“Architecture has remained an island for too long,” stated Ronald Rietveld during a lecture at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. Rietveld founded his Amsterdam-based firm, Rietveld Landscape, along with his brother Erik, an economist and fellow in philosophy at Harvard. This detail begins to hint at Rietveld Landscape’s approach, which is collaborative and extends well beyond the boundaries of a site. Arguing for “strategic interventions,” Rietveld presented visionary landscape solutions that address a range contemporary problems.
“Strategic interventions are precisely chosen and carefully designed urban or landscape interventions that set desired developments in motion,” Rietveld told the audience. Setting out to “make relevant contributions to the big problems society faces,” the brothers Rietveld penned A Call For Strategic Interventions, a design manifesto that argues for interdisciplinary collaboration and the employment of existing processes across multiple scales to create fertile ground where both designed and yet-unknown opportunities can develop.
Rietveld offers Generating Dune Scapes as an example of strategic intervention. Winner of the 2006 Prix de Rome Architecture, this proposal is a flexible system that incorporates large scale dredging equipment, the nearby steel industry, and the largest canal lock in the world. In so doing, it would create a new “hybrid landscape” of restored ecology, new urban development, and recreation against a backdrop of industrial steel plants and dunes.
He proposes regenerating the dunes by removing the top 25 cm of ground and colonizing the space with native vegetation. Over time, the dunes would “grow like lasagna” by adding sand and sediment dredged from the canal (up to 1.4 million cubic meters / year). In addition, three strategies would create a series of hybrid landscapes within the dunes and industry. Using residual heat of the steel industries, Rietveld proposes a system of heated pools, utilizing ruins of bunkers for bathhouses (see image at top). Noting the native birds of the coast have taken to nesting on the canal locks to stay out of reach of predators, Rietveld consulted with conservationists to propose breeding areas for birds among dunes between the locks. Finally, drawing on research from the Technical University of Delft, Rietveld proposes adding structures for housing and development on the dunes by injecting bacteria into the sand, making it harder than concrete. Rietveld described this approach to the existing landscape, saying, “So much development is already going on; we just make use of it. It’s easy to deliver quality for tomorrow, but what happens after is not fixed. Too much design, not enough thinking of what we can do with it. What does it contribute to social cohesion? This is the relevant question.”
Notions of public space and social cohesion run deep in Rietveld Landscapes’ work and are perhaps nowhere more evident than in his proposal for New Amsterdam Park. Rietveld asked, “Starting from the idea that strangers become familiar strangers, how do we create social cohesion by creating a park?” As part of Trusted Subcultures, a research project on social cohesion funded by the Dutch government and headed by Rietveld Landscape, the project aims to use “vacant space in the canal to create a park for different kinds of groups, a floating park for a water city, a vision of social cohesion. Strangers become familiar strangers.”
New Amsterdam Park consists of a modular grid of floating barges connected by a network of paths and waterways. Within the barges are places designed for (and in some cases designed by) specific subcultures. Rietveld challenged the notion of a one-size-fits-all public space by carving out places specific to its occupants asking, “Public space for everybody—is that true? Should it be for everyone all the time?” By drawing on a variety of subcultures any one person may prescribe to—dog owners, punks, DJs, or students to name a few—and the social elements which draw them together, Rietveld offered a formula that allows strangers to become familiar with one another, saying “social affordances times subcultures equals trusted strangers. It’s a place to explore and pick up some of the affordances that motivate other subcultures.”
When asked whether the design would actually encourage interaction among different subcultures, Rietveld answered that the design is about “tempting conflict, emphasizing conflict. Right now, the public domain is about avoiding each other. The public domain should become more specific, so that you choose to join or not. Easy to enter, but easy to observe and pass by as well.” Through maximized visual access and shifting, modular spaces, New Amsterdam Park creates a flexible urbanism that sow seeds for new social interaction.
As the lecture concluded, Rietveld reflected on the genesis of ideas, noting the extent to which the questions we ask ourselves frame the problems we choose to address. “The concept must be real sharp and have no compromises,” he said. “The best part of the design process is when you have so many ideas and you can do anything. The hardest part is choosing one and remaining absolutely steadfast throughout.”
This guest post is by Peter Malandra, Student ASLA, Masters of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture.
Image credits: (1) Generating Dune Scapes / Rietveld Landscape, (2) New Amsterdam Park / Rietveld Landscape