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The Living Landscape


by Jeroen van Westen

This is part of the Toolbox for Managers
A landscape can be read like a book. If you know how to read it, many stories are told. Slowly, over the years I evolved from making art about landscapes into designing the landscape. Both are rooted in an attempt to read stories of how culture interacts with nature, more often stories of violation than cohabitation, rarely of mutual enrichment but always exciting. Every commission starts with an attempt to describe the biography of the landscape: what is its natural origin, how did the first people settle/take advantage of the environment? What happened after culture took over, is there still some natural potential or are there new possibilities for nature to be invited?

It is in this phase of research in a project when one meets many people and organizations, the inhabitants and the politicians. This is where the future lives and times of the project are defined. Taking up a commission is also dedicating yourself to a landscape and its inhabitants; it is a life commitment in many ways. A living project never ends.

Image of Causeway
Taking up a commission is also dedicating yourself to a landscape and its inhabitants; it is a life commitment in many ways.

A project has to be connected to a local initiative but there is more to it than building up relationships. Relationship building is not difficult and more of a social skill. Continuation of involvement has to be accepted from 'both' sides. The artist has to stay involved but not only the artist. The 'landscape' in the form of owners/organizations/users/inhabitants has to acknowledge each others' responsibilities in the future care of the resulting landscape. This requires a formal arrangement.

One way to do this is to get the budget for maintenance not only secured in the budget of a local government but to install a group of 'watchdogs' and getting the artist to be one of them. Once a year this group meets with the responsible employees' of the local government. This seems to work for a project I did in Rotterdam together with two other artists Hans Snoek and Q.S. Serafijn.

The first year the maintenance budget we had secured wasn't used at all. When we questioned this, we were told this kind of budgeting is purely administrative, but that the money is added to the over-all maintenance budget of all parks and recreation dept. That doesn't help, because it is the project that is yelled about mostly by the public that gets the attention. Maintenance then becomes a function of public visibility.

Concept Map
It is the artist's responsibility to refuse the commission when it is impossible to predict a fertile ground for a sustainable future of the piece.

Works should be embedded carefully right from the start in the organization commissioning the piece and the group of people (landscape) the work is made for. It is the artist's responsibility to refuse the commission when it is impossible to predict a fertile ground for a sustainable future of the piece. Those are the battles I always have to start with:

"Can you contribute to a beautiful ecological crossing of this brook and that Interstate."

"I might, but the stream is dead before it crosses the road, if you don't do it right in that 1 km stretch through the new park of the new neighborhood."

I ended up getting the commission to help to define the concept for a 25 hectare park.

Concept Map with Vegetation
An artist often has to work in such isolated situations -pocket holes. In such conditions, one can create a trigger for awareness to step into the nature-culture dialog.

Often artists are too happy to get a commission, and are not asking questions. They don't fight for the best possible solution. By having chosen for their ecological approach, the artist doesn't focus just on a work of art, but takes in account the (natural) surroundings/potentials. Integrated design is a form of integrity. Yet, the size of commissions is often literally too small to create an ecological sustainable solution, certainly in The Netherlands. This is what can be called "the problem of the Island" Theory. The official term for it is Island Biogeography. Islands are famous for helping unique species to evolve. But islands are also places where species go extinct. The theory is an important basis to define the minimal size of nature reservations, width of corridors, etc. This theory is not without controversies, but is very influential. An artist often has to work in such isolated situations -pocket holes. In such conditions, one can create a trigger for awareness to step into the nature-culture dialog. It is exactly these triggers that are so extremely important for a project to look alive, to look well taken care of. They only draw attention and are convincing when they work well and look great.

Completed Project
Maintenance not only starts with taking into account the natural conditions, but also the cultural use.

One project I created found 'parents' an artist can only dream of. It was commissioned by a city council to honor a fortification in the former moors. The moors are gone (due to digging peat, drainage and cultivation), hence the fortification. The work -Fortress for the Water cherishes water as an ally, the stream envelops the Fort like an eye. The fort is a well/spring for the stream. The iron plates are almost level with the water. Words bring to life the memories of the landscape. In 'boxes' peat moss starts to grow again. The official owner and organization responsible for its maintenance is Waterschap Hunze en Aas, a local water board. Those are important, and responsible, institutions in The Netherlands.

But, the unofficial keeper of the Fort is a local playwright who owns a small theater built into a barn on an old farm. He organizes 8 performances each summer in the Fort, and every Sunday during summer holidays there is a storyteller invited to use the Fort. The contact was made while designing the Fort, and when this playwright expressed his interest, facilities were build in the Fort, like electricity, and a nearby (green) parking lot. Of course the Fort is also used by local youth, and they are welcome to do so, if they clean up afterwards. When they don't, the village (500 people) knows about it, and knows where to find the rascals, because they love the theater.

The third important group of users is long distance hikers, as it is a good starting point or a nice resting place for them. This is because of the design, the parking lot, a support for bikes, and the few good picnic tables on the perimeter. Maintenance not only starts with taking into account the natural conditions, but also the cultural use. A good design tries to provide good conditions for the kind of use one can expect, and never begins with, "don't do this, don't do that", in the form of restrictions or defense systems.

Jeroen van Westen is an artist living and working in the Netherlands.

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