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The minefield of a dissonant site – Exploring design strategies

Graduation work by Sanne van der Mijl

Sites of dissonant heritage are the subject of this research. The remnants of war symbolize a communal traumatic memory. The consequences of disturbing events result in a scarred landscape. This research is a triangulation between landscape architecture, heritage studies and experience theory. The synthesis led to the creation and use of the model for experiencing a dissonant heritage site.

The Atlantikwall as design site The enormous Atlantikwall structure, stretching from Norway to the South of France, is a disturbing memory of the dissonant events that took place during the Second World War. The military structure consisted out of 12.000 (coastal) forts, airports, bunkers in various shapes and sizes, viewpoints, anti-tank ditches… The fortification line was built at a staggering speed between 1940 and 1943 by the Organization Todt. Local residents were forced to work, as well as political prisoners and Jews (Brunelli and Parati 2011).

Figure 1: The Atlantikwall.

Part of the Dutch Atlantikwall around the city of IJmuiden functioned as the design site in this research. IJmuiden used to be of great importance to the Nazis as it had a large harbor and controlled the waterway to Amsterdam. Because of this, IJmuiden was labelled ‘Festung IJmuiden’ (Peters 2005).

Figure 2: The Atlantikwall around IJmuiden: the outline and the (visible) remnants.

Dissonant heritage The definition of dissonant heritage: the spatial embedment of a horrific event where clear perpetrators and victims can be identified. Dissonant heritage is the stage where events of atrocity and horror have taken place. To understand dissonant heritage, first the meaning of heritage should be understood.The main difference between heritage and history is that history aims at finding the truth, by digging into the past, whereas heritage is looking for ways to experience the past from a contemporary point of view (Ashworth 1994, 1997, 2011) and (Tunbridge and Ashworth 1996). This makes the discipline of heritage very much suitable for a landscape architect: the interventions take place in the present, based on contemporary wishes and needs, while a certain amount of freedom is allowed, even encouraged so to transmit the message in the best possible manner.

Figure 3: The History and heritage sequence.

Notion of authenticity In the heritage discourse, an often heard term is authenticity. But there are some problems with authenticity. The quest for authenticity can paralyze design interventions. The result can be that it is about the transmittance of authenticity, whereas the focus should be on the transmittance of the story. Moreover, authenticity is misleading. There are only very few things authentic in the world we live in, as something is only authentic when it has been untouched or even unrecognized as such. Because of this, the term integrity is more fitting in the dissonant heritage discourse. Integrity implies to a certain extent some form of authenticity, but focusses more on the story. It should be the idea or the feeling of authenticity that should be transmitted. This fits the definition of heritage, being the transmittance of an idea, feeling or message, better. Landscape architects of dissonant heritage sites should give visitors the idea that what they see and experience is authentic. Hereby the message changes from the authentic message being passed on to the idea of authenticity being transmitted. And this can very well be passed on with non-authentic elements.

The model The model for experiencing a dissonant heritage site can give insights into the process of designing for and experiencing a dissonant heritage site and aims to ensure a multi layered experience for the visitor, initiated by the landscape architect. The model shows the direct and indirect influences the work of a landscape architect has on the experiences of visitors on a dissonant heritage site. The site represents the actual stage of the event. It brings the landscape architect and the visitor together. It therefore acts as an intermediary between both actors, through the design that lands on the site and its consequences for the experiences of the visitor. Visitors of sites of heritage and landscape architects usually do not interact directly; it is only via the site that an exchange of expectations and ideas might be realized.

Figure 4: The model for experiencing a dissonant heritage site.

Strategies The dissonant event itself cannot be altered; as it lies in the past and already happened. What can be altered however is the positioning of the event from the background (as a setting), to the foreground, via design interventions. Landscape architecture can add to the dissonant heritage discussion that its design can function as an eye-opener to the public. When performed successfully, design can, apart from providing an experience, learn the visitor something by making unpresentable heritage presentable (again). Just like any other site, there is neither one single strategy nor one solution suitable. Moreover, dissonant sites are the stage for multiple stories. Therefore a combination of four different strategies is recommended: education, experiences, commemoration and awareness. There are no strict guidelines to the combinations, but to ensure as many people as possible understand the site and the event, it is advised to start with the education strategy, as prior knowledge enhances the intensity of the experience.

Figure 5: Sequence of strategies.

Education strategy – Bunker bumps The majority of dissonant heritage sites are arranged in an educational manner, the main focus being on transmitting knowledge about the event. The educational strategy is characterized by providing visitors with clues to obtain information about the event and the site. In this education episode of the story the hostile link with the sea (which is now lost) is emphasized again via the creation of viewpoints and vistas and via the use of warfare materials such as concrete.

Figure 6: Education strategy.

Experiences strategy – Viewpoints The experiences strategy provides visitors with an experience through (physical) experiences and challenges. Hereby the senses are addressed. The strategy behind the elements of the Atlantikwall was to create solitary points in a larger system that could work together in a linear form, but also withstand an attack separately. This mixture between integration and individuality is a leading principle in the design of the viewpoints.

Figure 7: Experiences strategy.

Commemoration strategy – Explosion Commemoration is also common on dissonant heritage sites, such as memorial sites or cemeteries. The commemoration strategy offers visitors the possibility of commemorating victims and the event. On the site of the explosion used to be a large coastal battery. After the war this battery has been completely demolished. The explosion refers to this demolition, but also to the demolition the Atlantikwall caused on its surroundings. The created site can be used for gatherings, shows and manifestations.

Figure 8: Commemoration strategy.

Awareness strategy – Anti-tank ditch The awareness strategy is characterized by linking themes and issues that were important in the represented period to themes and issues that might be of importance to contemporary visitors. The anti-tank ditch provides people the opportunity to walk through the ditch and experience the landscape from there. Because the ground level fluctuates it creates a sequence of disorientation and overview, provided by the viewing platforms.

Figure 9: Awareness strategy.

To end with The objective of these research interventions was to make people aware of the added value of dissonant heritage sites. The stories they can tell us before it is too late are of great value, before the tangible and intangible dissonant heritage remnants are deteriorating, before stories of eyewitnesses are fading away. Dissonant heritage eventually becomes heritage and during this process loses its added value and characteristics of being emotionally laden.

Ashworth, G. J. (1994). From History to Heritage - From Heritage to Identity
Ashworth, G. J. (1997). "Conservation as preservation or as heritage: two paradigms and two answers." Built Environment (1978): 92-102.
Ashworth, G. J. (2011). "Preservation, Conservation and Heritage: Approaches to the Past in the Present through the Built Environment." Asian Anthropology 10(1): 1-18.
Brunelli, C. and M. Parati (2011). Talkative Ruins. The Atlantikwall as Military Archaeological Landscape. M. Bassanelli. Siracusa, Lettera Ventidue: 185-199.
Peters, M., S. v. Schuppen, et al. (2005). De Atlantikwall: omstreden erfgoed: van Rijnmond tot Ijmond. Den Haag, Open Kaart.
Tunbridge, J. E. and G. J. Ashworth (1996). Dissonant heritage: the management of the past as a resource in conflict, J. Wiley.

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