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Murmur of limits: Evoking the sensuous encounter between ecological phenomena and humans

Graduation work by Naiara Valcarlos.

This beautiful thesis of Naiara is nominated for the Dutch Archiprix 2015. She already graduated in the summer of 2014, and TOPOS online is very glad to share her research with you.

This theoretical and design research explores the realm of perception in the milieu of new nature development. It focuses on relating the sensuous encounter with materiality of the landscape. New nature consisting of not only accomplished ecological recovery but a landscape instilled with human scale that supports ecological function.


Both forces of nature and human intention equally shape Schouwen Duiveland, the northernmost island of Zeeland, staging the `tangible meeting point between culture and nature´(Naveh, 1995).

A new nature development has taken place in the past decades in Schouwen Duiveland, called Plan Tureluur, continuing to be the representation of this encounter: construction of inner dike nature reserve areas along the Oosterschelde, preservation of sandbars and marshes against erosion and finally, the conservation of inner dike brackish marsh, in dialogue with the man-made dike landscape. The new nature development, following the trend of ecological recovery has intended to establish the ecological processes and dynamics that most benefit the purposes of Natura 2000: the migration of birds, due to Schouwen Duiveland´s strategic location and international relevance in this aspect. The recovery makes reference to landscape processes and dynamics existing at a specific historical time: the XIIth century.

The question remains nevertheless in if such ecological approach solely is enough for its successful implementation and sustainability. After all, what science understands as nature is necessarily not in line with what people understand and expect of nature (Gobster et al. 2007): ecological and cultural views of nature. And aesthetic considerations form a major part of peoples´ appreciation of nature (Wilson, 1991). This new development requires of human support and care for its long-term maintenance and sustainability. Furthermore, it is believed that humans can support ecology if we relate it with human perception (Nassauer, 1992). And thus, the study of landscape perception in the milieu of nature becomes indispensable.

Scale, time and space

In the attempt of relating perception of landscape and ecological phenomena we come up with the perceptual realm, the scale at which humans engage with ecological phenomena. Scale involves in its meaning interrelationship, in this case between humans and ecological phenomena.

The perceptible realm, scale at which humans engage with ecological phenomena, giving raise to aesthetic experiences.

Taking as departure point the human body the perceptible realm rather than being a geometric or numerical scale, it is a tactile scale. This tactility involves our skin, which contains our senses, from which space is generated, and therefore it is in eternal transformation. And in this process the environment is perceived, gathered and stored in the form of sensuous data. Nature, at the same time, is life and sequence, in eternal movement, and manifests by means of form. Nevertheless, we have certain limitations because our senses can only perceive and engage with phenomena that manifest within our time-space frame. In order to establish this sensuous encounter with nature we need to focus on phenomena that reveal within this frame: ephemeral, tidal and seasonal phenomena.

Phenomena of nature that express in different time and space frames. [click to enlarge]

Limit and rhythms; cultural and natural dimension

Those phenomena of nature most vividly express in the limit. In the limits different phenomena encounter each other, touch each other without denying their being. The dike in Schouwen Duiveland represents the limit. Those phenomena, changing rhythmic processes that reveal in ephemeral, tidal or seasonal cycles with which we engage, interweave and afford the dike a mixity of temporal perceivable phenomena (Crang, 2000).

Landscape sequences we encounter along the dike. Tidal and seasonal rhythms along the dike.

But beyond the processes and dynamics established now inland, the dynamics that historically shaped the dike, giving to it its specific materiality, also frame our experience along the dike. The landscape of Schouwen Duiveland and its dike are a consequence of the interaction between human intention and the forces of nature, mainly sea, wind, sand, and storms. These interactions have shaped and determined the materiality of the dike in order to provide protection. Not only the primary dike, but also the secondary dike line, that worked as protection in case the first line was broken under a storm. Interestingly the weakest dike zones, protected with a primary and secondary dike, after their break, have allowed in some cases a greater sedimentation process, providing a more gentle dike profile and shallow waters. An outstanding example of this dynamics is Schelpoek, where the dike broke in 1953, and now, after sand was deposited, the everyday changes that the tidal rhythm affords are highly perceivable. Other zones where the wind is strongest the dike has been broken and repaired so many times, with sea water face to the dike so deep, that the dike responds to these conditions with a magnificent profile, as the magnificent forces of the tides, wind and storms require, making less visible the changes of the tidal rhythm. All these factors have shaped the dike line, its appearance and materiality face to the sea and sky as well as its relief. And they frame our sensuous encounter with this landscape. But how does our body engage with all these phenomena?

Aesthetic investigation of the dike and its materiality.

Aesthetic investigation of the dike and its materiality, understood as a line: its height, history, breaks, secondary dike lines, walking line along the dike, sequences of landscape and connections.

Aesthetic strategy

In such a dynamic landscape, with nature expressing most vividly by means of the dike and processes revealing in different rhythms, our sensuous encounter is best described by aesthetic metaphors. These aesthetic metaphors are instilled with human scale, and evoke the experience of the dike landscape, since processes are aesthetically embodied, as well as spelt by means of aesthetic language: `language that instils bodily expression, where the meanings are tied to the expressivity of the processes and to the expressive nature of our gestures, and to the direct sensations induced by these movements´ (Abram, 1997). Under the concept Murmur of limits, meaning the interaction, conversation of the elements of the landscape with the forces of nature, three main metaphors summarize the sensuous encounter with the site:

*voices of the water, voices of the wind

*murmur of rhythms, murmur of culture and nature

*lines and reliefs of the waves and foams


*embodiment of the horizon.

The study of main dike reliefs and the intensity of the aesthetic metaphors. This record is interpreted as design


Three design spots are developed. Each of them uses an aesthetic metaphor and enhances the experience that the metaphor evokes suitably in the dike landscape. These metaphors are:

Voices of the water, voices of the wind makes reference to a dike landscape that is in eternal movement due to strong tidal sound and movement of the grass of the dike, and where we get violently exposed to the strong winds.

The dike is heightened following the existing slope and provided with a new section, allowing either to walk exposed to the winds, the sound of the sea, the foams, the movement of the grass, with open horizon. Or to walk immersed in the dike, surrounded by it, revealing the dike anew, as an element that rather than exposing us, now, protects us. The dike becomes closely tactile, making the voices of the water and the winds to reveal only in their aural expression; becoming echo, remote.

Ground plan of the proposal.

Transformed dike relief.

Murmur of rhythms, by means of minimal interventions the historical second dike line called

karrevelden, whose major changes manifest in seasonal rhythm become perceivable. By means of a landscape sequence we allow to experience the tidal and seasonal rhythm. Culture and nature are already interacting since centuries ago as an intermingled system. From an ecological point of view as the unique brackish habitat that manifests in karrevelden, from a cultural perspective with the specific shape given to the land by humans as response to the threat of the sea, where human scale is instilled. But this intervention allows experiencing the landscape configuration as a whole.

Ground plan and views along the area made accessible.

Embodying the horizon, We distract the line, the dike, inducing a new direction to it, towards the horizon formed by the sea and the sky, in order to embody the encounter of the limit of our sight experience. It becomes a landscape that changes according to the tidal rhythm, in eternal motion, due to the wooden paths designed accordingly to the tide heights.

Ground plan of the proposal.

Views of the dike.


With these designs the on-going ecological recovery gets enriched. Human scale is instilled by means of metaphors that evoke the sensuous encounter with nature, tightly related to the materiality of the landscape. They bring closer ecological function and their human perception, ensuring the sustainability of the nature development.


- ABRAM, D. 1997. The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, New York, Vintage Books.

BARAÑANO, K. M. 1991. Chillida: Escala Humana. In: CHILLIDA, E. (ed.) Chillida, Escala Humana,Bilbao, Diputación Foral de Bizkaia.

- CRANG, M. 2000. Urban morphology and the shaping of the transmissable city, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 4:3, 303-315, DOI: 10.1080/713657026

- GOBSTER, P., NASSAUER, J., DANIEL, T. & FRY, G. 2007. The shared landscape: what does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landscape Ecology, 22, 959-972.

- NASSAUER, J. I. 1992. The appearance of ecological systems as a matter oof policy. 6, 239-250.

- NAVEH, Z. 1995. Interactions of landscapes and cultures. Landscape and Urban Planning, 32,43-54.

januari 21, 2015

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