West 8 Airport Landscape: Schiphol

Published in SCENARIO 04: Building The Urban Forest
Spring 2014

An airport’s irregular distribution of open space and built-up areas; the variety in building sizes, shapes and architecture; the contrast in size of craft, equipment and vehicles and the multitude of activities and logistics of airport operations, require careful visual management to prevent the appearance of visual chaos.

The Schiphol Airport project is not about theory but about images. This absence of sound theoretical knowledge is perhaps indicative of a moment in landscape architecture history in the late 80’s/early 90’s. When West 8 was asked to take on the project, the question emerged of whether it was actually possible to ‘landscape’ an airport. In an environment that is so dynamic, there seemed to be nothing to design; no durable plan drawing to be delivered. The West 8 designers felt impotent. There were no precedents or examples; it had not been done before. This forced the team to start thinking in terms of a ‘menu’ rather than about a final design. A list was compiled of landscape elements which could be applied in certain locations under certain conditions. The objective was not to develop a lasting landscape rather, to address short term landscape aesthetics. The effectiveness of that menu became very much an eye opener and maybe it can now be considered theory in its own right.

Traveling is unpleasant and after 9/11 the experience became even more painful. For the privilege of air travel, we agree to spend long periods of time in lousy, dirty, smelly places, stranded without our family or friends in anonymous landscapes that hate people and constantly dehumanize the individual. For elderly people, these environments are particularly aggressive. This is just not OK. We are born as Homo sapiens, and it seems that it is only our natural talent of living in and navigating through the wilderness, which allows us to us survive and get through this ‘hell’.


The Growth of Schiphol Airport

This is the context in which West 8 commenced their work. Responding to an ever-increasing global demand for air travel, Schiphol Airport continued to grow. In two decades, Schiphol has since become the fourth busiest airport in Europe.

Considering that Holland is a rather small country, it is remarkable that it has such a large airport and exceptional connectivity, and West 8 is particularly fortunate to have been given the opportunity, as local landscape architects, to assist with the development of such a significant piece of public realm.

By the early 90s, Schiphol had transitioned surprisingly quickly from a small airport in an agricultural landscape setting – into a large airport, with terminals, piers, parking lots and business parks, and everything else. The climax of development activity occurred in the late 80’s, at the same moment that in Holland an environmental awareness had begun to flourish and complaints about air and noise pollution for nearby neighborhoods were front page news on a daily basis. This was exacerbated by a disaster which happened early one evening when a fuel laden freight plane on take-off crashed into a suburban apartment building, killing its crew and scores of local residents.

West8_Schiphol 01 Circa 1960

Schiphol Airport, circa 1960

Opposition against airport development was growing especially amongst the free spirited residents of Amsterdam who saw Schiphol as an ever increasing polluting and damaging cancer. Political campaigns became a national concern, as everyone also knew that if Schiphol failed to grow, the Dutch economy would falter and fall into ruins. The Dutch are principally traders and they need the means to do so. Schiphol management and its directors were increasingly forced to concentrate on public relations campaigns, promoting Schiphol as a quality place, creating feel-good imagery, and highlighting the airport’s responsibilities addressing environmental concerns.

As luck would have it, West 8 was offered an opportunity to work on a part of the Airport which was then under construction. In light of the airport’s budgetary constraints, it was initially intended as a small commission. As a first step, for about 2 or 3 days of work, we set out to analyze this 200,000ha study area – a vast, windy, concrete and tarmac-clad environment with parking lots and buildings of glass and steel, just the type of environment people hate.

It’s not that Schiphol was so bad. Such environments are common at airports, but it is bad that people are forced to deal with them. Airports are very complex places and due to ongoing economic changes and growth they are effectively a constantly changing building site. They are never finished; they are open ended with open edges, full of dirt and junk spaces. For the untrained eye it is difficult to even grasp what you see and visually they are often so complex that their appearance falls outside design ‘theory’.

West8_Visual Complexity

 The visual complexity of Schiphol 

The overall airport territory was completely fragmented an aggregation of plots and lots and medians and road verges. All these little bits together constitute a gigantic surface area which was essentially untreated. And then there were the construction sites. The airport seemed to be in a constant flux with building activity never completed, constantly changing to accommodate growth, new machines, new equipment, new techniques, and everything new. So to make sense of this chaos and as a means of organizing this mosaic of untreated bits of land, West 8 introduced a strategy, a menu, which was very clear, very simple and could be summarized on one poster.

West 8 pitched to Schiphol management, that they should get rid of all the patches of dirt, all the unnecessary tarmac, all the vacant gravel lots, the unused sidewalks, the maintenance intensive garden beds, half empty storage compounds, etc. Everything was to be taken away and all those vacant bits of land should be planted with trees. Young small trees, planted in masses, which were cheap, would be spread across the airport area like a veil. This approach had nothing to do with design, but focused on obscuring the airport’s infrastructural complexity.

West8_Scenario Green Airport, May 1992, 001

 Scenario for a green airport 

Rather than starting with an image, West 8 began by reconsidering the process by in which an airport landscape is designed and built. West 8 abandoned the notion that that there should be a project landscape architect which attends weekly meetings with the traffic authority, and the green department, and the commercial property developers, and the utility providers, to negotiate ideal streetscape designs. Instead the approach was that as soon as a site was cleaned up, became vacant, or was left abandoned, a bombardment of trees took place which required very little maintenance.

Through this simple provocation, the landscape area was vastly expanded, the landscape budget was more than halved, and there was no need for another coordination meeting. The bureaucratic site development approach of which landscape architecture had been integral part had suddenly become obsolete. The rationalization and the cost savings impressed the client greatly.

West8_Creating a Landscape Strategy

The airport strategy had four simple layers:

  • Runway verges: For those arriving at Schiphol, Holland’s green and tidy image needs to be confirmed. The green grassed verges are well maintained at all times.
  • Green route: Various airport services, facilities and centers, are positioned along a loop road. A uniform landscape treatment links and characterizes these auxiliary areas.
  • Infill planting: In amongst the airport buildings, facilities and services are many areas of open space and vacant land. All those areas, without an identifiable purpose, are planted with trees.
  • Visual access: The most impressive visual quality of an airport is the landing and take-off of planes. Coinciding with air-safety, visual corridors are kept open for people to enjoy.


The Right Tree

Special attention had to be paid to the selection of the tree species for the project. Species selection was conducted in collaboration with the Agricultural University Research Centre (Dorskamp). Schiphol Airport as a territory has numerous soil types ranging from coarse sand to heavy clay and peat. Due to extensive previous earthworks, soil storage, and infrastructure development soil types have become heavily disturbed and unevenly mixed across the site. There is the further complication that the airport is situated in a polder (the Haarlemmermeerpolder), which is up to five meters below sea level. The water tables – albeit diligently monitored and maintained – vary significantly across the site.

Additionally, any airport landscape design brief underscores that whatever landscape development is proposed, it is not acceptable to harbor birds. Schiphol is not different and demanded certification that proposed tree species would not attract or support any bird populations. Further, the site, especially along the exposed western edges, has high wind levels and any trees planted need to be able to withstand these harsh airport conditions.

As West 8 intended to plant many trees across the site, the species needed to be cheap and easy to propagate. Also, if the trees ended up in a wrong location and were obstructing new development or utilities, these trees should not impede work in any way. They should be easily removed and be cheaply replaced. And finally, the species selected needed to be clean, low maintenance and make minimal mess when dropping their foliage in autumn.

After considerable investigation, it turned out that Betula pubescens, the ‘Soft Birch’ or ‘European White Birch’ was the tree that ticked all the boxes and that is how the strategy unfolded and hundreds of thousands of these trees were planted all across the airport area. As a natural pioneer species the birches were hardy and adaptable to the numerous growing conditions that occur at Schiphol. As unlikely as it may sound there are no birds perching in these trees, ever. The exception of course confirms the rule: in the past twenty years there has been only a single pair of European magpies who, in 2006/07 had a nest two years running, but they have since moved on.

West8_betula hives

West 8 in the early 90’s also introduced the idea of promoting natural soil mitigation through the extensive seeding of clover, a commonly used agricultural practice in those days, in order to bring nutrients into the poor roadside soils. In the early years, as the clover colonized all the territories under the birch trees, it proved very effective at improving soils, showing remarkable results in just 2 to 3 years. By mowing just the road edges, the landscape always had a soft clean edge but under the trees the vegetation was kept more natural.

Additionally, it was also decided to place beehives along the roadsides to make an ecological statement. The grotesque, ever-expanding Schiphol Airport, flying more and more planes each year, could now also play the card that they were busy with ecology, on both a large and small scale.


Construction every day

Whenever building or construction or excavation work was being carried out and completed – something something which happens at Schiphol every year, every week, every day – new trees were planted with a bang. With hundreds, sometimes thousands at the same time, it was a strategy that worked everywhere.

West8_Trees Planted_infrastructure prioritized

Normally in an urban situation, landscape cannot be treated this way. In a number of meetings it would be determined how an existing tree needs to be treated, or protected, or repotted, or possibly even, how the utility needs to be diverted around the tree. Not so at Schiphol Airport. Here the utilities are always number one. The airport is infrastructure. Landscape architects need not worry. After planting has been implemented, everything needs to be let go with an “everything is okay mentality”. Just as long as any damaged or removed planting is replanted in winter!

In the context of Dutch polder land, water management is a very precise exercise and with the growth of Schiphol, and inherent increase of runways, aprons and hard stand areas, storage of the peak run-off needed to be accommodated in the landscape. Several lakes and ponds were therefore incorporated in the terminal district. In that same area, with the introduction of more advanced communication techniques and new fiber-optic cabling, utilities were restructured and concentrated in one corridor. Because of these works, the birch planting and re-planting was carried out three times. The planting here is now in its third life.

West8_Overpass birch trees

Traffic and parking became so dominant that a multi-pronged approach to deal with the visual impact was needed. Across the airport, views towards large parking lots are screened with the trees. At a more local level, mounds were shaped around the parking areas with recycled soil to hide the cars. Where there was not enough room for such mounds, hedges were planted.

For new car park development the idea was introduced of concentration and dedication, using optimally utilitarian parking – by means of ‘off the shelf’ concrete parking garage solutions – while still achieving a high degree of daylight penetration by the incorporation of courtyard areas. Of course, birch trees were also placed within the courtyards and surrounding the parking structures. So even looking out from the parking building you see the trees that provide vistas, express the seasons and filter the daylight. There is only one repertoire – that of birch trees.

West8_aerial with birch trees

In time the result became more and more interesting, as long as the tree planting practice was kept up. In first 6 years hundreds of thousands of trees were installed. The strategy works both in central district environments with offices and business parks, as well as in the large territories at the airport periphery. In central areas the emphasis was more on pushing back the ‘static’, the visual complexity which is so typical for airports. On the larger parcels at the Airport fringes the trees stretches out for miles and because of its simplicity became an extraordinarily beautiful landscape. Birch trees are quite delicate in appearance and in their masses their fine and transparent texture appear as a veil over the landscape enveloping the business parks and cargo districts. The trees bring harmony and identity and their seasonality is wonderful.

So the diligent planting of trees and treating every spare, unused bit of airport surface with grass is now a 20 years strategy. West 8 is still commissioned on an ongoing basis to advise on landscape matters but essentially the project and the ever-changing landscape look after themselves.

West8_Schiphol airport_aerial lg



To avoid a notion of over-simplification, a number of other interventions were applied. The idea was introduced that visitors arriving at Schiphol should have an intense first impression, a clear sense of arrival in Holland, the country of flowers.

At every front door of all the terminal and key airport buildings flowers of the best (Dutch) quality were placed. Commercial signage was pushed to one side of the main plaza to make one large display of a multitude of billboards and a space was cleared where people could escape the busy terminal, sit down and relax. In this space, the primary seating is the edges of large bowls with flowers. Here you literally sit in the flowers, you can touch the flowers. For these flowers Schiphol pays annually 1,000 euros per bowl. They are planted with 5 or 6 different species throughout the seasons. The quality is superb. The concept plays shamelessly with identity, with what is quintessentially Holland, but people love it. It emphasizes the notion of being outside the terminal, it provides a very attractive social ambiance and the flowers can be photographed the whole year through.


Finally, in the busy central terminal district, as the airport terminal building was renovated, a sedum roof was introduced, which in those days, was a new phenomena. The approach fitted Schiphol. Again there was no undue reliance on ‘landscape’ design. The green roof brought visual relief and was attractive because of its simplicity.

West8_entrance pictures

Entrance in the mid 80’s (expansion under construction) [left]
Arrival Hall with the large sedum roof [right]

For about ten years West 8 had only occasional involvement at Schiphol Airport. The planting strategy, without West 8’s attention, became extraordinarily successful and was proving to be self-sustaining. Unfortunately in the following decade we saw a trend of intensification of commercial use both inside and outside the terminal buildings. The plaza which was once cleared of all commercial signage to provide relief and relaxation is increasingly abused by commerce. The airport receives generous payments for such ‘pop-ups’, displays and marketing activities but this is not the intent of West 8’s approach.

In recent times, West 8 has again become more actively involved in the landscape and public realm development of the airport. As time had passed, work practices were changing and some people ‘in the know’ had moved on. The shared understanding of the strategy had faded somewhat and West 8 was asked to evaluate the actual landscape as it has established and to reassess and reinvigorate the strategy. One of the successful and much appreciated actions in this respect was a photographic record that was taken of all key areas. On the photographs was marked-up how items and issues could be addressed and improved.

West8_Photographic record

 Photographic record

By these simple means West 8 could for example easily explain that by adding a few trees the visual aggression of infrastructure could be taken away. A comprehensive set of images was produced which provided clear guidance. Unfortunately works at the airport are increasingly carried out by sub-contractors and such images were not adequate to quantify and assess contractual performance. An engineering firm, hired by Schiphol, converted the images into working documents, which goes against our idea of not having documents. New people in Schiphol management cannot cope with design intent alone and have started to document ‘things’ again.

As the airport has come of age, the urban structure of office precincts has become established and decisions can now be made about permanency including selection of trees and ‘hard landscape’ elements that will now be considered permanent. The landscape and public realm evaluation at Schiphol also brought to light that coordination of work across the airport had grown difficult and over time the clarity of the project had devolved. The photo record, presented to Schiphol management took many by surprise. In response, West 8 was asked to produce a design manual that provided comprehensive, fully coordinated guidance in respect to the recommended material selection throughout the entire Schiphol territory – pulling the project back into a cohesive whole.

Another, more striking occurrence that pointed out the danger of design without coordination, threatened not only the image of the airport landscape, but also cost the airport a great number of trees in exchange for advertising.


Infrastructural development without meetings: The danger

Slowly but surely, over the last 20 years, the number of large pillars with commercial signage at Schiphol Airport has gradually increased. There is a special division at Schiphol who leases out advertising space and the associated contracts are worth significant amounts of money. And of course, in order for the signs to be most effective, they must be seen.

Between the commercial and legal department it was agreed that the advertising contracts would provide for 100% visibility and without consultation, a landscape contractor was called in to chop off all birch trees within the billboards’ sightlines. Not just a few trees, but tens of thousands of mature birches, comprising several kilometers of planting screen were removed – actively reversing twenty years of growth and landscape development.

West8_birch trees cut

March 2013, trees chopped off at knee height [left]
Stumps were inter-planted with new stock [right]

West8_advertising positioning and softening

Analysis of positioning & visibility from A4 freeway [left]
Trees soften advertising without obstructing visibility [right]

Airport management, au fait with the original landscape design intent, was rather displeased. This action was in stark contrast with Schiphol’s original approach as a contributor to ecological development. It was ordered that the clear felled areas were replanted immediately. Considering the value of the advertising revenue, there were no significant budgetary constraints but availability of so many Betula pubescens at short notice was a problem. So it was therefore recommended to leave the tree stumps, hoping that they may sprout again, even though these remnants of the devastation were rather confrontational.

West8_trees chopped to eye level Trees chopped off at eye-level sprouted again


Airport – Forest

The most recent development in the long progression of the Schiphol landscape occurred just 2 years ago, when West 8 was speaking about airport management with individuals from the Amsterdam Municipal Authority, who are responsible for the management and development of ‘Het Amsterdamse Bos’, a very successful park from the 1930’s. We asked why the park had not ‘jumped’ over the canal, which surrounds the Haarlemmermeerpolder, the polder in which Schiphol is situated. Would it not be possible to link Schiphol Airport’s green territories with Het Amsterdamse Bos? They too found this to be an interesting provocation. So a drawing was produced, in which the Amsterdamse Zuid-as, with the financial district to the right and Schiphol Airport at the left, become linked. By simply constructing a few bridges and laying out a bicycle loop road connecting people who live and work in these neighborhoods, we could produce a seamless recreational zone without segregation, between the airport landscape, the traditional polder landscape, canals and the Amsterdam forest. At last Schiphol’s landscape strategy can be seen as more than a way to fill dysfunctional space. Through an extension of Het Amsterdamse Bos, the airport landscape is recognized for its role in providing a critical mass of trees and vegetation, and even some ecological potential. Of course there is no money for the bridges yet but that will come. One day.

West8_aerial and plan drawing 2014

Het Amsterdamse Bos


Adriaan GeuzeAdriaan Geuze founded West 8 urban design & landscape architecture, a leading urban design practice in Rotterdam in 1987. Geuze received a Masters degree in Landscape Architecture from the Agricultural University of Wageningen. After winning the prestigious Prix-de-Rome award in 1990, Geuze, with his office West 8, established an international reputation with his unique approach to planning and design of the public environment. By founding the SLA Foundation (Surrealistic Landscape Architecture) in 1992, Geuze increased public awareness of his profession. Adriaan Geuze and Edzo Bindels brought West 8 to the frontline of international urban design and landscape architecture. West 8 developed a technique of relating contemporary culture, urban identity, architecture, public space and engineering within one design, while always taking the context into account. Geuze frequently lectures and teaches at universities worldwide. With West 8, Adriaan Geuze has been honoured with the success of winning various international design competitions such as Governors Island in New York, Playa de Palma in Mallorca, Toronto’s New Central Waterfront design in Canada, Yongsan Park in Seoul and most recently the Ontario Place Park and Trail project.

Maarten_BuijsMaarten Buijs has been with West 8 since 2007 as Senior Project Manager. After completing his Master in Landscape Architecture at the Agricultural University of Wageningen in 1988, Maarten gained a large part of his professional experience internationally, especially in Australia, where he worked in Melbourne (1988) and Cairns (1993). His expertise encompasses a particularly broad range of landscape architecture, planning and urban design skills. His specific fields of expertise include, amongst many others, landscape master planning, visual analysis, concept design and construction detailing. Maarten’s work with West 8 has focused on projects in the UK. His role as project director for the concept design stages for Stratford Town Centre and London Olympic Village, the design and implementation stages of Jubilee Gardens, and the design for Elizabeth House (Waterloo Station) and the former Commonwealth Institute/British Design Museum site. Maarten has also been involved in projects in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.