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Why experiences matter to landscape architecture

Article by Abel Coenen and Sasha Geneste.

Landscapes and activities within the landscape have always evoked strong emotions and experiences from people, due to their relevance to human life. Landscapes can evoke fear and fright but can touch deeper feelings of existence and self-awareness at the same time. Who hasn’t ever gazed over a mountain valley or an urban skyline by night?

Abel and Sascha are working together in their MSc thesis in which they research how landscape architecture can steer experiences in the Hamerstraatgebied, one of the work landscapes in Amsterdam-Noord.

Current experiences Nowadays, the whole of the Netherlands has been cultivated; mounds and dikes have been built to protect us from the violent strength of water; wild natural environments have been reduced or artificially reconstructed; dangerous animals have been expelled or domesticated. With this cultivation, the experiences of landscape may seem flatter than ever before and the strong landscape experiences mitigated from our daily life. We think the opposite is true: with the development and digitalisation of society, people have become more involved in society and landscape. Technology and internet have expanded the possibilities for landscapes. With that expansion, the role of the personal experience has become more relevant.

An example of this is Amsterdam Noord, which is an area that from its beginning facilitated the heavy industry of Amsterdam. In order to keep the city safe, dense industry moved across the IJ bay (now lake) to the opposite shore. It was a rough and dirty area, the domain of the hardworking men of the docks and factories. This was originally the place for large-scale businesses as oil company Shell, chemical factory Ketjen (later Akzo Nobel / Albemarle) and ship and car building industries as Stork, NDSM and ADM. Factory buildings, many tons of steel and great surfaces of concrete created a rough industrial atmosphere in which many inhabitants of Amsterdam worked.

As heavy industry disappeared, the creative industry started to appear in Noord. Companies moved or shut down while leaving their marks in the landscape behind. While in the past only blue-collar workers came to Noord, the area currently attracts a diverse range of people. From adventurous start-ups to teens who celebrate their freedom at dance festivals and mothers who bounce their carrier cycle over the stelcon plates. Buildings have disappeared, have been refitted and redeveloped. Some historical settings have been preserved, some history is suggested with contemporary interference. New experiences are introduced, old ones are removed.

In this area of fast development one thing remained the same; it is still seen as the other side of the IJ where people work hard and where freedom is more at hand. Old cranes are kept as relics to former times. The eclectic mix of users has continued albeit with different users. To experience contemporary Noord, one also has to get into touch with historical Noord. These experiences shape the place and, as such, are important for landscape architecture.

Fig. 1: Noord – new experiences are introduced, old ones are removed.

Experientiality The experience of landscapes is a key element of landscape architecture and its relevance is still growing. Experiences influence how we humans remember, judge, treat and perceive landscapes. People are strongly dependent on the experiences they have or can have and, emotionally, people are intensely focussed on having and sharing experiences: those of the best holiday, the nicest friends, the most extraordinary events… It seems that life needs to be more and more unique, special or extreme – sometimes more than life can offer. This movement in which experience becomes so important is increasingly taking place in our society. With the advent of digital technologies our perception of our world has rapidly changed. Compression of time and space has taken place; we can even see what’s currently happening in the Alps through webcams. Virtual reality and technology allow us to explore new human made worlds in a way that is increasingly showing similarities with how we explore our physical world. The difference between the two becomes more blurred over time.

Technological advances have also led to the situation in which we are now in the developed world;we do not have to worry anymore about our basic necessities. They are being fulfilled. This allows us to take our emotions into consideration. The experiences we undergo are important and we even choose activities upon their promise to deliver a certain experience. Being at a train station, one wants to feel he is at an important infrastructural node. Being in the Dutch countryside, one expects to see cows and ‘authentic’ farm buildings. Modern technologies have allowed any place to become social, economical and cultural hotspots. We use our environment to enhance our being. We share our experiences real time through different social media channels. The landscapes we dwell in have changed into landscapes that we consume.

Understanding experiences Getting to understand how these experiences really work and how people appreciate landscapes, also called landscape aesthetics, is a broad field of study. Professor of philosophy Yuriko Saito (2007) says aesthetics are “any reactions we form toward the sensuous and/or design qualities of any object, phenomenon, or activity”. Also, experiences are called, based on the location, time and a person’s perspective in which they appear. Dutch author Frank Westerman describes in his book Stikvallei how a certain event at one location can be interpreted and experienced from different viewpoints. The resulting stories – whether founded in science, religion, culture or other – are all based on different experiences. These experiences are the invisible layers in the landscape.

The difficulty with experiences is that they are all internal processes unique for each individual. Even if people share the same experience, it is still the question whether their experiences are identical. If two people sense fear, it still raises the questions what the origin is of this fear, how intense it is and what the reaction is to this feeling. They can be different for each of them as experiences have a multitude of sources: stories, interactions, sounds, images, smells, memories, touch, time, etc. This makes it difficult to grasp the full potential of experiences in a place. Understanding experiences is part of understanding the landscape; designing experiences is part of designing the landscape.

Fig. 2: Season related – different experiences in summer and winter, Ketjenweg Amsterdam-Noord.

Designing for experiences It may seem that we as landscape designers have no role in the occurrence of these experiences. What is there to design when an experience is an internal phenomenon that appears on an everyday basis? How to create a landscape that evokes emotions that are individually so different? We can indeed not instigate experience, though we can create an environment which could induce experiences. We could design with cliffs and gorges to be sure people experience something. We should however not strive for this, as it only reflects upon the exceptional experience.

In order to get a better understanding, mapping and analyzing experiences is one first step in the process. A landscape architect has to understand how certain experiences are shaped by the physical landscape (e.g. willow, water, walls), the social factors (e.g. control, crime, clutter) and the invisible landscape (e.g, history, happenings, hierarchy). Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa described this importance already for architecture (1996, p.11): “Architecture articulates the experience of being-in-the-world and strengthens our sense of reality and self.” We see a similar position for the landscape designer. To find this information a landscape architect needs to talk with people who use the landscape, understand how history shaped it but also interpret signs within the landscape itself.

We think the clue then lies in understanding the contrasts between different experiences and their origins. A better understanding of this allows the landscape designer to play with it. There can be played with elements like association and dissociation, clarity and discovery, familiarity and obscurity. Design that emphasises the juxtapositions that are already to be found in the area. By doing so, you can create an environment which is experientially balanced. No, we do not have direct control of the experience, but we can set several triggers for experiences. We can build the stage, what people experience there is beyond our control.

Fig. 3: Mapping experiences in the Atlas of Experience.

No theme park With the increase of focus on the experiences a landscape has to offer to people, experiences become more important. Spatial projects use the experiences they offer to legitimize their existence and experiences are used for the promotion of landscapes. People demand experiences at any location. As we are consuming our landscape, it is the task of the designer and planner to make the landscape experienceable and consumable, in such a way that it is sustainable. But even though we are consuming our landscape, it should not become a theme park where the focus only lies on the experience. The landscape is more complex, and therefore it is important that we understand how and when we can induce experience in the landscape.

According to TOPOS, aesthetics is now more and more becoming a field of interest, and the understanding of its relevance and usability in landscape design is growing. TOPOS therefore chooses this year to focus on the topic of contemporary landscape aesthetics. We will research the contemporary role that aesthetics and perception have in landscape architecture and planning. We have started the discussion of this topic with this article, and we are looking forward to the upcoming contributions.


Pallasmaa, J. (1996) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, London: Academy


Saito, Y. (2007) Everyday Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Westerman, F. (2013) Stikvallei, Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij.


Top: Lamson, W. (2011) Action for the Delaware (video online), available: [accessed 29 April 2014], video still.

Fig. 1: Burton Hamfelt (2014) Het voormalige Shellterrein verandert de komende jaren in een stedelijke woon- en werkwijk met culturele voorzieningen en horeca [image online], available: [accessed 25 April 2014], photo.

Fig. 2: Own collection.

Fig. 3: Swaaij, L. van, Klare, J. and Winner, D. (2000) The Atlas of Experience, Bloomsbury USA; Har/Map edition, illus.

mei 7, 2014

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