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Razende Reporters: The Contrast Between Dutch and Portuguese Landscape Architecture

Artikel door Ian Witte

Razende Reporters is the permanent rubric that is published once for every theme. Each time, a LAR/LUP student writes about their experience from studying abroad, or as an exchange student in The Netherlands. For this edition, Ian writes about his internship in Lisbon.

The park below the Vasco da Gama bridge is one of the most well-known designs from the company where I did my internship

Starting in September 2022, I had the opportunity to follow a six-month internship at Portugal’s leading office in landscape architecture. It was our former teacher, João Cortesão, who inspired me to travel to the serene beauty and cultural vibrance of the southwestern corner of Europe. Although following this internship to gain experience before my MSc was the primary reason, the Portuguese dream did not play an unimportant role either. Only did I learn through the course of the internship that this Portuguese dream was different than I imagined.

Now, some of you might have spoken with me earlier about my experience in Portugal and remember that I was not exactly positive about it. But looking back at it now, with all the emotions having settled, I think that I have learned some valuable lessons, both about myself and landscape architecture as a whole.

Before I ventured to the southwestern corner of Europe, I imagined that the concept of landscape architecture would be the same around the world. After all, it is notable that landscape architecture has been considered as an independent field in Portugal. In Italy and Spain for instance, it is more likely for traditional architecture offices and botanists to design public spaces and gardens. But like The Netherlands, Portugal has made a clear distinction between architecture and landscape. There are at least three different universities in the country that offer study programmes related to this field. However, this does not mean that the foundation of landscape architecture in both these countries is the same.

Considering contemporary landscape architecture, it has grown in the Netherlands from the lack of space. We are one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Every single square metre of the country has been planned, designed and attributed a function over the past centuries. We face new pressing issues in our current era, like extreme weather, sea level rise and biodiversity loss. Tackling these issues within the packed country that is The Netherlands requires the inventive minds of landscape architects and planners to bridge many different disciplines.

Part of the Gulbenkian Foundation gardens

Then, there is Portugal, where contemporary landscape architecture has been brought to life after the Second World War by Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles. He was a politician with a background in agronomy and a co-designer of two famous sights in Lisbon: Parque Florestal de Monsanto and the gardens of the Gulbenkian Cultural Centre. He directed the course of modernism in Portuguese public space design and reshaped landscape architecture and urban planning through teaching at various Portuguese universities. His students have become the teachers of the current generation of Portuguese landscape architects. It was not a lack of space that influenced the design philosophies, but the requirement for more, better green spaces and pedestrian-friendly environments to improve the quality of life.

One of many trails leading through the Monsanto park

Where I had travelled to Portugal with my Dutch mindset, hoping to tackle desertification and learning about suitable vegetation whilst using the power of knowledge and creativity, I actually ended up drawing lines in AutoCAD for practically all my time. I was an intern, after all, and interns are considered as inexperienced thus incapable of making design decisions. There was a clear hierarchy in the office; the founder created all the designs whilst the rest of the team had to translate these designs into masterplans, sections, visualisations and construction documents. Whereas we go through a circular, iterative design process in Wageningen, I felt like the process in Portugal was rather linear. The designs that I worked with were often a quick sketch that was adapted to the conditions on the site, as discovered through implementing it in AutoCAD. 

An impression of the office during lunchtime

The deeper that I dove into my internship, the more my faith in landscape architecture decreased. Spending over eight hours per day, five days per week mindlessly drawing lines on a computer in an office deprived of daylight, right below the flight path to the airport took a great toll on my mental health. To make it worse, strong rain showers struck Lisbon for months on end, and the buildings were not made to keep out the chilling temperatures of winter. It took several months to recover from this experience and to remember why I chose to study landscape architecture.

Despite the costs, I am glad with the experiences that I gained in Portugal. In the first place, I feel thankful for the company to offer me this opportunity to become an AutoCAD expert within a few months and, although the internship was without salary, I was offered accommodation by the company. They taught me a lesson that I would like to share with anyone applying for a job in our field: try to get a clear image of the tasks and commitments that are involved in the job. Approach other employees through LinkedIn to ask them about their experiences. And most important, be crystal clear in your goals and limits during the interview.

The apartment was shared with other interns and international employees

I am also thankful for the amazing people that I met during these six months. Other interns, colleagues and landscape architects from other companies taught me valuable lessons about life and landscape architecture as a whole. We formed lasting friendships, visited various parks in the city and spent a couple of nights casting terror upon Lisbon. The company lent me a bike to commute to work and explore Lisbon and its surroundings. During the weekends I had the opportunity to delve into Portuguese culture and venture out either with colleagues, friends from an Erasmus+ organisation or on my own. Portugal and its surroundings offer some of the most pristine landscapes that I have ever seen and can highly recommend anyone to visit if they are in the region. Think about the rocky formations at Serra da Estrela, the pristine cliffs at Cabo da Roca, a flourishing marine reserve at The Berlengas, magnificent palaces in Sintra, ancient forests on Madeira, or the well-known karst formations of the Algarve.

Cabo da Roca is the westernmost point of continental Europe and has some of the most stunning cliffs in the vicinity of Lisbon

Looking back, I am absolutely certain that I would never do another internship like this. Nevertheless, I can look back with a smile at this time of experiencing the culture clashes and contrasts between Portugal and The Netherlands.

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