This year we celebrate 100 years Wageningen University, but wat about 100 years of landscape architecture in Wageningen? As landscape architects we have to be conscious of the tradition we stand in, and who’s shoulders we stand on. To refresh our memory Topos asked Michael van Buuren (Alterra) to write this article about 100 years of landscape architecture in Wageningen. Here is part 2!
1996 – 1994 Vroom
By the end of 1966 the University Senate started searching for a new professor Garden and Landscape Architecture. Bijhouwer’s favourite – Jan Vallen – was unacceptable for the university while he wanted to continue his private office next to his professorate. In the spring of 1966 different people – amongst others, also Bijhouwer’s alumnus Vroom – were asked to share their vision on the new professorship. To his surprise and without any previous notice, Meto Johan Vroom (Glimmen, 1929) received an appointment letter in August 1966: he was to become the new professor, only three weeks before the start of the new academic year. So, with an improvised preparation Meto started his professorship. In his book that describes his career in Wageningen “Leren kijken” (Learning / Teaching how to Observe) he discusses his struggle with the matter how to organise teaching and conducting scientific research in Landscape Architecture. The proverb “Garden” was skipped from his professorate: the president of the University Board (professor Minderhoud) explained this by stating that he was fully capable of planting his own Begonia’s in his garden… In his inauguration speech Vroom critically responded to this perspective, reflected by the title of his inauguration lecture “Het landschap onze tuin?” (the Landscape our Garden?; Vroom, 1967). He describes the roots of the new Landscape Architecture discipline in Garden Art and Design. The relation between nature and man-made environments is discussed. Vroom takes his position against “hiding” objects in the landscape by planting trees and shrubs around them (“schaamgroen”) that evoked many different responses.
In the period 1955 – 1956 during his study with Bijhouwer, Vroom succeeded in obtaining a Fulbright Grant. This grant enabled him to follow the new Master Course in Landscape Architecture with the – later – famous professor Ian McHarg (the protagonist of “ecological design” and author of “Design with Nature” from 1969) at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. The systematic approach to landscape architecture was a contrast to the informal style in Wageningen. The high architectural level of his fellow students and McHarg’s awakening ecological style (with much emphasis on water management, soil and other sciences) influenced Vroom a lot.
Vroom’s first concern was the introduction of a study program that could host the increasing number of Landscape Architecture students and meet the academic standards at that time. Together with his new staff members (amongst whom Harvard graduate Walt Cudnohufsky and Penn-State alumnus Hubert de Boer and the excellent organiser Bernardijn ten Zeldam-Hartelust) Vroom succeeded in developing a new curriculum, strongly inspired by modernist and new scientific system-approaches developed in the USA. Design theories – e.g. by Kevin Lynch, Christoffer Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Tito Patri – were introduced. With the cooperation of his staff and students this resulted in the typical “Wageningen-approach” of Landscape Analysis based on the so-called “Triplex-model” (Kerkstra, Struik and Vrijlandt, 1976). Still the fundament for many current Landscape Architecture projects in The Netherlands. Although the study program was successful, Vroom kept his doubts about his role: the inspiring designer, the master to be imitated or the teacher who offers an systematic approach for students. Vroom writes: the ideal would be to combine these three. Though, when I was a student, the last role fitted him probably the best… I think the enormous number of students – in those days the number of freshmen was around hundred – prevented him to act differently.
After kick-starting the teaching at his group, Vroom gradually developed and stimulated research projects. One of the first Dutch studies applying McHarg’s theories was the “Kring Midden Utrecht” study (1973), developing alternative urban development schemes. Interesting examples of other projects are the “Helmond ”study (one of the first examples with computerized methods using punch cards) and the “Mergelland” study (1976). Vroom’s first PhD is Dr. Johan Meeus, who in 1984 presents his doctorate thesis (“Op zoek naar een Instrumentarium voor ontwerpkritiek in de landschapsarchitectuur”; Towards an instrument for design critigue in Landscape Architecture; Meeus, 1984). In 1997 I happened to become his last.
In 1980 the Landscape Architecture group founds “STILO” (Stichting Instituut voor Landschapsplanning en Ontwerp; Institute for Landscape Planning and Desing) to enhance its independent design research. Amongst others projects for The Deltaworks (Oosterschelde Dam) and Electricity Infrastructure were carried out. STILO went bankrupts during the 1992’s economic crisis.
In 1985 Vroom had to pay his toll for many years of intensive teaching, researching and travelling all over the world, propagating the highly esteemed “Wageningen-approach”. He suffers from a burn-out, which in 1986 leads to a forced partial (50%) retreat. After a while this situation enabled him to spend more time in writing, amongst others leading to the world’s first Landscape Architecture Lexicon in 2006. But Meto misses the contact with his students…
1989 – 2007 Kerkstra
The search for a new chair for the Landscape Architecture group after Vroom’s partial retreat coincided with a heavy budget cut at the Wageningen University. At first the university board decided to abolish the group; a decision that was luckily changed. At last in 1989 Klaas Kerkstra (Leeuwarden 1946 – Oosterbeek 2012) was appointed. A farmer’s son, non-conformist and representative of the Hippie-generation, who started his studies in Wageningen to follow his father’s footsteps; though his dad advised him not to do so. Already after one year Kerkstra switched to Landscape Architecture; the reason why the propedeuse committee let him pass, without finishing his Mathematics exams… A negative advise from Vroom after his first steps in Landscape Architecture could not withhold him to eventually graduate. Kerkstra developed a close relation with lector and later professor Nico de Jonge (who joined the group in 1978).
Already as an advanced student, Kerkstra showed a profound interest in the philosophical and theoretical fundaments of Landscape Architecture. Together with his former study mates Peter Vrijlandt and Jan Bernard Struik they wrote in 1976 the pioneering report “Denkraam” (Frame to be able to understand. This title refers to the writings of Marten Toonder; a famous Dutch writer / cartoonist who enriched Dutch language and was frequently cited by Kerkstra). This report is an instructive document for the third year studio Landscape Architecture in which the “Triplex-Model” was firstly mentioned. An instruction based on the approaches Vroom introduced and on (other) publications from e.g. Alexander et al. (A Pattern Language, 1977), Rapoport (Conflict in Man-made Environment, 1974), Van Leeuwen (Ekologie, textbook Delft Technical University, 1973) and Odum (The Strategy of Ecosystem Development, 1969). In his lectures, Kerkstra stressed the importance of philosophical, humanistic and classical architectural readings. He was one of the people who in the 1980-s, re-discovered the 10 Books of Architecture. In this work, the roman Architect Vitruvius Antonio Pollio collected the classical principles of architecture. This resulted in the introduction of “Ruimtelijke Kwaliteit” (spatial quality) – based on the Vitruvian triad Venustas, Firmitas and Utilitas – as the main objective for Dutch Spatial Planning and Landscape Architecture.
Next to his teaching and projects for STILO, Kerkstra started his PhD research on Baroque Estates in The Netherlands, stimulated by De Jonge. After broad literature inventories and ample spatial analyses of (remnants of) estates, Kerkstra never finished this, leaving a great amount of material. Part of this is now in the Special Collections department of the WUR Library. More successful was Kerkstra’s work on the “Casco-concept” (Framework Concept) that he and colleagues from the State Forestry Service developed for regional designing. “Plan Ooievaar“(Plan Stork; De Bruin et al., 1987) and “Het Landschap van de zandgebieden” (the landscape of the pleistocene sandy landscapes; Kerkstra and Vrijlandt, 1988 and 1990) are well-known elaborations. The concept was adopted in official governmental policies (e.g. the “Nota Landschap”; 1992) inspired PhD research (Van Buuren, 1997; Wassink, 1999; Cook, 2000; Ahern, 2002) and is the fundament for the so-called “Lagenbenadering” (layers-approach). With his fellow godfather of the Casco-Concept – Dirk Sijmons – Kerkstra argued about the matter whether or not the concept is an architectural concept (Kerkstra) or a more strategic planning approach (Sijmons). Kerkstra stressed the importance of making a clear distinction between (landscape) planning and (landscape) architecture: “Planning problematizes the ordening – the process of planning- of the landscape; architecture the order of the landscape – i.c. the object – itself”. Eventually, this perspective made Kerkstra choose for joining the (scientific oriented) WIMEK-institute, while the planning group in those days felt better at home at the humanities in the WAS-institute.
When his retirement approached, and another university-reorganisation was on its way, Kerkstra started to make different plans for his career. An argument with the university authorities accelerated his resign as chair of the group in 2003. In 2007 he definitely left the university; in style, that is without a formal farewell speech – an official inauguration was never held because he did not get his PhD degree as was agreed when he started his professorship. Instead a symposium on the landscape design of South-Limburg was organised, together with Peter Vrijlandt and Harro de Jonge (February 2008). The University lost an inspired teacher, who never forgot the students drink on Thursdays. Only 4 years later Klaas died, suffering from ALS. As an homage to Klaas, his columns from “De Blauwe Kamer” from 1991 – 1995 were compiled in a booklet (Kerkstra et al., 2012). Although written more than two decades ago, still an actual image of Dutch Landscapes and Design.
2003 – 2013 Koh
After a long-lasting procedure, in which neither of the two candidates nominated by the application committee could be appointed for a diversity of reasons, the former professor Vroom was asked for advice. Through his international contacts a new candidate was found who met the academic standards: in 2003 the Korean Architect and Landscape Architect Jusuck Koh started as the new professor and chair in Landscape Architecture. After his study in Seoul and some years of architectural work, Koh took up studies again. This time Landscape Architecture at McHarg’s department at the University of Pennsylvania. He obtained his PhD degree at that university with his dissertation entitled “An Ecological Theory of Architecture” in 1978. During following years of teaching at different universities, Koh published many books and articles. In 1989 he founded, with his wife Annemone Beck-Koh, their design practice “Oikos” in Korea; at present located in Wageningen. After Bijhouwer left in 1966, the Wageningen Landscape Architecture group was presided by a “real doctor” again…
During his professional career, Koh has been confronted with both Western and Eastern approaches and characteristics of the field. In his inaugural speech, Koh stresses the importance of combining the existing practical and modernistic Wageningen tradition with a more aesthetic and design-oriented perspective on Landscape Architecture. “It is also in ecological … principles … and aesthetic languages … that I see the creative integration of West and East, of ‘Landscape of Mind’ and ‘ Landscape of Heart’“.Koh tries to integrate – not to mention: counteract? – the “anthropocentric / humanistic / religious tradition of the West/Europe” …by also addressing… “the cosmological / naturalistic / spiritual tradition of the East/Asia”. The task of a Landscape Architect according to him is, next to providing practical and functional solutions to our day-to-day environments, to produce culturally meaningful landscapes. Coming from a completely different country and culture, we may expect a harmonious transition from Kerkstra to Koh. But as far as I know, the two did not cooperate closely…
During Koh’s professorate, his “poetic” perspective on Landscape Architecture returns in his lectures and publications. In this period Rudy van Etteger starts his PhD “Beyond the visible; prolegonemon to the an aesthetics of designed landscapes”.
Koh’s ambition was to make the Wageningen School to become the number one university in Europe for Landscape Architecture, attracting top students from all over the world. In his welcoming speech, Koh pleads for the founding of an association of alumni, following examples from the United States. In 2005 this association comes into existence, stimulated by Emeritus-Professor Vroom. Together with the NHBos Stichting, the Alumni Association organises a three yearly “Bijhouwer Lecture” and “Bijhouwer prize for Landscape Architecture”. Unfortunately, the Alumni association had to stop in 2015, leaving the Bijhouwer activities to the NHBos Stichting alone.
During the first years of Koh’s professorship, standards concerning the scientific quality of the research output of chair groups become stricter and stricter. A consequence of a more general development, both at Wageningen University and at other Dutch universities. The Landscape Architecture group, traditionally more involved in the time-consuming (design) teaching activities than most other groups, this scientific climate-change feels harsh or even hostile. In a report from a 2008-evaluation committee set up by the university, it is concluded that the scientific level of the Landscape Architecture group doesn’t meet academic criteria. Professor Koh has to leave his chair, a new application committee is formed and professor Adri van den Brink (who holds at that time an extraordinary professorate at the Land Use Planning group in Wageningen) is appointed as the interim-manager in January 2009.
2009 – 2018 Van den Brink
In 2009 Adri van den Brink (Velsen, 1953), graduated in 1978 at the Cultuurtechniek (Agricultural Engineering) group in Wageningen, was recommended by the application committee. So, he exchanged his temporal position for the Landscape Architecture chair. During his professional career – till that time mainly at the former Landinrichtingsdienst / Dienst Landelijk Gebied (Dutch Government Service for Land and Water Management) – Van den Brink earned his doctor’s title in 1990 for a PhD thesis on agricultural structure policy in the period 1945 – 1985. The third doctor at the seat…
As is stressed in his inaugural speech, Van den Brink aims at strengthening the scientific position of the group. He refers to the highly valued position of the Wageningen group in the international world of Landscape Architecture. It’s strongest characteristics are the integral approach and the tradition to design with and for landscape’s dynamic processes. In his eyes more a matter of “life sciences by design” than “architectural design” (translated from Dutch – MvB).
Nevertheless large parts of his speech entitled “Transformatie en innovatie; Over landschap, ontwerp en onderzoek” (Transformation and Innovation: on Landscape, Design and Research) consist of a coherent and wholeheartedly plea to improve scientific research quality and quantity. Van den Brink distinguishes scientific research from the process of looking for suitable solutions to practical problems, that, in Dutch Landscape Architectural practice is called “ontwerpend onderzoek / onderzoekend ontwerp” (design survey / surveying design). As, in his view, is the case elsewhere in the world, the academic level can and must be improved. He introduces the triad: research on design(ing), research for design(ing) and research through design(ing). Examples of research through design, in his view, consist of performing scientific experiments in which prototypes are designed based on clear criteria that can be scrutinously tested. In this way (landscape) design may become a scientific research method. For this he refers to e.g. the PhD research by Sanda Lenzhölzer: Designing atmospheres: research and design for thermal comfort in Dutch urban squares. (2010).
One of the biggest challenges for Van den Brink is to change the organisation of the group in a way to combine the teaching and – the intensified – researching tasks. At the same time the number of students increased again, making this even more challenging. Keeping up the high-level of graduates is reflected in the high ranking of the Wageningen track of Landscape and Land Use Planning. The growth of scientific output by a number of PhD-theses and the publication of the book “Research in Landscape Architecture; methods and methodology” (Van den Brink et al, 2017).
Nevertheless, new changes at the Landscape Architecture group are at hand. Professor Van den Brink is nearing his retirement and retreated as the chair in January 2018. A new professor is expected to be appointed in the coming weeks…
When I write these last sentences, I just returned from the public lectures from the two candidates who have been nominated by the application committee. Both represent quite different perspectives on the field of Landscape Architecture. Whoever is going to be selected, I truly hope that the progress of the discipline since its introduction in Wageningen will continue. As was the case more than a hundred years ago, the challenges of society ask for a strong discipline with ample qualified Landscape Architects, both in practical and academic environments.
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