dike from a spatial perspective and endowing it with aesthetic landscape qualities. Thus, if work is carried out on a dike attention must be paid not only to safety and multi-functionality but also to scenic beauty. Carefully designing a dike’s course, cross-section and revetment ensures its contribution to the identity, spatial aspect and variation of a landscape. The design disciplines are vital here: landscape architects and urban planners play a key role in planning developments that affect the landscape, and they should take the lead in developing the expertise and tools to formulate the dike as an object of spatial design in a context of functionality and social embedding.



[1] This text is published as:  Nijhuis, S (2014). Dikes in focus. In EJ Pleijster & C van der Veeken (Eds.), Dutch dikes (pp. 72-75). Rotterdam: nai010 publishers. In Dutch: Nijhuis, S (2014). Oog voor de dijk. In EJ Pleijster & C van der Veeken (Eds.), Dijken van Nederland (pp. 72-75). Rotterdam: nai010 uitgevers. Both available at:


Many people know the overwhelming feeling of peace and admiration one experiences overlooking a canyon, snow capped mountains, sunset at the beach or tumbling waterfalls. Our relationship with nature is of all times and ranges from worshiping the gods of nature to overcoming or ‘taming’ it. The relation with nature has been the subject of many great thinkers such as the 18th century philosopher Rousseau who, with his admiration for nature, has had a big influence on our current way of thinking. Our desire for unspoiled nature is today perhaps greater than ever. Every year, millions of people have their holidays (to some indeed ‘holy’ days) in the mountains, which seem to have an enormous appeal to us.

Moraine lake, Banff National Park, Canada

Special ecosystems and lots of variety

The variety of (plant)species in the mountains is very big as a lot of different conditions can be found on a relatively small surface. In a North West European lowland forest one can find particularly forest plants due to different conditions. In the mountains these different conditions and gradients are more extreme, think of: altitude, temperature regimes, PH, moisture, soil types, snow coverage, nutrients sunlight etc. The result is a great balanced ecosystem with many different habitats and species.

It is not rare, to experience the grandeur of the mountain scenery during a walk when suddenly a little further, you hear a splashing waterfall and find yourself in front of a vertical cliff filled with rare flowers of Saxifraga, Sempervivum and Ferns; the most beautiful garden on a few square meter! Can we have some of this experience in our Gardens? Let’s have a look at the how we have dealt with this till now?

History of the Rock Garden

Although rocks were already used in Chinese gardens it was in the English landscape gardens that the grotto (rock cave) was introduced. As a reminder to pristine nature, which in those days was right in the spotlight. It was the time of exploring the remote corners of the world, exploring exotic places, but also, for example the Alps. There were also special plants and animals that were brought back to zoos and botanical gardens. Since the late 18th century, rock gardens were laid out and were on display (first one 1772 in London). This was mainly to create an artificial habitat for the plant collections brought back from the mountains, not to experience the feeling of the mountains! Later, local large angular limestone blocks were used to build these gardens and slowly the ‘English Rock Garden’ came into existence as can still be found in Kew Gardens. Around 1900 rock gardens were very popular, especially because Reginald Farrer brought back new species from the Himalayas and China. During an international plant exhibition of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1912 Farrer showed a natural rock garden he built himself. This was actually the start of the continuing interest in rock gardens today by enthusiasts worldwide.

English Rock Garden in Kew Gardens built in 1882

Alpine flowers in our gardens

Over the years, a variety of possibilities were created to grow Alpine plants in our gardens. This varies from the English rock garden, alpine houses, Czech crevice gardens, tufa gardens, using troughs, rubble gardens (rubble instead of rock), artificial and natural stone walls, raised beds and even refrigerated benches. Often this is mainly for genera, which are more difficult to grow as they often need moisture but good drainage, cool root systems but sun! Interestingly many of our perennials, shrubs and bulbs used in our gardens right now, grow naturally in mountain regions of the world think of plants like Bergenia, Buxus and Tulips

Garden secrets

So there are ways to make artificial habitats for a collection of alpine plants. The question now is, can we create the experience of the mountains in our garden. The total effect of plants, rocks and water together! In fact this is not an easy question to answer as I think it touches the core of what garden design & landscape architecture is about. In this respect, a Japanese garden is very interesting! Rocks as islands in the sea (gravel), smoothly pruned Azaleas as rolling hills in the Japanese landscape and so on. The Japanese garden is actually a translation of the local landscape! Which reminds me of William Blake’s poem ‘To see the world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wildflower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour!

Also very telling is the quest of the renowned landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds. With fellow students he had spent years looking for the essentials of the world’s famous gardens in Japan, China, Tuscany, France, England and so on. What are the secrets of all these gardens? Was it just the lay out, the geometry, order, unity and intricacy or is there more? Somehow they felt the essence of what it was seemed to escape them. Many years later when he sat in a woodland, as he describes it; sunlit trees, motionless air fragrant with Hay fern, purple foliage, squirrels searching for acorns….’an old familiar tingling went through me, a sense of supreme well being, and an indefinable something more’…. It gave him the same feeling as he had felt in some of the gardens, years earlier. It was not the design of the gardens but rather what one experiences there what was the secret! A special garden is not merely ‘an exercise in geometric acrobatics’ but, like in the mountains, an experience or feeling that the garden evokes.

Rotstuin Rock Garden Ber Slangen Maastricht

Experience the mountains in your garden

It is precisely this experience of the mountains that Ber Slangen in Maastricht tried to take home in 1950 when he cycled to the Alps Without a preconceived design he tried to create some of experiences of the Alps in his garden. A small magical landscape was created with rocks, plants and water. Several species of evergreen give depth of field and make it a special and harmonious place. Streamlets and waterfalls come from little gorges and water tumbles over rocks finding it’s way to the central pond in the garden. Vertical cliffs are covered with ferns, Epimediums, Solomon’s Seal and other interesting plants like Ramonda, and Haberlea. Large groups of one genus are used which gives some unity but also provides a background for a few solitary gems! The overall effect of the garden has always been a priority to the plants used. It didn’t matter if this effect was achieved by planting local easy growing ferns or endemic choice species, as long as the overall effect, which is the feeling of the mountains, was there. Vertical green cliffs are great to help to reach this effect. French botanist Patrick Blanc’s green walls are fine examples of this and have added new possibilities in the urban landscape to experience nature in our urban areas or at least try to plan for it. As Simonds describes it: ‘A garden, perhaps the highest most difficult art form, is best conceived as a series of planned relationships of human to human, human to structure, and human to some facet or facets of nature, such as the lichen-encrusted tree bole of an ancient ginkgo tree, a sprightly sun flecked magnolia clump, a trickle of water, a foaming cascade, a pool, a collection of rare tree peonies, or a New Hamshire upland meadow view’.

One of Patrick Blanc’s Green Walls

Although I love travelling and experience the beauty of pristine nature I still would like to end with Ber Slangen’s favourite quote by Italian writer Alberto Moravia. “And those nature lovers should not only decide to travel to Italy or remote areas to refresh their minds with it’s natural beauty. Those who have an eye for beauty can be endlessly happy in their back yard gardens” (Alberto Moravia, De Tijd, May 25, 1984)


Simonds O. John, Landscape Architecture: The shaping of man’s natural environment, New York, Toronto, London, 1961

Facebook page Rock Garden Ber Slangen


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

In August we spent our summer vacation in Tuscany. The timeless splendour of the scenery combined with perfect weather conditions (unlimited sunshine and a continuous firm breeze) and the healthy cuisine is so appealing to the senses that we cannot resist it. This year we rented a summer house at the Villa d’Arceno, an extensive country estate owned by English proprietors, that produces fine olive oil and spectacular Chianti wine. It is near the village of Castelnuovo Berardenga, not far from Siena. Imagine the long winding roads through undulating fields visually competing with long and perfectly straight cypress lanes. Imagine the robust old farms with stone walls and terracotta roofs. Imagine the Wednesday morning market offering ricotta stuffed zucchini flowers and crispy oregano bread.

To my great surprise alongside the main road of Castelnuovo I found a small Museo del Paesaggio, with a permanent exhibition on origins and characteristics of the region. At first glimpse I thought it was humorous. It felt as a completely superfluous cultural facility. The Tuscan landscape is a multidimensional real-life monument itself. It does not need comments or analysis in a dedicated brick building. It is meant to be outside, material, sensual, inspirational, self-explanatory and beautiful. I could imagine a traveling photo exhibition on the eternal Tuscan landscape, on show in Reykjavík or Bogotà. But this miniature geography lecture in the middle of the real thing was a mistake. After doubting for a week my professional curiosity – for two hours – overruled my lazy holiday moods, so I went in. I found a slightly worn-out but comprehensive physical and historical geography of the southern part of Tuscany, with a pleasant educational, bilingual tone and beautiful maps. What I hadn’t expected was the underlying theme of the presentation: Tuscany as the result of 600 years of continuous economic, agricultural and cultural innovation.

Museo del Paesaggio

Later that day I asked Susan, the English owner of the summer house, if she had considered the placing of photo-voltaic devices or hot water suppliers on the roof, to provide for efficient energy consumption. “Ooh, if only that were possible”, she replied, “but the houses and the views of this whole area are just too heavily protected. This whole Chianti region is an open-air museum, you know. We are not allowed to introduce any alterations to the outside of the villa. Climate change is not an issue in Central Italy”. “So far for innovation”, I thought before diving into the swimming-pool.

Mongolian Buffalo

The magnificent steppes always seem to be framed by mountain chains; wherever you move you experience a 360°of both space and enclosure. The gently flowing rivers cross carpet-like grass lands, on which cows, horses, sheep’s and buffalo’s are running freely and peacefully. Once in a while a group of two or three white round tents called gers shine in the sunlight. As you move through the steppe you are free to choose any path you desire, there are almost no preconceived roads. This is Mongolia. It’s landscape is one of the most breath-taking and well-preserved landscapes on earth. While traveling through Mongolia you are sure that what you see today is also what Chinggis Khaan has seen too. Well, almost.

As we stop on the way, a Mongolian shepherd invites us over for suutei tsai (milk with tea and salt) and something else. What this ‘else’ is, is not really clear, our Mongolian is far beneath the required level, but as we enter the ger we discover that they just have slaughtered and cleaned a goat. The guts and other intestines lie on one side, the best meat on the other. And on the side of this bloody scene we spot a memory stick. A what? Yes, and close to the home altar there is the I Mac. When taking a tour outside the ger we bypass children blue torching the head of the goat and see a boy jumping on his horse, while sending an sms. Then we stop and stare at the solar panel attached on the south side of the ger. It looks like the Mongols have skipped the exploitative and wired phase of industrialization and are now plugging into green energy and wireless communication instead. How come? Could it be really true?

Mongolia is locked between Russia and China with no access to the sea, being therefore somehow dependent on the policies of the two giants. With a density of population that used to be 1000x (0.41 p/ km2 in 1918) and now 300x less than nowadays in the Netherlands (404.5 p/km2), it was simply not profitable to make roads and wires. This lack of infrastructure was not very inviting for the big industry. And Russia, being the boss there between 1924 and 1989, didn’t want to make it interesting either. So the Mongolian existence kept on being based on its life stock, which provides milk, skins for clothes, transport and meat. As the cuddle needs fresh grass, the Mongols move their gers along with it, not bothering a lot about land ownership. (Every group of gers claims a circle of occupancy proportional to the size of the life stock, with the maximum size of the distance that a shepherd can do on a horse in half a day. If you are new in an area you search for your own circle where you don’t disturb the others). It has been like this during Chinggis Khaan and it still is. But the times are changing. Since the ‘90’s Mongolia is ‘on the market’ with its untouched natural resources like copper, coal, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, and gold. At this moment around 3000 mining licenses have been issues by mostly Chinese, Russian and Canadian companies. How many of them will provide solar panels in return?

Traditional ger + solar panelOld print of Mongolian landcape