Infrastructure Adrift: West 8’s Shells

Published in Scenario 01: Landscape Urbanism
Fall 2011

Image courtesy of West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

The Design

Photographs of West 8’s installation along the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier in the Netherlands show a field of broad, high-contrast stripes, carefully composed of blue-black mussel and cream-colored cockle shells. A more recent look at the site shows a starker, but equally rich landscape.

Image courtesy of West 8 urban design & landscape architecture. 

The Dutch State Department for Roads and Waterways (Rijkwaterstaat) commissioned West 8 to create the design along a highway crossing Roggenplaat, one of several artificial islands used to construct the storm surge barrier. The Rotterdam-based landscape architecture firm shaped the island’s sand deposits into dunes and installed the shells. These plateaus were meant to work across scales and functions, providing habitat for sea birds with a pattern bold enough to impress passing drivers. Shortly after the project’s completion in a lecture he gave in 1995, West 8’s founding principal, Adriaan Geuze, listed the project’s “basic ingredients” as “ecology, infrastructure, weather conditions, building programs and people.” (note 1)

Image courtesy of West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

Geuze emphasized the performative aspect of the landscape, maintaining that birds would self-segregate according to the shell pattern—dark birds attracted to dark shells and light birds to light shells—so that “When driving over or through those plateaus, you are facing a rhythm of black and white shells and black and white birds.” (note 2)

The design—termed the “Shell Project” by Charles Waldheim (note 3)—prioritizes perception, but is now imperceptible or, as a West 8 employee put it, “no longer recognizable.” The employee speculated: “It appears to be [un]done by human hands,” at least, “a couple years” ago. (note 4) Perhaps. Alternatively, the tidal nature of the low-lying site caused its disappearance. Unlike a dam, which creates a hard, fixed barricade against water pressure, a storm surge barrier allows tidal movement. Explanations aside, the patterns disintegrated and the project lost its corresponding ecological and visual impacts as the shells drifted away. Yet surprisingly, the project is cited as an example of landscape urbanism and the power of landscape to shape ecology and infrastructure, without acknowledgement of its fleeting existence. As Jimi Hendrix observed, “castles made of sand wash into the sea, eventually.”

 

The Search

I visited Roggenplaat last year out of interest in the landscape’s relationship to N57, the highway that crosses it. The highway extends forty-five miles along a man-made coastline of the southern province of Zeeland, crossing two major dams, as well as the barrier, atop the two longest sets of sluices in the world.

I drove and cycled across the barrier several times hoping to capture the driver’s view that I had seen in photographs. Failing to do so, I pulled over to explore the island on foot.


That vantage revealed a landscape similar to others along the barrier: concrete plateaus with riprap, loose stone piled at the water’s edge to mitigate erosion; or, in some areas, wide planes of stacked concrete modules. Despite the disappearance of the Shell Project and its sand dunes, birds touched down and weekenders lounged on the island’s hard surfaces. I was initially disappointed, having traveled so far to study the project. However, it later dawned on me that the project’s absence might be as significant to the dialogue of landscape urbanism as the design itself.

 

Flexible Infrastructure or Permanent Decoration

Landscape urbanists have praised the Shell Project for its integration of ecological and infrastructural programming, its manipulation of animal behavior, and its subversion of cultural expectations. In his influential essay, “Landscape Urbanism: A Genealogy,” Waldheim describes West 8’s work in general and the Shell Project specifically as “a practice of landscape urbanism in which the middle-scale of decorative or architectural work is abandoned in favor of the large-scale infrastructural diagram and the small-scale material condition.” (note 5) He goes on to evaluate the project’s refusal to “[camouflage]…ecological systems with pastoral images of nature that intend to provide stylistic and spatial exceptions to the gridded urban fabric” and contrasts the treatment of the road to that of other “urban parkways.” (note 6)

Indeed, with its hard geometry and angular planes, the design is anything but pastoral. However, the project is neither substantively infrastructural, nor is it urban, located further from any gridded urban fabric than most places in the small, densely developed country. Waldheim wrote that essay not long after the project’s completion, but the work continues to be discussed without mention of its disappearance. (note 7)

Linda Pollak’s 2006 description of the project as an “infrastructural installation” (note 8 ) also fails to acknowledge its deterioration—likely underway, if not wholly gone—some ten years after completion. Instead, she ascribes the project’s insubstantiality to the birds. In Pollak’s view, the Shell Project “sustains a tension between dynamic ethereality and concrete presence,” attracting the “uncontainable nature” of migrating sea birds “into a field that they inhabit in a way that is unstable even as it reproduces the design.” (note 9) Pollak’s definition of “infrastructural” is unclear in this instance. Regardless of its intentions, the installation was temporary, more like land art or even West 8’s Cow Project than infrastructure, and has in fact proved more ethereal than the birds it sought to affect.

Image courtesy of West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

The installation was also—in contrast to Waldheim’s characterization—largely decorative, laid alongside rather than embedded within other layers of infrastructure and program. Geuze’s own description implicates its ornamental nature: the design aimed “to incorporate the awareness of [the interaction between infrastructure, people, and ecology] in a playful optimistic manner that stimulates the desire to take possession of space.” (note 10) While heightening sense of place and eco-literacy are important and commendable aspects of landscape architecture, playful stimulation does not imply the work or function of civil infrastructure.

Even if the design had lasted, it is not the Shell Project, but the storm surge barrier that reorders the relationship between ecology and infrastructure. (note 11) The barrier is a triumph of Dutch engineering and a crown jewel of the Deltawerken (Delta Works), a system of sixteen dams and dikes protecting the Dutch coastline from inundation. This particular section along the Eastern Scheldt or Oosterschelde coast was built in response to the catastrophic North Sea flood of 1953, which killed almost 2000 people. The storm surge barrier buttresses thick layers of infrastructure that sustain a programmatically diverse and ecologically dynamic landscape. Retaining tidal dynamics protects the estuarine ecology, as well as the commercial fishing economy.

Image courtesy of West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

The state began constructing islands, including Roggenplaat, in the late 1960s to support the construction of a standard dam that would enclose the Eastern Scheldt estuary. Completing the storm surge barrier at costs much higher than a dam left insufficient funds for dismantling the islands as planned and eventually led to their development as recreational and ecological assets and to West 8’s commission. Droves of cyclists, motorists, nature enthusiasts, and fishermen now enjoy the islands, the barrier, and the N57 roadway. A more surprising development along the barrier, and perhaps a glib example of landscape urbanism, occurred on the nearby island of Neeltje Jans, where a Delta Amusement Park features water slides, marine mammals, and Delta Works–themed exhibits on one side of the road and a wind farm park on the other.

The road’s latest renovation, begun in 2002 and ongoing, is one of seven pilot projects balancing transportation improvements with ecological principles. These “eco-compensation” initiatives call for the replacement at a one-to-one ratio of all habitat compromised during road realignments. The slogan, “New Road, New Nature,” (note 12) promotes these efforts. Among the “new Dutch nature” is Oosterschelde National Park, the largest nature reserve in the Netherlands and designated in May 2002. The park consists of a string of recreational areas created by the barrier. As the Netherlands consists largely of land willfully reclaimed from the sea, the country’s policies treasure its tenuously held terrain, designating nature areas even out of agricultural or urban landscapes without the irony and “scare quotes” that frame debates on nature, wilderness, and other culturally loaded terms in the United States. (note 13)

The contrast between the barrier’s austere utility and West 8’s erstwhile shell installation force us to confront challenges beyond the project’s early acclaims. The storm surge barrier—with its complex programmatic functions, sophisticated engineering, and costs—illustrates what landscape architects and urbanists face with ambitious infrastructural projects. Generally speaking, when infrastructure washes away unintentionally, it is considered a failure. The integration of infrastructural and public programming can impel social, ecological, and practical transformations. However, we must take on the seemingly contradictory synthesis of permanent armatures and dynamic cycles. We must modify our objectives against empirical evidence and clarify our intentions, lest the works of the landscape urbanist discussion become decorative and slip away unnoticed.


Laura Tepper spent part of 2010 exploring highway landscapes in Europe and North America as part of the Geraldine Scott Traveling Fellowship, awarded by UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. She holds master’s degrees in landscape architecture + environmental planning and city planning, and currently practices landscape design in San Francisco.

Image Credits: All photos by Laura Tepper unless otherwise noted. 


Note 1: Adriaan Geuze, “Black and White” (lecture presented at the Doors of Perception 3 Conference, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, November 1995).
Note 2: Ibid.
Note 3: Charles Waldheim, “Landscape Urbanism: A Genealogy,” Praxis 4 (2002): 16.
Note 4: Personal conversation, June 2010.
Note 5: Waldheim, “Landscape Urbanism: A Genealogy,” 15.
Note 6: Ibid., 16.
Note 7: Recently: Fred Truniger, “Rhythm as an approach to landscape experience.” ‘SCAPE 1 (2010): 29-33. This issue of ‘SCAPE focused on roads and landscapes.
Note 8: Linda Pollack, “Constructed Ground: Questions of Scale,” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader, ed. by Charles Waldheim. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 137.
Note 9: Ibid., 138.
Note 10: Geuze, “Black and White.” Italics added.
Note 11: Waldheim, “Landscape Urbanism: A Genealogy,” 15. Paraphrasing of Waldheim’s characterization of the project as “imaginatively reordering relationship between ecology and infrastructure.”
Note 12: R.J. Davidse Aarts, “Recognizability Of Rural Roads In The Netherlands,” in Swov Institute For Road Safety Research, Leidschendam. (The Netherlands: Association For European Transport And Contributors, 2007).
Note 13: Geuze, “Black and White.” Geuze explains: “I am Dutch, and thus was born in a country with a very special relationship with nature…. The knowledge that the contemporary landscape is, for the most part, artificial allows this office the freedom to respond by positing its own narrative spaces.”
Project Info:
1990-1992, Roggenplaat, Zeeland, Netherlands
Client: State Department for Roads and Waterways
Team: Adriaan Geuze, Dirry de Bruin, Erik Overdiep, Huub Juurlink, Paul van Beek
Sources:
Aarts, R.J. Davidse. “Recognizability Of Rural Roads In The Netherlands.” In Swov Institute For Road Safety Research, Leidschendam. The Netherlands: Association For European Transport And Contributors, 2007.
Geuze , Adriaan. “Black and White.” Lecture presented at the Doors of Perception 3 Conference. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, November 1995. Accessed July 21, 2011, http://www.vanriet.com/doors/doors3/transcripts/Geuze.html.
Pollack, Linda. “Constructed Ground: Questions of Scale.” In The Landscape Urbanism Reader, edited by Charles Waldheim, 125-140. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.
Truniger, Fred. “Rhythm as an approach to landscape experience.” ‘SCAPE 1 (2010): 29-33.
Waldheim, Charles. “Landscape Urbanism: A Genealogy.” Praxis 4. (2002): 10-17.
Waldheim, Charles. “Landscape as Urbanism.” In The Landscape Urbanism Reader, edited by Charles Waldheim, 45-54. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.
“Landscape Design Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier, 1990-1992, Zeeland, The Netherlands,” West 8, accessed June, 2011. http://www.west8.nl/projects/landscape/landscape_design_eastern_scheldt_storm_surge_barrier/.