This brings me to the second term: ingenious. H+N+S is indeed an office of ‘
’, of engineers striving for ingenious plans, plans that ‘work’. Most of our professionals have an engineer’s degree and a technical background, with the majority of our people trained at Wageningen University or Delft University. With this technical background we approach a design question. Our design philosophy is research based and funded on the understanding how the landscape works.
H+N+S is an office that tries to be active on all possible scale levels – from national and regional to local planning and design – and in all possible fields, from water management to nature development, from energy transition to infrastructure, and from cultural heritage to sustainable development or landscaping.
This doesn’t mean we know everything. As a matter of fact we know quite well what we’re good at and where our professional knowledge ends. This means in almost all projects we work in close cooperation with partners, using their skills and expertise to enrich the research or the design. In the period of over 25 years we have build a network of partners we like to cooperate with, representing a rich ‘bouquet’ of expertise, in the fields of ecology and hydrology – if it gets complicated we call the real engineers – but also in the fields of architecture and urban design, calculation, detailing, realization, management, et cetera. Co-operation is a key word at H+N+S, both internally and externally.
This big span width of course asks for a certain office size, in our case around 25/26 people, with members of staff with specialized knowledge in the fields of ecology, hydrology, and so forth. It enables us to communicate with the experts, speak their language. It also enables us as an office to really understand the technical program of demands and from there we can to try to turn it around, to work with it, change it. The project for the dike improvement of Afferden-Dreumel marks this clearly in the office history.
The H+N+S attitude is an ‘engineering approach’: we try to understand the system, try to grasp how it works technically, as a engineer. From that we shape it, guide it, design it leading to funded, research based designs, designs that work. We approach the landscape as a system of layers that work closely together, affect each other. To analyze and describe the landscape system, we use the so called ‘layer approach’. The first layer forms the basis of the landscape and consists of soil, water, and ecosystems. The second layer is the network layer—that is, roads, waterways, and energy infrastructure. The third layer consists of the occupation and use of the landscape in terms of living, working, and recreation and so forth. These layers interact with one another, but each layer develops within a distinct time frame. The first layer (soil, water, and ecosystems) develops step by step over time, very slowly, whereas the third layer (occupation) can develop and shift completely in mere decades.
In this context, Dirk Sijmons – in his pre-H+N+S period - helped to develop the ‘Casco Concept’, which starts with a strong landscape framework that forms the basis for the system and safeguards enduring qualities. This framework can then be filled with different, more dynamic functions that can and will develop and adjust over time. A principle also applied in the already mentioned plan ‘Stork’ for the 1
Eo Wijers competition, from which our office emerged. In this ‘Plan Stork’ firstly the choice was made for a strong ecological network, as a framework, instead of pieces of nature as relicts of an old historic and agrarian landscape. Secondly ‘Plan Stork’ positioned the creation of new nature as something that could be made by men, as a cultural act, by introducing the right basic-conditions and dynamics. The result was a new kind of robust nature, shaped by natural dynamics, that could maintain itself.
Our office takes the landscape forming powers and processes, such as soil formation, hydrology, natural dynamics, infrastructure development and occupation, as the basis for our designs. In the 17
century, the Dutch Golden Age, the concept for the lay out and design of the Beemster-polder was based on the soil, hydrology and the technical knowledge of civil engineering at that time. It was a reaction on the danger of the nature, with a huge lake whose banks were eroded by storms and so endangering the cities in Holland. The Beemster is the symbol for the submission, the subordination of nature by men. The design also reflects that control.
Times have changed since then. We now see nature as our friend, use the natural forces. This is best seen in the case of the project of the Zandmotor, of which H+N+S contributed to the original idea, using the power of sea and wind to distribute the suppletion sand along the Dutch coast line to the places where it’s needed the most.
This also is the case for the H+N+S plans for the Room for the River projects of Nijmegen and Kampen – using the dynamics of the river system, combining it with new demands and at the same time incorporating ecological and cultural values.
Room for the River is a national project that started over a decade ago. It deals with improving safety (prevent flooding) together with improving environmental quality, a so called double target. Ecological quality, landscape use possibilities, and economic significance will benefit, not only in rural areas but also in a number of cities along the rivers. H+N+S Landscape Architects is involved from the phase of the initial ideas through the phase of different options to the step of designing and realizing new river landscapes in the Room for the River program, in for example the River of Nijmegen - recently finished – and Kampen – now under construction.
The Dutch delta is part of the major catchment basin of the Rhine River. Rainwater and melting water from the Alps and Germany pass through the country on their way to the sea. A substantial part of the Netherlands lies below sea level and river levels. This means we have to consider the constant threat of flooding, with danger coming from the sea – with rising sea levels – and from the big rivers – with heavy rainfalls occurring more often. For many centuries, the water system has been controlled and continually adapted. The Dutch landscape is actually one big prosthesis of dikes, pumping stations, and regulated waterways that protect us and in which we place great trust.
As our climate changes, more water will flow through these Dutch rivers. That will lead to higher water levels that will also occur more frequently. In the meantime, economic development and population will - resulting in more and more paved areas - continue to grow. The likelihood of flooding will increase, as will the effect of floods.
During the 1990s, a number of extremely high water levels occurred in quick succession. Although no dikes actually burst or flooded, the situation was critical in multiple places, and major evacuation procedures were set in motion as a precaution. In the years that followed, huge efforts were made to strengthen many of the dikes. Before ‘Room for the River’, raising dikes was the common approach of the Dutch to counter the threat of water. But this is not easy to realize anymore in the intensively used Dutch landscape, with often buildings located on the dikes and limited space in the immediate surroundings to raise the height of the dikes. Relocating the dikes closer to the river, where there usually is some space, often only increases water levels and exacerbates the problem. So, the need was felt for an alternative strategy to ensure the security of the region of the major rivers—a strategy in which high water levels were not taken as a given but were prevented by providing more room for the river. It became a strategy in which spatial quality was a second, equally important aim. This marked a turning point in the centuries-old development of the rivers, which has seen the area they occupy gradually reduced. Instead of less room, there is now more space, more Room for the River. In the case of Nijmegen a hydrological bottleneck has been solved realizing a by-pass, a mirrored river, creating an urban park for the expanding city of Nijmegen on the other side of the river Waal at the same time. Pictures of the old situation with the new tell the whole story.
In the Room for the River projects we carry out, like Nijmegen, ‘
is the central theme, the role of the landscape architect focuses on creating conditions in which the landscape can develop and grow. Responding to natural processes is, therefore, more important than creating fixed forms. However, this does not mean that nature merely follows its own course. If the right conditions are created, nature can certainly be created with some initial help. The emphasis on natural development in the Room for the River program testifies to this. Accordingly, landscape design is always layered and is the result of interaction between various interventions and processes over time, only partly predictable.
This approach calls for a special type of design in which the ‘hard’ engineering as well as the development of landscape with its vegetation and morphology change over time. In some cases the river dynamics also even ‘colour’ the architectural design. In the case of the Zalige Bridge for example, designed in collaboration with NEXT architects, the river dynamics lead to a special design that changes with the water levels of the river in the changing seasons.
The urban river park in Nijmegen is certainly not finished after the contractor has gone, but its development has only just begun. The vegetation just begins to grow and the water begins to shape the land and its habitats. It’s not a design. It is a process.
The quality of the design more or less automatically arises from the logic of the landscape layers and the way they are used and changed by men. H+N+S in this process always looks for synergy, for smart combinations to make a plan more interesting, valuable or realistic. The quest in each plan for added value, extra value – doing more than what it is supposed to do – could be regarded as the typical H+N+S trade mark. You don’t recognize our plans in terms of a typical H+N+S design language, with recurring shapes and forms: it is a way of working, an attitude. To make it very concrete: it means first things first… First from understanding the system, research, from that create the right conditions in the landscape system, and fit in the program - before giving it a form. It’s the crucial difference between ‘to design’ and ‘to shape’, ‘to form’.
This of course doesn’t mean that shape or form is not important. They surely are, as in the case of the bypass of Kampen for example. The landscape architect and landscape architectural design play a central role, not only at the scale of the river system as a whole but also in the detailing of small-scale elements, together with the architect we work with – in this case again NEXT architects. That’s what people see and experience in the end. But it doesn’t start there, it’s what ‘naturally’ comes out of it. We often try to make a design that in the end is so logical that nobody recognizes it anymore as a design, as if the situation has long been there. We see – and I paraphrase my illustrious colleague Adriaan Geuze here –
the sublime in the ordinary
. We believe the landscape should do the talking, should speak for itself, when the landscape architect is long gone and forgotten.