Genius Loci vs. The Concept: Project EAT

Genius Loci vs. The Concept: Project EAT

_ARTICLE campus-special_ by Fiona Morris

This article is the third publication in the contribution of Topos about the Wageningen Campus, the coming weeks. We give a glimpse into the world of the campus from the different perspectives of researchers and stakeholders. This week: Fiona Morris, landscape architect and o.a. Design Team Coordinator of project EAT for the Wageningen Campus.

Any new landscape on the Wageningen University and Research Centre campus should acknowledge that until the late Middle Ages its genius loci was boggy. Water filtering down from the Veluwe is pushed back up to the light there, trapped by geology until increasing drainage interventions morphed the hydrology, ecology, and the human idea of the place. Land became accessible, grazed, fruit trees blossomed and crops grew; from the 1950’s the site housed environmental science organisations then, after 2000, the new campus. From an ecological design perspective the principle of genius loci translates as understanding what the land (the ‘super’ client) naturally wants to be. So what is the genius loci now?

If you take Alexander Pope’s interpretation(1) of genius loci as a kind of orchestral conductor of natural processes, then you can find it still whispering to us in the remnant pond of the Lumen Nature Garden, in hectares of flooded grass(2), in the nick-name ‘The Swampus’, and rumours that the Atlas building was sinking. A perfect future would channel the genius loci, swapping the present corporate office park style for the wild aesthetic and unique place identity of a vista-rich, lively water-park. However, realistically the budget is not there and key choices have already been made. So how to suggest a future, not a daydream?

Useful context comes from the palimpsest of plans, proposals, and campus processes. The pivotal plan was the first, by B+B in 2000, who designed the central campus void as an open, park-like space with functional water bodies for hard-surface run-off and other elements never implemented. In 2002 a spatial development strategy responded to the lack of campus unity and charisma(3) with a simple design concept. This protected the park-like open central area and declared it a spatial carrier that “gives the area its special character and makes the area an unit”(4).Within this a number of high buildings – which should have the character of a monolith(5) – would be scattered, contained by “a rim of compact lower buildings.” This concept has been strictly adhered to and would need reviewing to enable change.

Further official spatial plans include unused designs requested from the landscape architecture group and the latest masterplan by MTD addressing traffic circulation and open spaces. However, in recent years many unsought, unofficial spatial proposals have come forward. I was involved with one: Project EAT (Eetbare Academische Tuin), a student-initiated campus design campaign, with probably the most comprehensive proposal in terms of time spent (18 months), community representation, involvement, and popularity. But it’s useful to ask, why all these extra tries at improving the campus if it had already been professionally designed?

volunteers together to design and present proposals for the Wageningen Campus
Volunteers together to design and present proposals for the Wageningen Campus

Voluntary feedback on the design is plentiful, providing helpful indicators for user-needs and the role the campus fulfills. One extensive survey of 906 staff and students(6) found that the campus was too bare, empty, boring, and unattractive: “The campus currently provides such a desolate impression, with a violent wind flowing between the open colossal buildings”. The conceptual imperative for openness and monoliths denies the human-scale and climate protection necessary for enjoyable outdoor experiences in northern Europe. Interestingly, the Environmental Sciences Groups’ nature garden was held to be the ideal design to make the campus more attractive – genius loci at work?

Project EAT experienced these opinions first-hand, many people’s knowledge and their delight in the natural world was not represented in the design and management of the campus. There was frustration at the inability to affect their environment, and a sense of exclusion. As an outgoing Landscape Architecture professor at Wageningen UR concluded, the campus grounds “represent neither our human experience nor ecological processes. They are mainly a view of authority, top-down and distanced(7).”

In the face of so much interest the university facilities management company set up their own campus work group (Werkgroep Levendigheid) leading to another landscape architect commission. When this latest masterplan was presented key members of the audience held Project EAT’s plan to be preferable because it had addressed site conditions and reflected the identity of the university community(8).

Masterplan EAT for the Wageningen Campus
Masterplan EAT for the Wageningen Campus

The outcomes of Project EAT showed that more diversity, interaction and meaning on campus is wanted and possible. The multifunctional design responded not only to the need to create education opportunities and demonstrate ecological design, it proposed a public and social heart to the campus and served to advertise the activity in the surrounding buildings. Significant elements for future consideration include:

  • agricultural drainage techniques allowing the management of water level fluctuations
  • increased area and variety of water bodies – greater water storage, aesthetic appeal, biodiversity, and range of opportunities for interaction with the water
  • walkways and seating micro-climates of varying scales and styles
  • edible landscaping
  • use of traditional Dutch wetland structures using willows
  • placing elements to increase wildlife habitat, corridors and forage
  • increased colour in low-maintenance, flowering plantings
  • new event spaces of varying scales
  • spatial elements requested or offered by various chair groups and research bodies enabling educational interaction or demonstration, including an app to navigate the real/virtual WUR
Amphetheatre by Orion, one of the proposed ideas by project EAT
Amphetheatre by Orion, one of the proposed ideas by project EAT

The experience of Project EAT and an overview of the campus design history both raise provocative questions and some home truths relevant for effective design in the future. Who should you rely on to decide what is really wanted? How do you evaluate everyone’s performance and the result, in order to truly understand the impact of your work? Knowing the social context Project EAT used participatory methods, breaking barriers and enabling many community members to contribute. But combined with an ecological design method the process also revealed how conceptual design could be perceived as a static intellectual conceit. For a successful future campus the way of designing and the what of the design may need equal weight. A powerful and positive spatial evolution-cum-revolution would require us to consult Old Boggy, the genius loci, then challenge controlling top-down process and design concepts with ideas like user-democracy. And maybe a little radical self-organisation will win the day since a few elements from the EAT design have appeared on the campus and there are plans for areas on its eastern and western edges to include a natural waterscape and academic community involvement. Watch this space!​

1. Pope, Alexander. 1731. Epistle IV to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. Argument of the Use of Riches. “Consult the genius of the place in all; That tells the waters or to rise, or fall…”
2. Witteveen, ir. S.H. 2009. Waterhuishoudingsplan Wageningen Campus. Grontmij. p6
3. Loos van Vliet. Source: http://www.loosvanvliet.nl/project.php?lang=en&id=59
4. BUREAU B+B  Source: http://www.bplusb.nl/?project=campus-de-born-wageningen&lang=en
5. Kadernota ontwikkeling Wageningen Campus (de Born). 20th April 2009. p3 Source: https://www.wageningen.nl/dsresource?objectid=7708&type=org
6. Bresser, A., et al., Wageningen Campus, in Bachelor Honours program 2013
7. Koh, J. 2013. On A Landscape Approach To Design: an eco-poetic interpretation of landscape. Farewell address, Wageningen UR, 30 May 2013.
8. Kleis, Roelof. 2015. More Life on Campus. Resource Online. 12Th February. 8. Source: http://resource.wageningenur.nl/en/show/More-life-on-campus.htm