Adriaan Geuze: Landscape Architecture/Urban Planning

Traditionally buildings are used to give meaning to the city. I think that role can increasingly be assumed by landscape.

Adriaan Geuze is part of a new generation of landscape architects whose ambitions go beyond providing a green decor for public spaces. As a native of Holland, Geuze regards this broad interpretation of his field as logical. “In our country, landscape is automatically part of spatial planning, and thus of infrastructure, urban planning, and design,” says the 45-year-old co-founder of the Rotterdam-based West 8. “Traditionally buildings are used to give meaning to the city. I think that role can increasingly be assumed by landscape.”

Although West 8 has designed parks and gardens, its growing influence is largely the result of urban-planning projects. In 1996 the firm created a celebrated master plan for Borneo Sporenburg, which transformed two docks on Amsterdam’s eastern waterfront into 2,500 housing units. West 8 supervised the plan, which involved more than 100 architects, including OMA, van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau, and Neutelings Riedijk. Completed in 2000, the low-rise, high-density complex is one of the most interesting housing experiments in recent times and has become a popular destination for visiting architects and developers.

With work currently under construction from Singapore and Moscow to Lille and Copenhagen, West 8 is a genuinely international office. The firm has taken part in exhibitions in the United States, and although Geuze has taught at Harvard and elsewhere, so far he has not secured any commissions here (unlike his fellow countryman Piet Oudolf, who designed the Gardens of Remembrance, in Battery Park, New York). “So far in the United States,” Geuze says, “we always seem to have been a suitable candidate for second place.”

Despite heading an international firm, Geuze is convinced that even in today’s globalized world landscape architecture does not generally lend itself to easy exportation. “Nothing is so culturally determined as the perception of landscape,” says Geuze, who studied landscape architecture at Wageningen University. “It’s fairly easy to make a museum garden in another country, or a garden for a private person, but it is hard to make a successful public space. For that you need a really deep understanding of the society in question.”

Difficult as it might be, Geuze is attempting just that. In London his prize-winning design for the transformation of the Thames-side Jubilee Gardens, near the South Bank Centre, is scheduled for completion in 2007. West 8 is also involved in master planning Stratford City, a new urban hub for East London on a 180-acre site on the former rail yards around Stratford International Station. Construction is due to start in a year; the entire project—comprising 13 million square feet of offices, housing, and public amenities—is expected to be completed around 2020. “This new city will be developed from the vantage point of the landscape. Architecture plays little or no role.”

According to Geuze, this approach provides new possibilities for giving the city what he calls “addresses.” “An address gives urban residents an anchor, a reference point,” he says. “Address is a broad concept for me: your front door, the place where you represent yourself, your visiting card vis-à-vis society and the public realm. It’s often linked to a street or a square, but it can also be linked to infrastructure and the landscape.”

Another of Geuze’s abiding interests is water. Last summer he curated the second International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, titled The Flood, devoted to water. Geuze says the flooding of New Orleans underscores a crucial truth: the Netherlands is not the only place where the relationship between water and planning has life-altering implications. “You could say—cynically—that Katrina was the icing on the cake of this biennial.” What it also showed, according to Geuze, is that “when you live below sea level, as in the Netherlands, you must have an up-to-date water defense system. To this end supreme authority should rest with the civil engineers.”

Geuze believes that the Netherlands should draw lessons from Katrina. “What you see in New Orleans is that a disaster is never an isolated incident. There is a hurricane, the evacuation doesn’t run smoothly, a levee fails, the president is on vacation, the water supply is contaminated. There are warnings here for us. We can start by throwing away any statistics telling us that a spring flood will occur only once in so many thousands of years. Because that’s what disaster scenarios are based on. If we’re struck by a disaster, it too will turn out to be a chain of disasters. New Orleans demonstrates what our fate is and ever will be in the Netherlands.”

(Translated from the Dutch by Robin Dalziel.)

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