Designing for Sprawl in the Netherlands 1980 – 2004

Dutch contribution to the 9th International Architecture Biennale Venice

Nowhere in the world has fostered such an artificial landscape as the Netherlands. The exhibition in the Netherlands’ Pavilion, focused on the interrelation between urban development and the landscape. ‘Hybrid Landscapes’ featured three urban developments: Prinsenland (1982-1984), Leidsche Rijn (1994-1995) and Maastricht Belvédère (1999-2009) and a future scenario. In each the morphology of the artificial landscape was employed to add differentiation to the designs and to anchor them in their environment. This is an extremely Dutch interpretation of the role landscape can play in the urbanization process. The designs were developed in a period when strict lines were drawn between the city and the countryside for fear that the Netherlands would be completely urbanized. Although the projects were designed within clearly defined urban contours, the designers – Riek Bakker, Frits Palmboom and Michael van Gessel – did not treat the city and landscape as polarities but rather as mutually enhancing entities.

City and countryside

The three projects illustrated a highly conscious approach to the artificial landscape, a natural landscape that was transformed, following a lengthy process of agricultural cultivation and land consolidation, into a cultural landscape. The cultural landscape was analysed and existing features such as historic farms, houses, warehouses, factories, lock complexes, bulwarks, ribbon developments, height differences, waterways, infrastructure and field patterns became important aspects of the new design. The three designs were characterized by a complete lack of pretension; they were not in the least bit fashionable, but instead exude common sense, clear thought and self-awareness. Moreover, the projects highlighted three different urban scales. For decades government policy has stressed an almost fearful separation of city and countryside; urbanization was permitted only within clear boundaries as close as possible to existing cities. These projects should not be viewed in isolation, but rather as part of important developments in the Netherlands.

New tasks

In 2004, the Netherlands faced two important tasks in the coming decades: firstly, a further intensification of the cities, and secondly building in the rural landscape. These arose from advancing urbanization, the restructuring of the agricultural industries and the government’s abandoning the strict delineation between city and countryside. Although there was still a desire for a contrast between the city and the countryside, the two were no longer treated as opposites but as components of a hybrid. A site’s potential would play a crucial role in increasing existing urban densities as well as the conscious continuing development of the countryside.

The Dutch approach analysed, preserved and adapted existing landscapes. These functioned as a base for new developments in which old and new elements interrelate, anchoring the location in its history and environment. This approach offered universal lessons for other countries increasingly confronted with urban sprawl.

Exhibition and graphic design: Traast & Gruson
Maps 1860 – 2010: MUST Urbanism

12 September – 7 November 2004: 9th International Architecture Biennale Venice
Client: Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI)