Historically, design has offered the tools to dominate unpredictable nature and optimise natural potential – in the form of minerals and raw materials, processes, energy sources and food. Design, in other words, had to restore the ‘shortcomings’ of natural processes, organisms, products or environments, in the service of humanity.
However, success went hand in hand with failure. Every innovation turned out to be the source of a new ecological or social problem. With the panacea of DDT, lice, mosquitoes and other nuisance insects would soon be a thing of the past. Plus, an effective remedy had been found against the spread of diseases such as typhoid fever. While the children of post-war reconstruction happily played on the streets, and while the wheat grew tall and herds were grazing, tons of DDT were sprayed over the landscape. It didn’t take long before the unrivalled power of destruction became clear, and DDT was banned in large parts of the world. However, the damage had already been done, and the remaining barrels could still be used in countries with lax regulations.
For centuries, the garden has been the ultimate manifestation of a long-standing desire for control and optimization. From the medieval medicinal herb garden, to the baroque gardens of the Sun King, to contemporary testing grounds for genetically manipulated crops: there is always a goal behind the design. Nature is no longer the uncontrollable primal force it used to be. Climate change is proof that human action is the dominant force today, although it is hardly possible call it controlled.
Dissident Gardens questions the consequences of striving for optimal landscapes and a perfected nature during an ecological crisis. The black tulip, Dolly the sheep, the milk lake and the immeasurable, and almost dehumanized, rationalized greenhouse landscape: are they only the prelude to Elon Musk’s playground on Mars? Who and what will have access to that space garden? What will be its purpose and its outcome?
Although the knowledge of natural processes continues to grow, and life is now manageable up to the level of the gene, it is questionable whether this leads to increased control. Greater control is anyway accompanied by an increasing fear of the unforeseen. Nature has repeatedly escaped human control. Herman the bull may be the miraculous result of our technology and design power, yet many farmers are returning to natural insemination, because artificial insemination reduces fertility in the next generation. So what about this kind of dissent, especially in the design domain? How do we use design as a counterforce to a nature or culture?
Dissidence arose in the context of a dominant culture. The moment a political or intellectual regime firmly established itself, it called for counter movements. This also applied to our relationship to the farm landscape. When the typically small-scale farms of post-war Europe could no longer meet the growing demand for food, radical scaling up offered an alternative that turned landscapes and agrarian communities completely upside down. Eventually the increase in scale became a true doctrine, and in turn evoked counter reactions, and the call for ‘a small earth’ became ever stronger.
However, the traditional game of domination and counter movement seems to be changing, especially now that the dominance of humans has grown and nature has lost its voice of dissent. In design, the sensitivity to chance and the unpredictability of natural processes is increasing. Humans no longer necessarily have to dominate and control their natural environment. Cooperating with – rather than opposing – the complexity of nature appears to be a source of innovation. For example, the champions of the so-called ‘humus revolution’ argue for a worldwide production and use of humus, so that the excess of CO2 in the air can end up, via photosynthesis, where it is really needed: in the soil. Has the moment come when we recognize the dissidence of nature as the life force and source of potential par excellence?
The Designer as Farmer
Natural growth processes traditionally supply us with food and materials. Perfecting these processes has shaped our history. Varieties were bred with a view to an improved yield; the breeding of cattle aimed at animals that produced more and more milk or meat. And while those goals were being achieved, a hyper-rational meat industry emerged, that is now threatening to collapse under the excessive use of antibiotics - with all the social and health consequences that entails. Not to mention the pitiful economic conditions of the farmers who grow food for our meat industry in countries such as Brazil and Thailand. Or animal welfare, which has up until now been completely out of the picture. Is it not time to review concepts such as natural, optimization and growth, and to critically review our own actions as designers and consumers?
Human intervention is aimed, among other things, at increasing the resistance of species against disease and materials against decay. Fungi are perceived as enemies. Artificial additives such as lacquer and paint layers can, for example, protect wood against the process of rotting. That does not have to be the only response. Whereas the established design practice is based on the perfection of certain materials and processes, a new practice is emerging in which designers consider natural processes as a precondition for their work. And yes, they stimulate the growth of fungi. As farmers, they sow, care for and harvest their living materials. Their approach gives a totally different meaning to the concept of a cycle than that of the traditional industrial context. In doing so, they also introduce different ideas about production and consumption, and thus they ultimately produce an alternative to current economic systems.
The Great Outdoors
Turf cutting has radically changed the Dutch landscape since the Middle Ages. What are now seen as untouched moorlands and natural lakes are the direct results of an increasingly industrialized process of fuel extraction. Such environments later became home to the earliest holiday retreats: often simple, wooden houses with a view of the water that allowed the everyday noise and pollution of the city to be forgotten. The landscape functioned as an ideal image in contrast with the city.
Holiday parks grew out of clusters of houses, with the Sporthuis Centrum buildings designed by Jaap Bakema as a typical Dutch success story. Located in nature, but with organized entertainment and a colour TV at your fingertips. The formerly coveted natural world became an ideal setting for the city dweller.
Subsequently, the Netherlands has the largest density of holiday villages in the world. Not only the rural houses are designed, but the surrounding nature too is included in the design. Original streams and fens return; the natural process is allowed space once more. And right at the moment when this integral design has taken shape, the parks have long since ceased to be the reflection of a romantic ideal about the outdoors. Now, they often embody the shadow sides of the city. Refugees who cannot go anywhere find an anonymous shelter in them. Divorced parents are often dependent on a holiday home in order to avoid homelessness. Seasonal workers inhabit them as a shared temporary shelter.
The city and landscape are more and more merged with each other and, in the present-day holiday park, the changing ideas about city and landscape come together. If the holiday village has virtually become the city, what will happen to the city itself? What idea about nature will dominate, now that the contradiction between city and landscape has been all but eliminated?
The Imagination of the Netherlands
You could fill a library with fantasies about an idealized life on our planet. In his satire Utopia (published in 1516) Thomas More situated the ideal society on a fictional island. Residents escape the biggest ailments of More's time - such as abuse of power and corruption - all stemming from the private use of land. Four centuries later, the Russian revolution began with a realization of that ‘island’: a state of salvation where land would no longer be private property and where production became a collective responsibility. The young communist society celebrated the new alliance between production, ethics and beauty in numerous novels, plays, films and paintings - just as the Dutch masters of the Golden Age had done in their views of the landscape in the Low Countries. Beauty and productivity were still intertwined when Mesdag painted his Panorama of Scheveningen, and Mondrian his Windmill in the Gein.
Gradually, agricultural production was literally absorbed into the Dutch landscape and the desire for beauty as part of that same production disappeared. Agricultural processes mainly take place in hermetically isolated environments, without anyone being able to form a picture of them. The lack of imagination is an obstacle for consumers. In the debate on food safety, animal welfare and the agricultural ecosystem, invisibility is one of the main reasons why consumers can hardly identify with the real questions behind our food industry.
It is not for nothing that we fall back on the long-vanished dream image of rippling corn, an endless polder landscape and peasant women in traditional dress. Could designers once more play a role in making the contemporary landscape visible and, if so, could this lead to changed ideas about the meaning of natural, technological and ecological systems?
“Go West, young man”, was the slogan in the mid-19th century, when pioneers were invited to come to mine the unused but fertile prairie of the American West. Now, more than a century later, when earthly possibilities threaten to become exhausted, the promise of the universe still continues to spin. The new frontier now lies with the planet Mars, which is not only explored by established space organizations such as NASA, but also by Silicon Valley’s tech elite.
The designer in these explorations functions, as never before, as an imaginer of utopias. Scenarios in which the planet is made suitable for human presence are easier to visualize than to realize, but if the conversation about Martian terraformation can ever lead to a next step, the image of the dream will play an essential role.
Speculations about a possible colonization of the red planet are, remarkably, still fed by the same utopian approaches that we projected onto the earth until the 1960s - utopias that, for various reasons, did not last. Still, that doesn’t keep the would-be conquerors of Mars from looking for the ultimate solution in a completely designed transformation of an entire planet. Probably only to come to the realization that their imaginative projection on Mars is nothing more than a bygone dream about our Earth. Go home, you men!
For a long time the idea prevailed that the countryside was running out. The protection of undeveloped areas of the Netherlands was promoted to one of the most important urban design tasks. But while that realization grew, new industrial estates were still being built in all kinds of outlying areas: clusters of pizza boxes scattered over many square kilometres of scarce landscape - to the annoyance of nature conservationists, residents and the first Government Advisor for the landscape, Dirk Sijmons (2004-2008), who ensured that no room was available for such developments in the Hoeksche Waard.
The Dutch pavilion for the Hanover World Fair (2000), designed by MVRDV, was a lyrical plea for a vertically organized urban, technological, recreational and agricultural landscape. The stacking of landscapes, crowned with a landscape of windmills, once again demonstrated the importance of imaginative thinking. If this nation had been able to make land during its history, why would it now – helped by an evergrowing arsenal of resources, knowledge and expertise – be unable to realize a modern country? A country that, in the absence of surface, is looking for a vertical future?
How quickly can thinking change? With the emptying of the countryside, all attention is now focused on new ideas about urbanization. Although half of the population still lives outside the city, this group seems to have become uninteresting for policymakers. That part of the Netherlands is suddenly called empty, and the question is what role the human scale still plays in the current scenarios around these areas.
Emptiness creates the ideal condition for future energy landscapes. For mega farms and controlled horticulture, which until now has been concentrated in greenhouses. The height and design of these greenhouses were at least still attuned to the people who work there. In the automated landscape of modern horticulture, workers are no longer a factor, and the dimensions will be geared to optimization of a completely ‘human-free’ productivity.
A combination of technology and economies of scale is apparently the only answer that the world's fourth largest export nation can come up with for the growing demand for food. With its playful versatility and the linking of functions, the Hannover pavilion was an explicitly cultural answer to a future issue. It will take some much-needed imagination to provide the latest vertical food landscapes with a valid cultural alternative.
Gert Staal, March 2018