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The phenomenology of publicness

Graduation work by Tesse Bijlsma.

“Landscapes include land plus man,” Ann Whinston Spirn (1997) wrote in her famous book about the language of landscape. A clear notion, which is actually fundamental for landscape design disciplines since every adaptation in the landscape is eventually made for the benefit of man or mankind. Moreover, the connection between humans and landscape is even further emphasized phenomenological philosophers, who argue we know we are part of the world through sensory experiences of the landscape (Merleau-Ponty 1962; Heidegger 1962). Design, the discipline of problem solving and form giving (Koh 2013:33) is pre-eminently about designing for those ‘everyday’ experiences. Design is thus about physical form in relation to its users’ experiences. It is exactly this point where this thesis is about. Started from a fascination about how we, as humans, engage with the world this thesis slowly developed into a quest of revisiting the meaning of publicness from a first person perspective. It took me into trying to grasp the essence of Amsterdam public and private spaces, and brought me into places I have never been before, such as the gardens of the Canal Zone.

Bird’s eye view of the project area with the mixed functions.

The context

The actual start of the thesis was evoked by a call for help by inhabitants of the Binnengasthuis Area in Amsterdam, a former private convent and hospital that transformed into a mixed-use area. The University of Amsterdam, owner and exploiter of many buildings on site, wants to develop a study centre and library within the area – which troubles the inhabitants who fear too much pressure upon the public space. The thesis is an exploration of how people engage with their surroundings through the sensory apparatus, in order to find out the experience of accessibility and inclusiveness, the spatial components of ‘publicness.’

The landscape architectonic challenges from an experiential point of view.

The need for intervention

The particular focus for the research is taken since the current Binnengasthuis landscape is visually inaccessible and requires much effort for cyclists to access and park bicycles, resulting in a scattering of parked bicycles throughout the area. This usage of the public space severely limits other users, such as residents, visitors and other students in their daily usage of living, walking, or sitting and talking. Due to University extension plans, the urban landscape of the Binnengasthuis area is ground for a conflict between the University of Amsterdam and residents. Despite their different interests, however, common ground can be found through designing an accessible and inclusive Binnengasthuis area.

The research framework.

Phenomenological analysis: a systematic account of experience

A design solution for the area is proposed based on a systematic analysis of sensory experiences, called a ‘phenomenological analysis,’ within everyday spaces in the city centre. This particular research method is developed by van Etteger (2015, forthcoming) and consists of a three step method:

– First, experiencing a route through the place, only describing the experiences afterwards

– Second, systematic description of the senses along the route, based on multisensory observations about every 50 meters.

– Third, evaluation of the data and detaching from the experiences to form the ‘epoché’

Example of phenomenological data collection.

The extensive research covers a fieldwork basis of 23 spaces in the centre of Amsterdam incorporating a wide variety of public and private spaces, both famous spaces such as the Vondelpark or the Dam square, and urban pearls – hidden away in the urban fibre, such as the Begijnhof, gardens of the Canal Zone and many more. Although the main purpose of the research is to give insight in the experience of accessibility and diverse usage of spaces, the detailed descriptions of the sensory experiences on those places give a good impression of mundane life in Amsterdam as well. The collected sensory data on the experiences of the 23 spaces are related to a framework of publicness, developed by Langstraat and van Melik (2013). In their article, the construction of publicness is explained through the institutional factors of ownership, management and the spatial factors of inclusiveness and accessibility.

The adapted theoretical framework of publicness.

Research outcomes: design principles for the experience of accessibility and inclusiveness

The analysis of the sensory data in this research focuses upon those (design) elements that allow or constrain public accessibility and inclusiveness. The research outcome is a set of design principles that contribute to a of usage.

Artist’s impression of the applied principle of accessibility upon the Binnengasthuis area.

Building upon the design principles found, a new cycling route through the Binnengasthuis area is suggested. A bicycle basement is added to this route with easy entrances, designed for effortless parking, suiting the motion of cyclists. By doing so, the design also provides opportunities for diverse usage in the centre area, like sitting, meeting, talking, having lunch as well as room for domestic usages. The design plan transforms the current introvert university plan into an embedded alternative plan such to inspire the involved parties and support to come towards a common future.

Possible design following from the design principles found.


Spirn, A.W., 1998. The language of landscape, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M., 1962. Phenomenology of perception C. Smith, ed., London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, New York: Harper & Row.

Koh, J., 2013. On a Landscape Approach to Design. Wageningen: Wageningen University

Van Etteger, R., 2015, forthcoming. The aesthetics of landscape architecture and designed landscapes. Wageningen: Wageningen

University [PhD thesis].

Langstraat, F. & Van Melik, R., 2013. Challenging the “End of Public Space”: A Comparative Analysis of Publicness in British and Dutch Urban Spaces. Journal of Urban Design, 18(3), pp.429–448.

oktober 27, 2014

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