paul roncken

ideas on landscape and design

second letter on the sublime (150 years later)


This month, you can read the second letter on the sublime. You will notice it still bears the familiar voice of a romantic type of sublime. Although, the tone and urgency of the idea of the sublime is changing. By the third letter (next month), the tipping point will have passed and the idea of the sublime will venture into our age.

For now, enjoy a bit of melancholy, especially since the work of Olmsted is included! Ah! Olmsted….



California, United Sates of America, Mariposa Big Tree Grove, May 5, 1889[1]

Dear Mister Venturous, dear Victor,

This response to your letter is rather late, many apologies for that. My sincerity is, however, far greater than the loss of time. My forebear Professor Criterion died on December 5, 1739, about the time your letter arrived in London. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Edward Jameson Criterion and although I am of British origin I am currently occupied in the United States of America. My family noticed in me a similar disposition and interests as displayed by my great grandfather and so they left me his most personal possessions. Of his possessions I received his books, notes and correspondences concerning his studies on human judgement and natural scenery. Now, precisely 150 years after you wrote about your remarkable sublime experiences in the French Alps, I feel it appropriate to continue this ‘correspondence across time and space’.

Your letter only revealed itself when I was in the US, working as an assistant to Frederick Law Olmsted. Ever since my childhood in Kent, South England, I was fascinated with the relationship between poetry and the land. Kent is blessed with fine natural scenery of delicate farmland and manorial estates. At the same time I have always felt that the interest of London citizens is pressing and almost resistant to any ‘real’ sublime that is present in the land. Most of these people are rich enough to possess a piece of Kent as a luxurious backyard and tend to mistreat their perceptions by imposing their all too personal needs. In the work of Mr Olmsted, an eloquent and concerned journalist with an agricultural interest, I read about values and desires that went beyond Kent and its beautifications.

Mr Olmsted is a travelled man and possesses a fine ability to observe any situation without hindrance of societal display. I accompanied him on his travels as a correspondent for The New York Daily Times. through the Southern states of the US to report on the influence of slavery on this region and the nation. He critically opposed slavery, yet nevertheless went through the effort of understanding this human enterprise. In that respect, I learned about a different type of ‘sublime’: that of a human sublime which is negative, destructive and at the same time fascinating in a morbid manner. To study this sublime is not to enjoy it, but to deeply understand it. There is a breathtaking measure and power present in this human sublime that is similar to an immediate exposure to the French Alps, as in your case.

In your letter you introduce the ‘real’ and the ‘tragic’ sublime. I can see the point in doing that. However, I wish to doubt your statement that the ‘tragic’ stands for the practical human style that better conveys the ‘real’ or ‘true’ sublime. The way I have witnessed reality has made me aware of the fact that humans are quite capable of instigating a ‘real’ sublime themselves. Through abominations such as slavery humans have proven that even the most ‘tragic’ theatricalities do not withhold them from the act of inhumane slavery. On the contrary! It seems to be crucial in understanding the irresistible force that pulls a man into such a deed. If you believe that people will become aware of their wrong while reading a book or ‘enjoying’ a tragic play, let alone become aware of this while doing wrong in the moment, then you underestimate the position human beings have in the nature of things.

As an illustration of this, you mention in your last paragraph the differences of opinion you had with your native French guide. Making a concise analysis of such differences is Mr Olmsted’s specialism. He would have enjoyed the native mind you so ‘effectively opposed’ and judged as ignorant. I share with Mr Olmsted the opinion that the native mind may be ignorant of civilized manners, yet at the same time contains more abilities and insights for dealing with the consequences of being part of nature. The ‘native’ mind instead seemed to peek right through this situation. Mr Olmsted has discovered an equally native mind in the original people that once occupied the lands of what are now the United States of America. The local tribes we have met travelled the Sierra lands for generations and adopted a way of living that served both their people and the environment. We can learn from these people and rid ourselves of the societal display that only clouds any ‘true’ understanding and action. These tribes exhibit an equal understanding of themselves and that which lies beyond the view of the mountains: a world of spirits, forefathers and ghosts that mirror our human existence in a universe that we share with all living creatures, and even non-living rocks and sand. The idea of owning a piece of the earth is to them an utterly insane idea. Humans are part of this totality and cannot separate themselves from it in order to own part of it. There is no need to feel shame in identifying the deepness beyond the mountain view.

In your letter you seem to oppose this irresistible force and even consider this resistance the mark of civilization. However, we must give way to this irresistible force that anticipates our reasoning and societal display. By doing so we are able to analyse our reasoning and display. We can be young children again, learning about the world instead of being mature and pretending to know at a distance. I believe that this is what drives Mr Olmsted and certainly holds my devotion.

After his career as a correspondent, Mr Olmsted had a chance to reveal his competences in a much more practical manner. No doubt driven by a desire to stimulate dormant ‘modern native minds’, the conception of Central Park arose in the expanding city of New York in 1858. After his travels and critical texts, he could finally create something so revealing and at the same time humane that all his former words and opinions seemed to be carved in stone, planting and water bodies. Mr Olmsted was originally trained as a scientific farmer and turned out to become a farmer of emotions and meaning through the construction of natural scenery. This park is meant to educate and ease today’s busy minds by a selection of natural arrangements. And it is now rapidly becoming the heart of an expanding city.

Throughout the design and materialization of this immense project, Mr Olmsted was in continuous communication with some ‘true’ sublime. His modern mind benefited from an inborn natural curiosity (an almost native instinct) and an undisputed talent as an organizer and manager. He employed thousands of people to construct a new landscape that would ignite the souls of hundreds of thousands of citizens. His style is not that of a ‘tragic’ sublime expressing noble ideas that would otherwise be unutterable. His style is to organize natural scenery that speaks and is expressive according to a striking ‘natural density of meaning’. He gave the people the right to be filled by their own inner ability to communicate with the ‘true’ sublime, as well as the opportunity to do so. The time and space between your letter and mine, 150 years, has made clear to me that mankind has learned to deal with the ‘true’ sublime without a necessary ‘tragic’ style that only clouds our immediate responses. Such a notion fills me with pride and hope for humanity.

In the last twenty years we have been busy gaining yet another step towards a ‘true’ sublime. We explored the Sierra lands with the whole Olmsted family, the geologist and expert on fossils William Ashburner, his wife Emilia and an African-American guide who understood the language of the local Miwok tribe. The wilderness landscape was ‘of a very peculiar character and much the grandest that I have ever seen, as Mr Olmsted himself wrote. We met three young artists who spent the summer of 1865 in Yosemite Valley: the landscape photographer Carleton Watkins and the landscape painters Thomas Hill and Virgil Williams. Along with the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, their artistic work has contributed much to publicize the grandness of Yosemite. The three youngsters were commissioned to advise on the landscape as the debate rages on protecting these potential mining grounds by creating the first National Park. In terms of its economic value as a tourist destination, Yosemite should be considered at least equivalent to the Swiss Alps. The broad exploration of this ‘true’ sublime landscape from personal, scientific and artistic viewpoints is very striking to me. It convinces me that people need all their faculties and abilities to engage with such an ancient land and future prospect.

Although the act to protect Yosemite ‘for public use, resort and recreation’ was signed June 30, 1864 by president Lincoln, at this very moment, a National Park is not a fact of life. I still doubt whether Yosemite and Mariposa Grove will ever become part of a National Park, despite all our efforts and Yosemite’s outstanding natural beauty. We had not foreseen that the protection of a true sublime source would be that much harder than creating an artificial park. In our opinion, science, art, politics, societal circumstances and economy all gain by this true sublime source. However, the general reluctance to establish a National Park is what motivated me to write this letter and hide it in a remote granite crevice in the heart of Mariposa Grove. I hope that in the next 150 years humanity will have gained another level of sublimity. It is to be hoped that scientists, artists, bankers and politicians will equally value the protection of natural sources and will jointly endeavour to create sublime parks and urban facilities that will compensate for the loss of ancient sublime sources. I am confident that ordinary citizens in that future will still consider Central Park to be a pure and true style of the sublime.

Maybe another 150 years of practice will perfect the art of creating landscapes to an extent that could even surpass the original conception of the park. Humans no longer live in valleys like Yosemite and Mariposa; we are not dependent upon them in the same manner as some tribes were once dependent upon the shelter and abundance of plants and wildlife they provided. To my mind, humans become more human by exploring their independence from ancient sublime sources, allowing them to create more ‘human’ sublime environments. However, without some original sources as well, they will forget about the mother of their inspiration. I have no doubt that human creations add to what nature provides, but every new generation needs an example of the harmony and intricate interdependences that ancient nature has produced in its million years of probing and adaptation. We cannot expect to create in a lifetime what life has been developing over such a long time. The ‘true’ value of an ancient sublime such as Yosemite is therefore as a frame of reference, awe-inspiring example and proof of a possible atmosphere of interdependences.

Long live natural creativity and long live the density of meaning present in both a grand view of Yosemite Valley and a microscopic inspection of the bark of a tree in Mariposa! And long live human creativity and a density of meaning that can be contained in a small box – the size of Central Park, or the size of a book on a shelf. Our busy world could easily contain thousands or millions of such boxes, thus multiplying a once hidden sublime source to a quantity that can easily be shared with all of the children of this earth. They would feed authentic minds that critically investigate all of the irresistible force driving us onwards.


Yours truly,

E.J. Criterion


[1] Sources used for this letter and persona: (Olmsted 1995) + (Olmsted 2003) + (Martin 2011)


back after the break: four letters on the sublime

the plant hunters

The Plant Hunters
Adventures Among the Himalaya Mountains

All landscape architects, somehow, have to handle an implicit tendency for grandeur madness.


After a short break, I have now returned for some monthly blogging. My current sabbatical has made me more conscious about more than one essential aspect of life, foremost about being sociable. As a scientist and recently as a political advisor (see here for all Dutch), the sensation of socialness is often disputed by an eagerness to perform amongst only a small group of likeminded.


I return to sharing by an open sourced manner, to pick the fruits of creative labor and harvest in a feast of collectivity. In the next four posts I will share four letters on the subject of the sublime. As some of you might know, the landscape sublime has been the subject of my research for the past seven years. And since my dissertation is still being debated – and might possibly not surface at all, I have decided to publish parts of it. Waiting for academic approval is a process that is counterproductive to the creation of knowledge and unexpected epiphanies. The four letters, of which the first is published below, are part of a collection of fictive letters by archetypical characters. They represent a discourse over a long period of time and reveal how the experience of nature and designed landscapes, including cities, has changed over time.



The French Alps, September 1739[1]

Highly esteemed Professor Criterion,

This letter will hopefully arrive at your place in London without much delay, although postage at this distance is hazardous and not without ‘accidents’. We made acquaintance at the most pleasant occasion organized by Mme Brinoir in Oxford Street last spring. Right after that tremendously inspiring evening when I had the opportunity of meeting both yourself and the poet Thomas Gray, I left on the first coach in the morning to the nearest seaport to embark on the Dyonisius to France. My journey to the French Alps has gained much in importance due to our conversation.

I was sent by my clients to examine some exotic planting that can be used in the southern regions of Britain to enhance the country estates and their perceived beauty. Yet my objectives have, due to our agreement, been broadened to explore the rough and wild lands that are made of some pure essence-de-vivre. This is the reason that I am writing you this letter. I enclose some sketches of my recent discoveries. These will certainly excite you and prove your theory about untamed lands and their specific attractiveness.

During my sea voyage, I was much occupied reading the book you lent me, On the Sublime by William Smith. The French plant spotter I met at the hotel and who guided me into the mountains, at first sight a highly sophisticated fellow with a fine knowledge of classic literature, knew of a similar book in French by Nicolas Boileau Despreaux, published more than seventy years earlier. Boileau is known as a French poet and critic and expressed ideas that are very similar to your theory. The book by Smith almost seems to be a translation of Boileau’s work.

If I had not been instructed by you, I would have put the book aside, because to me there seems to be hardly any familiarity between poetry and my occupation. However, the spines and pinnacles of the Alps made an instant impression on me. I saw the land anew, as if through the eyes of an infant. I could suddenly see something beyond the mountains, something grand and eternal. It was as if a mighty planter had spoken, but in the form of rock and clouds and winds and mist and sketchy tree lines. I could ‘read’ the mountains and their narrative was about a world I knew nothing about. At the same time, something seemed to be resonating inside me: an ancient tale about the source of these mountains, when even mountains were young and without any awareness of their destiny in ages and ages to come. Even beyond these mountains lies a narrative of such a grandeur and origin that it seems impossible to relate myself to such a deep and all-consuming source.

I dared not venture more into this sensation and turned round to face the ground and bury myself in all the dust and humbleness I could find. How frightened I became. Nothing had prepared me for this response. I felt ashamed to have explored the narrative behind these lofty mountains, without any permission. Not gentlemanly at all.

Later, in my cabin, I saw reason again and remembered passages in the book that seemed relevant. I spoke of this with my guide and he could not hide a gleeful smile, as if I had just seen a naked woman for the first time in my life and spoke of this with my own mother. My guide was patient with me, which revealed him as an equal. Although very familiar with the mountains, he too knew of this sensation, except without any shame.

This struck me as odd and almost uncanny. Nobody could have seen and known what I had seen and understood without the deepest shame and reluctance possible. At one time I was so angry with him that I raced outside to cool down. Yet, instead of a soothing night I found myself underneath the most dramatic and enlightening dome of stars that I ever beheld. The sheer vastness and clarity of all these lightened sources shining upon me in one singular direction nearly made me faint. All of heaven’s consciousness peered into me without any possible resistance. I despaired and did not know where to go. I could not go out, nor go in, ashamed as I was.

Exhausted I fell asleep on the spot and found myself warm inside the cabin the next morning. After that experience I saw reason for the second time. I understood the attitude of my guide. You cannot be in a wild and ominous land without maintaining a certain distance from this ‘sublime’. Man can create poetry that can be withstood and enjoyed, but being near the real source comes with an inborn distance that is respectful and dignified. Although my guide denied the distance I explained to him, he most certainly must have known all about it. There is simply no other way.

It is like you said that evening at Mme Brinoir’s, tragic art is the human variation on the true sublime source that is laid bare in the wild land – underneath a heaven full of stars, I can now add. The pain and shame that is undoubtedly present in the human incapacity to stand before the true sublime can be withstood by tragic poetry or a tragic play. Shame can thus be transformed into pleasure and a pleasant evening amongst educated gentlemen, very much like the empathic distance we keep amongst good company concerning our spouses and daughters. The sublime itself really ought to be manly, because its devastating powers are grander than any general with all the armies he can muster.

The ‘real’ sublime can strike us, ravish our souls and might even transport us to places we do not belong and would not survive. The ‘tragic’ sublime is a style, very much like poetry. We express noble ideas that would otherwise be too great or awful to describe.

Your theory has been proven. In the French Alps lies a sublime source that holds the secrets of all that goes beyond. I wonder if Britain contains such a true sublime source as well. Something inside me hopes this is true, but most of me is too frightened to experience yet another such accident as that particular day and evening. I have made some sketches of the view that took me at that sorrowful moment and hope it contains some tragic and artistic qualities. A tragic report is the best I can provide you with without having to experience the same anxiety that I did.

I want to share one more thing with you. My French guide spoke about an ancient Greek poet by the name of Dionysius or Longinus. This shook me because not only was Dionysius the name of the boat that brought me here, but Boileau’s book was dedicated to this ancient master of poetry and speech, who discussed the great works of literature and poetry that have indeed survived the centuries until now. Longinus apparently believed that a great work of art somehow conveys a part of the true sublime source, as if blessed by creation itself or bearing a part of creation itself. This confers upon it a density of meaning we would otherwise not possess. Could this be the real secret of art that conveys the sublime? My guide merely smiled as I suggested this. He responded that we are tragic beings ourselves, not able to experience the fullness of creation. Even if we ventured to the very end, beyond that which is grand and inconceivable, we would not reach a source, we would only meet ourselves. At this point I can only assure you that I most effectively opposed his ignorant vision of our human capacity. After collecting some plant species and seeds I will be glad to set foot again in Britain, whose rich culture has rid itself of such primitive limitations.

Yours and truly,

Victor Venturous


[1] Sources used for this letter and persona: (Boileau Despreaux 2009 (1683); Northrup 1917)

Famous oaktree Highway 58 to be cut down


This week, from October 17 to 25 at the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven

with the theme: What if….

There is an exhibition by a group of designers that have been commissioned by the National Department of Waterways and Public Works organised by Atelier Tussenruimte.

Their work focusses on a specific Oaktree (the Anneville Oak), one of the very few natural vegetative landmarks within Dutch road landscape. Saving this tree has been a small step of a few individuals in the 1980’s and caused a major success in thinking about trees and road design.

However, the tree is currently threatened due to construction work. It is interesting to note that the local inhabitants would rather not spend a lot a money to save the tree and have fantasized about cutting it down or transplanting it.

The work of us, artists, is to reflect on this response and the possible future(s) of the tree.

My contribution, together with Arno Peeters (Sound Designer) is to first do research on the undoubtedly incredible root structure of this tree, surviving for already 20 years. Here is an impression of our work:

Anneville Oak – the root system examined using sound

The Anneville Plan for Tree 1056 (female)

Mighty trees have impressive roots. 30 years ago, this tree was left standing because she was the best developed tree of her cluster. Her roots had not grown transverse, but parallel to the new road. She had foreseen that she would have to adapt to humankind. Proud and pampered, she has been able she has been able to affect people emotionally for decades and, after a somewhat difficult start, she has been able to put down new roots: this time up into the foundation of the road, into the pores of the open asphalt; she is drinking from the road surface and flourishing. What her motives were is unclear; only her root system can shed light on this.

This is a project of a landscape architect and a sound technician trying their luck at listening and experiencing, by following sap flows and hearing how the labyrinth of underground branches has developed and continues to develop. Sap flows run into the core of the tree’s memory; a recorder of the unseen process of growth, decaying and adapting. We sent sound into the tree and, with it, explored her hidden architecture. But what did we hear exactly? Traffic passing by above ground? Rooms from which the capillaries branch out? Infarctions caused by the rigorous interference 30 years ago? Worms and bacteria that take part in life underground?

An unintentional effect of making history audible is that we can filter out our own present day.

Below is the sound recording, on your left ear, the INPUT sound that we use to trace and track, on your right ear, the OUTPUT sounds of the rootsystem, sapstream, car-passing and unnameable soundbits.

voorkant kaartje A5

give away card frontside

achterkant kaartje A5

give away card backside (Dutch version)


me, working on the wall painting (with chalk marker)


nearly finished after 4 hours of work (thanks to the help by Marco Bakermans)


first audio test in front of the installation


final presentation

Over de kwestie Das: nieuwe dialogen tussen Schildpad en Haas

Original painting: Jean Baptiste Corot 'Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld' 1861. Photoshop with West 8 design Schouwburgsquare Rotterdam.

Original painting: Jean Baptiste Corot ‘Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld’ 1861. Photoshop with West 8 design Schouwburgsquare Rotterdam.


For all my Dutch colleagues, guests and friends, (it is an audio story that I have written, only in Dutch unfortunately)

Dit kwam ik tegen tijdens het opruimen van mijn spullen:

Een hoorspel dat ik heb mogen maken als onderdeel van het boek ‘Regionale Identiteit, kunst en ruimtelijke planvorming’ uitgegeven voor Nai en SKOR in 2006.

zie hier

Soundscapes en montage: Arno Peeters (Tape TV productions Utrecht). Regie: Jet van Boxtel. Acteurs: Ottolien Boeschoten (Haas), Tom Sijtsma (Das), Peter Drost (Schildpad).
Das is in de war omdat zijn Dassenburcht plaats heeft moeten maken voor een snelweg. Schildpad en Haas proberen hem te helpen met behulp van Regionale Kunst, maar of dat helpt…

Opening academic year Wageningen University


It is with great honor that I may announce, that I am invited as one of the speakers at the opening of the academic year at Wageningen University, Monday September 7, 2015. 14:30. You are welcome to hear our thoughts about the coming year.

We cannot imagine progress and wellbeing anymore without technology and objects designed
and made by humans. A fascinating new category of design is emerging, combining engineering
with ecology, biology, genetics and chemistry and insights from the social sciences.
We have invited innovative designer and artist Daan Roosegaarde to show us how his work
can inspire Wageningen UR (and vice versa!) to explore the potential of nature to improve
the quality of life. We hope that you will join us to experience his disruptive thinking at the
opening of the Academic Year 2015 on 7 September in our building Orion on the Campus.

14.30 Welcoming reception and registration

15.30 Disruptive thinking
Prof. dr ir Louise O. Fresco
Daan Roosegaarde, Creative director of the social design lab Studio Roosegaarde
Response by three Wageningen UR scientists
Mansholt-Business Award for Sustainable Entrepreneurship
Official opening of the Academic Year by prof. dr ir Arthur P. J. Mol

17.00 Reception

Orion, Bronland 1, 6708 WH Wageningen

The next couple of month I will be preparing my Phd defence and upcoming book: SHADES OF SUBLIME

2011 Erik Odijk

2011 Erik Odijk

We will meet again!


MADRID 2015 Best Graduation Projects Landscape Architecture, Urbanism and Architecture

At the cinema along the Grand Via Madrid

Last week in Madrid, the Archiprix International 2015 was completed with prize winners and an international workshop on the new urban reality in Madrid. If you are interested in the new role of designers and their more activist and political position, this is a must-see. Click here for the workshop results. And here for the prize winners and nominees.

The Archiprix formula has been successful in spreading around. Besides a competition amongst the school in the Netherlands, now also countries such as Portugal, Chili, Spain, Italy, Russia en Turkey have their own annual school contest. This allows students to compare their work beyond their own school environments and teachers and raise standards to a level that matters. It serves as a tool of emancipation for students in (landscape) architecture en urbanism.

I especially hope that someone, a group of recent students preferably, will start such a country competition in the USA. I believe that a North American emancipation of students in between landscape and architecture and in between states and a wide diversity of ideologies and social connections will greatly benefit from that. It takes only one to three selected projects from each school to make a simple formula into an enormous reservoir of talent and comparison. There were some excellent USA candidates in this years edition of the International Archiprix. If you are interested in pursuing this, the Archiprix team can help you. I have seen the young architects from Portugal interviewing people during this event and prepare content for the book that accompanies their new yearly edition. Become connected and see that our field will get into this groove of emancipation and crowd quality. Please contact me if you are keen on doing this in the USA of whatever other country!

The Bi-annual International Archiprix is organized by a collaboration of the Dutch mother-ship and a different country each year. This event serves a global effort to reach every possible school, in this edition a record of 350 schools around the world have participated. And I am happy to notice that this does not lead to a more universal style of design, but instead a surprising differentiated and diversified collection of topics and interests.

And finally, because I want to limit my own words this month in favour of you spending more browsing time in the Archiprix archive here… only one more thing.

The Archiprix formula is partly rich in content because it has a great editorial team for a book and a camera crew for video’s. This is the video that was made to announce the winners of the Dutch Archiprix 2014 edition. The project EMS-full hybrid by Remco van der Togt and Jonas Papenborg has been supervised by me and landscape architect Harro de Jong. The project is part of my research group and if you have not really understood what a landscape machine is… this is the best way to be informed. Watch this video – it includes English subs.

<p><a href=”″>The Ems Full Hybrid – Jonas Papenborg &amp; Remco van der Togt</a> from <a href=”″>Archiprix International</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p> <p></p>



open e-lecture: how to design a landscape machine

Landscape Machines - Design Laboratory


Teaching Landscape Architecture series – teachers for teachers

Monday evening  27.4.2015

18:00-19:30 CET Moderation by Elke MERTENS & Nilgul KARADENIZ Lecturer: Paul Roncken

eLecture Room

Title: How to design a landscape machine This lecture is about the design of productive landscapes. If designed well, landscapes can purify the air, detoxify the soil and raise the water quality of both surface water and underground water reserves. Well-designed landscapes also supply the necessary terrain for plants, mammals, birds and insects to find nurture and shelter and use migration routes. At the same time, these thriving natural landscapes can provide food and other resources that are in daily demand. The intricate performance of landscapes is not merely beautiful and a general commodity, it entails a sublime ambition and is in need of design. By the design concept of the Landscape Machine a provocative and somewhat paradoxical idea is introduced…

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Lessons learned from two decades of teaching landscape design

Teaching young people how to design a landscape is more an initiation than making them jump the hoops filled with tricks and skills. At times, it even feels like this initiation has much in common with a religious practice. Perhaps this is even more the case in the Netherlands, since creating land, sharing land ownership and applying a great deal of engineering is so much part of our everyday culture (e.g. the poldermodel of negotiation). I can imagine that creating landscapes in the USA is similarly influenced by crossing vast plains and moving westwards, dreaming of better ways to cover great distances (e.g. trains and automobiles) and faster ways to create homely settlements (e.g. home mobiles); as is also argued by JB Jackson while making a distinction between territorial space and vernacular space (1996, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time: Yale University Press). And again different in the Baltic countries that have known waves of foreign occupation, throwing them in deeply subservient agrarian positions. Now that for instance Estonia is no longer a Soviet Socialist Republic (since 1991), inhabitants have fled their agrarian homesteads (i.e. Kolkhozes) and instead settled in the density of cities, embracing technology and the digital age more than any other country in Europe. A similar phenomenon has influenced the Japanese sense for landscapes. These have been influenced by Shintoism (i.e. making shrines and offerings for all living elements that can be known according to their typical ‘soul’) and also through Buddhism and particularly Zen poetry and painting and tea ceremonies (e.g. Wabi Sabi, see Juniper, Andrew. 2003. Wabi sabi: the Japanese art of impermanence. Boston: Tuttle Publishing.). At the same time the defeat in the second world war brought the Japanese in such a humbling position, never to initiate warfare again, that they have found a new and positive direction in developing technology that can address the human spirit and heart (e.g. robotics and gaming devices, see Schodt, F.L. 2007. The Astro Boy Essays. Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom and the Manga/Anime Revolution. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press.).

So how to teach landscape design, if the creation of land is so much manifested in terms of culture, identify and technological transformation?

step 1: landscapes raise morality
An assignment to design a waterretention is not merely an engineering problem, although the design should meet the high standards of such an influential mechanical asset in the landscape. Should we first teach students what technical demands have accumulated and next teach them to shape this technical moloch into a cultural product? Even though this is the way most curricula are structured I have experienced that even the most obvious and clearcut assignment, such as technical engineering blueprints, must be scrutinised and decomposed. If only techies understand why a pump or drainage system is needed and how it should be devised, then the experience of landscape will inevitably distance itself from the everyday lives and like zombi state, will seek other means to develop a sense of place. The fact that so many people find refuge in digital alternatives to provide them with a sense of place is an alarming state.
As a consequence, today’s students in landscape design should not accept the low hanging fruits of digitally boosted landscape experiences and should become very weary of the increase of shallow and misleading visualisation as the prime means to do your job well. In the same line, they should grap the opportunity to challenge proven technologies that so easily occupy stretches of land (e.g. solar farms, wind mill line ups, flood defence systems and industrialized food production facilities). Technology should be designed and not taken as deus ex machine that nobody really understands and therefore must submit to. At the same level, culture should not be taken as an unbudgeable token of identity that you will have to submit to, although most landscaping appears to be made by so many and so strongly imprinted cliches. On the contrary, landscapes are what condition technology and culture. Let students conceptualise towards what ‘we’ want to condition technology and culture? Landscape design, at its best, can initiate future technology and future culture. Such grand themes correspond clearly to religious practices, moral explicitness and ideological movements. Landscape design is positively attuned to raising morality.

step 2: rhythmic differentiation
The complexity to deal with all the facets that a landscape can condition must be simplified to match an educative purpose. One cannot expect a 17 year old students to construct another depth of complexity than can be matched by his or her own present state. This has mostly lead to the premisse that every design curriculum should start with low complexity and small scale interventions and gradually scale upward. Another educative principle is presented by the 4C-ID model by van Merriënboer and others. Four components, one complex task. The gradual increase of complexity is not found in lower scale or lesser amounts of components to juggle, but in the amount of information that is available or devilered just-in-time (JIT). Although of course, this sentence does not cover the whole of this method, please read more about it if you are interested. See here.
My own teaching experiences have gradually evolved towards a certain rhythmic offering of learning modes. I have found that these are very effective, although I have not yet mastered the most successful rhythm yet. By rhythmic I mean a chain of educative parts that are either demanding fast and slow deadlines, group and individual work, conceptual and blueprint challenges and multiple scale (1:25.000 to 1:100) or singular scale (1:100) orientation. The key to organise this is to offer within one longer course various smaller workshops that allow students to deliver in short time a proud making product. I have noticed that it is not lack of life experience that has a negative influence on the quality of depth in the final works of students; it is a yet fluctuative presence of depth and fluctuative capacity to master complexity. Young students have their good moments and can resonate at rather unexpected stimuli (as can life-long learners who must learn to bypass their habits). Offer stimuli according to the various rhythmic differences as mentioned above and see what miracles happen in your classroom! Respond to those offerings and be flexible in what will be assessed in the end. Make your students familiar with their own, differentiated and rhythmic performance and let them be proud at least two times during one course. They will learn to deal with their mistakes and lack of competences better. This method cannot yet dissolve into the strict European standards of review but this could also indicate that the educative system must be adjusted to match such a rhythmic differentiation.

step 3: extra curricular nesting
A last lesson that I have learned is that design education is indeed experiential, as forecasted by for example Donald Schön (1983. The Reflective Practicioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books) and John Dewey (1933. How We Think, a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educatiive process. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and company. Inc.). Yet what does that require? It requires to learn with hindsight (in Dutch: terugwerkende kracht). What can you effectively learn by a sequence of desperate moments, balancing all those qualities that you must master as a design student (drawing, creative thinking, entrepeneurial smartness, technical validity, on-the-go species indication and soil and water logistics, etc.)? You can only act and deliver in the moment. Only years later you will notice how much this has changed your perception and habits. Such is the way a design culture with equal minded people is created and remains distinguishable. I can recognise a designstudent from different schools even if they have only been there for two years. They might not know that they bear the signature of that school and teacher, but they do. Such imprint is made only once and can rarely be matched by later imprints. The first imprint is fostered by all those extracurricular activities that pervade a students life: books, documentaries, new projects, competitions, they way to dress, the way to talk, the way to sketch, what to like. Only when you have left the place, you begin to recognise what you have become. Or what you have failed to become, because this system of extra curricular learning also causes collateral damage by means of frustrated ex-students.
This is why a studio environment is so important and also the amount of role-model people regularly influencing this environment. This is also why informal networks are important and blogs :). Landscape design environments need to be nesting grounds for extra curricular activities, pseudo family cuddle and competition. This nest has to be placed in an environment that is a landscape. With so many new landscape design schools in urban environments, it is only logical that this will cause urban landscaping to increase. Is that what is needed? Yes and no. I would opt for wilderness education environments and immersive biotope orientation if we want to effectuate the kind of green-olution that is sought after.

See you in the sunshine! Today, in the Netherlands, you can wear sunglasses and skirts all day for the first time this year.

Conversations with students, part 2: tangible design

Coos van Ginkel2

model by Coos van Ginkel


As a followup from last month post, I will continue discussing the Studio Site Design for our second year students landscape architecture. I have been responsible for this studio for 12 years now. A somewhat daunting realisation I had last week. And it might be my last year, because we made a few radical shifts in our teaching program. I will be more involved in first year bachelor teaching and additionally in the third year: regional design. The regional scale better fits my research theme of landscape machines, that I develop with last year MSc students.

Now, before discussing the work of the students I will shortly comment on teaching in the bachelor. There is a relatively new incentive for assistent professors like me within the confines of the university. This is different from polytechnic universities (HBO in Dutch) or art-related educations. The so-called tenure track position is the only means for new assistent professors to get a position at the university. This means that you own a PhD title and may continue to develop towards a ‘personal professorship’ in intervals of 3×3 years. Every three years you are evaluated for your progress as a publishing researcher, as a successful grand or subsidy extractor and, to a lesser account as an excellent teacher. I have experienced that the boards that evaluate discourage to teach on a bachelor level and additionally see to it that the teaching load is fairly limited in general. As a result, bachelor teaching is not popular amongst university teachers, although this is where novice souls need to become resonant. A career unpopularity may also be the reason why older employees, like me, who joined university with a love for teaching, end up as the teaching tigers; feeling responsible for the most fundamental BSc skills.

These unbalanced circumstances are even more clear in surrounding groups that are responsible for expertise in soil, vegetation and historical geography. Within these groups, the teaching tigers are retiring and replaced by new tenure trackers. The new teachers are in many cases hyper specialists that can claim their domain more easily when it comes down to publishing and funding. For example, new vegetation specialists regard planting from a DNA perspective rather than field observations; or historical geography is no longer aiming at Dutch local knowledge, but more general socio-psychological theories within human geography. As a result, many of the general BSc skills regarding soil, vegetation and history are now attuned to hyper specialist and more abstract theoretical perspectives, instead of the broad, local and integrative perspective of ‘know it all’ teaching tigers.

I do not know if you get what I intend to describe here and maybe this does not sound problematic to you. It may be a necessary step towards a more specialist type of education and research development; but for the moment it feels like a loss of education stability. To me, education is not a traineeship towards a fixed set of competences (see one of my earlier posts). Only about 20% of our students actually become landscape architects. I regard university education as a sophisticated part of a life-long learning trajectory that enable students to become independent, critical, pro-active and co-creative. Especially bachelor education is part of a final phase of growing up, away from parents and family ties, seeking new friends and alliances and discovering new individual skills. The tenure track university policy is revealing a more corporate stance, instead of an educative perspective on a developing sense of self. I prefer what my former teachers advised me while interviewing them: ‘You have to let them believe in something, for a while’ (Meto Vroom); ‘You are more concerned with developing a certain culture than with teaching what is already written down somewhere’ (Dieter Boland).


What did our students do after the one-week workshop landart?
We offered them a one-day maquette workshop by Arjan Karssen, who wrote a fantastic book on model making. We set the scale for the ‘tangible design’ to 1:50, so a tree is really 30 to 40 cm tall and tangible. And we framed it as a 10-day design competition. The winner would be allowed to actually built the project with the help of the volunteer group, guided by our client Leo Goudzwaard. So the design had to be cheap (only 150 euro extra expenses), made with local materials and manageable within three days of work by a group of five volunteers. The program was to develop a narrative and practical addition to the current redevelopment of the ‘Oostereng’ towards an arboretum. Narrative means, spatially indicative of a selection of prior events on a specific site within the arboretum. Practical means, accommodating for more visitors and more varied use of space.

The students had to select one of the three types of boxes we developed for the 1:50 models. So this limited everyones site-intervention to a comparable scale. One box to show a panorama (with a round background), one box with a rectangular view into the distance and one long box to be able to capture a long lines. Of course, after three days of designing, everybody extended or enlarged their box to fit their specific design.

We also asked them to prepare an elevator pitch, no longer then three minutes. For which they were offered a mini-workshop by a professional drama teacher (with whom I collaborate for a while now, scroll down here to see our upcoming workshop on storytelling in the landscape). All bachelor skills were present in this set-up: graphic skills, a site specific design, smart analyses, spatial design by model making, client empathy, competition craze and a personal presence by means of a pitch.

The final presentations were staged outside the university, to highlight that their work really mattered beyond the boundaries of the ivory tower. And boy and girls, were they ready to rock and roll! We are still very enthusiastic about the results. Below are a few images. Three designs were selected by the designers from H+N+S landscape architects, who hosted the final presentations and our client handed the first prize to our exchange student from Norway (Denise Peters). Her design will be realised this spring. Additionally, our client also asked Joost Andrea (see below) to continue discussing his design because he so liked his suggestions.


Coos van Ginkel1

second price winner: Coos van Ginkel. A design for a few 4m high panels that, by the right position become a coherent image of the old estate house as it once must have dominated the place.

Chantalle Diepmaat

first price winner: Denise Peters. A design for an entrance and an accentuation of a secret garden containing a drinking pool for deers.

The winner: Denise Peters page one

The winner: Denise Peters page two

Duco Duin_Page_1

Duco Duin: a design for a bridge and raised vista to be able to view the most important, but hidden, long line within the arboretum.

Fleur Jonker_Page_1

Fleur Jonker: an improvement of the main entrance and the superposition of two competing treelanes: the old and partly destroyed entrance in an angle and the currently dominant lane.

Fleur Jonker_Page_2

Fleur Jonker: analysis

Janine van Bon

Janine van Bon: a nest and landmark to be climbed right at a junction of treelanes in the centre of the arboretum.

Joost Andrea

Joost Andrea: a refugee that provides prospect on the new habitat for the sand lizard. The sandy biotope is the result from a demolishment of a large institute that was built here 45 years ago.

Linde Keip_Page_1

Linde Keip: an accentuated junction that was intended by the landscape architect Springer as a place marked by four cornering trees.

Linde Keip

Linde Keip: model

Lisanne Veenbergen_1_Page_1

Lisanne Veenbergen: a new visual attraction that collects sunlight during the day and illuminates during the night.

Lisanne Veenbergen

Lisanne Veenbergen: model

Nicole van Roij_Page_1

Nicole van Roij: highlighting six symmetrical planted trees amidst a forest and introducing a varied seating area.


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