from The Wall Street Journal by J. S. Marcus:
Rotterdam, Holland’s second city, is known around the world as the home of Europe’s biggest port. But in the world of landscape architecture, Rotterdam is known as the base of Adriaan Geuze, founder of the landscape architecture firm West 8, which over the past two decades has redefined the discipline. Mr. Geuze, who oversees a staff of 71, combines architecture, urban planning and landscape design, and his broadly interdisciplinary approach has helped to change the way public spaces are designed and built far beyond his native Holland.
Mr. Geuze, 48 years old, studied landscape architecture at the University of Wageningen, near the Dutch-German border, and started West 8 in 1987. The firm’s unusual name, says Mr. Geuze, refers to the way the Dutch weather report announces strong winds. “It was also a very short name to use on the telephone,” he says.
West 8’s breakthrough project was the design of a public square in Rotterdam in 1991. Schouwburgplein, or “Theater Square,” is an elevated, interactive space in the city’s pedestrian zone that allows passersby to manipulate the square’s crane-like lampposts.
Mr. Geuze calls the design “a poetic reflection of Rotterdam’s docklands.”
Other key projects include the four-season sculpture garden at the Netherlands Kröller Müller Museum (1995-2005); a tropical park in Singapore’s One North science complex (2004-); and an ambitious masterplan in Madrid to develop land gained after the burying of an inner-city motorway (2006-).
Currently, West 8 is working on prominent projects in two of the world’s largest cities: the undulating Jubilee Gardens, on London’s South Bank, which recalls the white cliffs of the English coastline; and a huge maritime park on New York City’s Governor’s Island.
We spoke with Adriaan Geuze at his Rotterdam home.
Q: Your work at West 8 combines architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning. What is the difference for you between these disciplines?
With architecture, there is a client, there is a brief, there is a budget, and there is a location. Normally with a park, after you have been chosen to design it, there are still a lot of questions. What is the aim? Where are the entrances? How will people use the space? Sometimes there isn’t even a location. In landscape architecture and urban planning, we deal with a larger scale than architecture and design, however the real difference is that architecture is more influential. If you’re an architect, you can determine the final result. In landscape architecture and urban planning, that’s not the case. You might influence the outcome, but that’s about it.
Q: Styles of building — from the Gothic cathedral to the modernist office block — easily become international, while landscape design tends to stay regional, even local. Why the difference?
Garden design and landscape architecture are closer to people’s spirit. A park is almost a one-to-one expression of somebody’s perception of nature, and perception of nature is not only individual but also cultural. For example, English people have a totally different mindset about nature than Dutch people. Dutch people believe you can make nature. English people believe that nature exists — it was always there, and we have to take care of it. We see the same thing, but it means something totally different.
Q: Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam is a key project of yours. What inspired you to create a stage-like, highly urban space, instead of a more traditional “green” park?
That was the definition in the brief. The square is on top of a parking garage, so we couldn’t plant trees. I wish I could have, but there was no way to do it. We did design the edge of the square as having green — broccoli green — but that didn’t happen. Today we are redesigning it [to include] a double row of trees [around] the exterior. So there will be a green façade around the square. We start the realization this year. I’m not happy without the green.
Q: The advent of container shipping has turned many harbors into isolated, automated zones, which most people never visit or even see. What kind of space is Rotterdam’s harbor?
In good weather, the Rotterdam docklands are full of people. There is no program, but they find their own way. They go scuba diving, fishing; they go paragliding or ride motorcycles. It’s a very special natural environment totally different from the rest of the Netherlands — the sea meets the land. People interested in flowers or birds go there and freak out; they see things they’ve never seen before. Everything is there — seals and whales. In the newest docklands, which is man-made land, you can even find orchids.
Q: Your design for Jubilee Gardens has been finished for several years, but work hasn’t even started yet. What happened?
[Former Mayor] Ken Livingstone thought it was very important to bring green into the city, and he had a strategy to get more control over the land. The land situation was very complex. Part of the subsoil was owned by a real estate company, and the air rights were owned by Shell, [whose] headquarters are positioned on the park. Then there are some [protected] view corridors, which are heritage. Livingstone was looking for more control, but therefore he had to do some legal stuff, which took quite an effort. And now there is a new mayor [Boris Johnson, elected in 2008], who has another strategy. I believe the strategy now is about creating a compromise with the different owners to get any park done.
Q: Do you foresee the project being finished in time for the Olympics in 2012?
Yeah, I do.
Q: It’s anticipated that climate change will eventually cause water levels around the world to climb. What kind of problems will Holland face?
Holland will be heavily attacked. Sea levels will rise, and we will need to build higher dikes, and even give up some of the land. In the future, we will be confronted with extreme drought — there won’t be enough water in the Rhine River, even to have boats. When there is not enough river water in the Netherlands, the influence of the sea — under the dunes, under the dikes — will kill all the vegetation. And then there is the problem that, due to climate change, the Dutch landscape needs more pumping. The historical effect of pumping has been that organic soil declines, so Holland is literally sinking. Without question, Holland will have serious problems. But there is good news. There are only two Dutch skills: making land and, when it’s done, to paint it. That’s Dutch culture. We don’t have big writers. Holland is not a country for good music. Our position on the planet is that we make land and we paint it.
Q: So Holland isn’t doomed?
Holland will be the last country to give up.
—J.S. Marcus is a writer based in Berlin.