With the blossoming of so-called environmental design or environmental art in the 1970s, the socialization of the visual arts in the Netherlands reached a climax. Artists responded to a general demand for a corrective to the practice of architects and urbanists who, swept along by the modernization of the construction industry and the scaling up of design commissions in the 1960s, were held responsible for creating an inhospitable and unlivable urban space. In a special issue on environmental art in 1971, the magazine Plan focused on ‘environment formation’, a clear indication of which particular responsibilities architects and urbanists were supposed to have neglected.1 The increased scale of building volumes, so the complaint against the designers went, had not been accompanied by a corresponding concern for the fact that large building complexes automatically create and dominate their own environment.
Berend Hendriks and Peter Struycken, jointly appointed to head the Department of Monumental Art at the Arnhem Academy of Art in 1966, quickly emerged as the ideologists of environmental art. The new approach as taught in Arnhem met with such an enthusiastic response outside the academy that many a newly graduated young artist was able to launch straight into a practical assignment.2
Environmental art’s core agenda ultimately amounted to counteracting the alienation people experience vis à vis their environment by creating more variation and more coherence and thereby increasing the opportunities for orientation and identification. Struycken acknowledged the impossibility of simply reproducing the visual complexity of the old urban fabric in modern housing estates; it was therefore up to the designers to ‘provide artificially’ the complexity and variation ‘that had previously come about organically’.3 This called for an inter-disciplinary approach. Struycken advocated collaboration between ‘sociologists, demographers, psychologists, urban planners, architects, visual artists, musicians, scent and taste makers and technologists’ in order to cover the entire sensory spectrum.4 Environmental artists were even prepared to allow their professional autonomy to taken second place to the integration of visual art with architecture and urbanism, both at the design level and with respect to budgets, procedures and responsibilities.5 It was therefore considered essential to involve artists at an early stage in the planning of any new-build project.
Nowadays there seems to be no trace of appreciation left for the environmental art of the 1970s. Many of the often unemphatic traces left on the Dutch landscape by this episode from recent art history, have since been cleared away or spontaneously eroded. But the fact that environmental artists’ pursuit of integration can be seen in retrospect to have ended in failure is no reason for completely ignoring this interesting chapter from the history of art in the public realm. The fact that no one ever refers to it any more is all the more remarkable now that a renewed interest in such civic art among a younger generation of artists is accompanied by arguments and debates that are often a literal rehearsal of those advanced in support environmental art in the 1970s. In recent years, artists and other interested parties have even used the Arnhem School’s neo-monumental output of the 1980s as a bogey and a negative argument for (once again) advocating the integration of visual art with architecture and urban planning. As in the 1970s, there are renewed calls for interdisciplinary design teams in which the expertise of the visual arts is used not to hide the shortcomings of an architectural or urbanist design behind some festive art object, but rather to raise the quality of the design process itself. The idea is that instead of bringing the artist in at the last moment so as to use the government’s public art subsidy (1 or 1.5 per cent of total building costs) to add an artistic flourish to the project, he or she would be involved as early as possible. It is on this basis that art projects for new housing estates have been initiated in Kampen and The Hague for example.6
Strong political and institutional support for the deployment of art in the creation of a congenial social environment explains the swift (but short-lived) success enjoyed by environmental art in the 1970s. The fact that this success, manifested in a great many design commissions, was first and foremost a social success, does not mean that environmental art was able to realize many of its artistic objectives. Artistic success was confined to one or two individual projects and even then it usually proved to be of short duration.
One important gain was that artists succeeded in appropriating at least one piece of undeveloped territory for themselves: squares and other urban outdoor areas were discovered as autonomous design units and brought into cultivation.7 As it turned out, commissions to design squares offered the best opportunity for achieving a satisfactory form of integrated environmental art. As long as the lure of government subsidy kept the practice of granting commissions for art in the public realm firmly tied to new-build projects, laying claim to the open space between buildings was the most logical solution for artists whose ambitions went beyond mere facade decoration.
But the ambitions of environmental artists went even further than this. The desired integration of art and urban planning required, in the case of plans for a new housing estate for example, that the artist be able to function as a full-fledged member of the design team. For this, too, there was bureaucratic and political support. The then Ministry of Culture, Recreation and Social Affairs subsidized a major pilot project in the Utrecht suburb of Lunetten (1974-1984). The government subsidy was conditional on a detailed retrospective evaluation. Given the enormous interests at stake, it is quite remarkable that this project, involving for the main part environmental artists from Arnhem working under conditions that can only be described as ideal, should have failed. Which is why the reasons for that failure may still be relevant today, twenty years after the event.
For the construction of Lunetten, a brand new suburb on the outskirts of Utrecht, two environmental artists, Wim Korvinus and Marcel van Vuuren, were appointed to coordinate the artistic contribution; they were also given a place on the design team. The coordinators’ task consisted in first instance of drawing up a masterplan: an overarching conceptual structure for the various art commissions correlated with the urban design ‘underpinning’. The objectives, frames of reference and locations indicated in the masterplan were to provide the basis for selecting artists for the individual assignments. The two coordinators kept their own hands free so as to be able to monitor the quality and coherence of the art projects and to act as intermediaries with the other design disciplines. In addition, they were to be directly involved in the urban design plan. The appointment of the coordinators was financed by the ministry for four successive years (1977-1980) so leaving the actual art budget to be spent on the art projects themselves.8
The Lunetten development plan, which was based on an urban design plan that had been worked on in phases since 1962,9 was completed and approved by Utrecht city council in 1974. So when Korvinus and Van Vuuren commenced work in 1977 it was already a bit late in the day for substantial interventions in the structure of the suburb. On the other hand, the Lunetten plan was broadly in accordance with the ideas of the environment artists. Lunetten is typical of the new suburbs built in the 1970s in response to public disquiet about life in the post-war ‘concrete jungles’. It was conceived as a small-scale social environment with plenty of ‘orientation’ and ‘identification’ opportunities for the residents. Located on the southern flank of the city between several national highways and the railway line to ‘s Hertogenbosch, the suburb was designed as a loose collection of ‘hamlets’, each with its own architectural elaboration and a wide variety of dwelling and access types, with low-rise predominating.
In establishing the identity of the suburb, the planners consciously sought to link up with pre-existing spatial elements in the rural landscape: narrow country lanes, dikes, watercourses and rows of trees. These age-old features were as far as possible left intact and incorporated into the spatial structure of the new suburb. They were also used as a thematic model for certain spatial planning types, such as avenues, lanes and waterways.10 The result is a residential environment with a lot of wet and dry island formation; a succession of ‘home zones’ where the gardens border drainage ditches lined with pollard willows.
All incoming and outgoing traffic is channelled via a loop-shaped access road. Interestingly, the schools, shopping centre, public library, police station and other general amenities are not located along this main artery but at the heart of the suburb (which is encircled by the loop) at the intersection of two cross axes – axes that are only through roads for cyclists and pedestrians. In the heart of Lunetten, in other words, lies a concentration of amenities in an intimate, winding and small-scale urban fabric.
An old country lane, which ran from the dike in the south to the fort in the north, was retained as the route of one of the aforementioned axes, in particular as it turned out to be exactly in line with the cathedral spire in the city centre and therefore offered the possibility of visual orientation.11 The second axis runs from Lunetten railway station in the east to the entrance to the suburb in the west. In their masterplan, Korvinus and Van Vuuren drew attention to the fact that this route too was oriented on a church tower, namely that of the Immanuel church in the neighbouring suburb of Hoograven – a tower crowned with an outsized neon cross.12 Standing at the intersection of the two axes in the heart of Lunetten, citizens received spiritual support from two directions in the form of church towers rising above the surrounding landscape.
The fact that Korvinus and Van Vuuren deliberately recommended this opportunity for visual orientation to the artists commissioned to produce the environmental design for the centre location demonstrates what the coordinators saw as their own task: ‘To explore the visual qualities and objectives of the urban design concept and, where they exist, to watch over and reinforce these qualities.’13 From this flowed the main programme points of their masterplan: to enhance the experiential value of the residential environment, to strengthen local identity and to promote awareness of the original natural environment. On the other hand they were also concerned about the incorporation of artistic positions based on an autonomous structure for the art projects. It was for this reason that they rejected the residents’ request that a separate artwork be made for each of the ‘hamlets’.14
Visual art’s contribution to the unduly differentiated Lunetten environment was therefore to consist of the creation of ‘authentic places’. With this the coordinators believed that they would be treading an alternative third path between decorative art on the one hand and autonomous object on the other. Accordingly, they claimed for art a role as planning’s cultural conscience. After all, planning, which was under constant pressure to solve all kinds of social problems, could only too easily lose sight of its cultural task: to transcend the purely functional in the creation of place. It would be up to art to keep reminding planning of this cultural mission.13
According to the masterplan, the artists responsible for the individual projects were required, within the limits of their particular assignment, to involve elements from the local situation in their design while at the same time visualizing their own conception. The task of creating an authentic place was explained in more detail for each of the six individual commissions based on the spatial and urban design characteristics of the location in question. Artists were variously required to provide visual reinforcement of pre-existing qualities, to mark the road giving access to the suburb, to bring variety to an over-long cross axis, to increase the spatial coherence at crucial points or ‘explore, from a specifically visual point of view, people’s perception of the landscape and to alter the significance of this’.16 [reinterpret the perception of the landscape from an artistic point of view.]
Most of the modifications to the urban design plan suggested by Korvinus and Van Vuuren with a view to strengthening the experiential value were rejected on business or technical grounds (too expensive, impracticable, unnecessary). In retrospect it was obvious that their position as artists in the design team had been inadequately defined. Because of the obscure status of their urbanist contribution, everything depended on their willingness and ability to negotiate and persuade. Despite the duo’s highly ambitious agenda and their immense commitment, in practice they were obliged to concentrate on the concrete art projects in the suburb.17
Another important conclusion of the evaluation carried out in 1982, was that the masterplan had failed as instrument. For a variety of reasons, the conceptual and visual connection between the different art projects was lost. For example, the participating artists were constantly having to react to changes in the development plan. The six individual commissions were not issued in one go but spread out over several years with the result that each project developed independently of the others. The expectation that this staggered realization would allow the artist contingent to profit financially and technically from the building activities turned out in practice to require too great a capacity for improvisation from the coordinators and the artists.18
The fact of the matter was and is that the design and production of visual art has little or nothing in common with that of architecture and town planning. Compared with the industrial norms obtaining in the construction industry, visual art is extremely inefficient in terms of the ratio of input to output per production unit. Even environmental artists, with their contextual approach, were unable and unwilling to resort to standard solutions; the customized work they favoured accordingly entailed an even greater degree of unpredictability. As the flexibility of the municipal agencies involved declined, and the cost of any additional work had to be passed on, the cherished integration process became even more enmired. ‘In effect the Agencies worked on the basis of a settled and known procedure. Art was welcome to take part in this provided people came up with realistic proposals at the right moment.’19
Realistic or not, twenty years after the completion of the first artwork and fifteen years after the completion of the last, the fruits of a visit to Lunetten are remarkably meagre. It turns out that the so-called tent tower by Cornelius Rogges, erected to mark the entrance to the suburb, was demolished in 1995 because of rusting welds and the danger of collapse.20 The dead-end acoustic tunnel in the noise barrier along the A12, designed by Kees Wevers, is now a permanently filthy robbers’ den. Alterations to the development plan resulted in the designs by Marian van Lookeren Campagne and Henk Lampe being executed in a severely reduced decorative variant which has no impact whatsoever on its surroundings. Only the projects by Bas Maters (1977-1982) and the two-man team of Koos Flinterman and Jan van Wijk (1978-1982) still bear any sort of witness to the original pretensions of environmental art. Maters’s work, a stylized stone glacier landscape at the point where several cycle paths, a canal and a schoolyard converge, still functions as a play area for the school’s pupils. Yet even this work is no more than a sculptural incident strictly related to its own location; as an urbanist intervention it remains an anecdote.
Although the project by Flinterman and Van Wijk is probably less successful as a piece of art than that by Maters – at least when measured by the classical criteria of spatiality and plasticity – it is the purest demonstration of the hybrid nature of environmental art. The work embodies a typical paradox: how seemingly pointless and arbitrary design incidents can constitute the core of an ambitious ‘total approach’. In retrospect, this work signals the moment when environmental art discovers that it has for years been busy carving the date on its own gravestone.
The location is the shopping centre at the heart of Lunetten, close to the intersection of the two cross axes. In concrete terms the artwork consists of four geometrical shapes on either side of the canal, plus an interruption and displacement of the embankment. On the shopping plaza stands a triangular frame, placed in symmetrical opposition to an identical shape in the paving. On the edge of the embankment a triangular block of concrete has used one of its points to bore itself into the ground while on the opposite embankment a huge rectangular plane of coloured concrete (later asphalted over) has been laid at an angle in the road surface, partly overhanging the water.
Any interpretation of this environmental artwork inevitably entails a cultural diagnosis. Flinterman and Van Wijk’s project can been seen as a deliberate, even somewhat vicious fragmentation of the geometrical vocabulary of forms employed by the modern building industry. By way of compensating residents for the diversity that standardized housing production is supposed to have robbed them of, the artists broke up the stereotypical concrete and steel skeleton, only to re-erect the fragments in the heart of the new suburb or in other words ‘give them back’ to the residents. The negative experiential value of the modernist idiom was as it were dramatized and thereby neutralized.
On the other hand, the spatial typology of this part of the suburb already had quite explicit historical, pre-modern references. The zone is modelled on a curved mediaeval town canal with narrow bridges and embankments. At first sight Flinterman and Van Wjk’s environmental artwork – having dropped from the sky like a fragmentation bomb – seems to oppose the authenticity of the historicizing typology, but on further consideration it is clear that it actually helps to transform it into a ‘contemporary’ streetscape and a consciously artificial landscape that signals a determination to resolve the polarized conflict between the historic town centre and the modern outer suburb once and for all in an atmosphere of synthetic authenticity.
The artwork’s contribution to that resolution consists not in overwriting the ‘inhuman’ idiom of the modern building industry with nostalgic ornaments but in turning it inwards for its own good, as it were. The artwork also professes to broaden the functionality of the social environment into a comprehensive support for human vitality. That support is by no means passive, though: there is a suggestion of a desire to control run amok, clear evidence that at that moment, in the late 1970s, environmental art had reached a terminal phase in its development. The excess of triangular forms creates an odd sense of restlessness because each triangle points in a different direction. The triangular silhouette of Cornelius Rogge’s ‘tent tower’ in the prolongation of the canal carried this control a little further and in so doing indicated the ultimate orientation point: the luminous cross of the Immanuel Church in the distance.
The time that has elapsed since then makes it possible to recognize a crucial fact: environmental art was pre-eminently the art of the welfare state. Its heyday coincided with the high point of the Dutch welfare state in the first half of the 1970s. The environmental artists were ideologically committed to the collective sector, whose size, which had just reached a historic maximum, was not yet the subject of debate. It was surely no accident that their work was mainly associated with schools, ministries, hospitals, taxation offices, public utilities, town halls and universities – all buildings that epitomize the collective sector and in particular represent the many-tentacled network of the welfare state.
The lofty social ambitions these artists harboured with respect to the quality of life of the built environment were very speedily taken on board by various government authorities. The fact was that the environmental artists’ ambitions accorded perfectly with the general aims of official Dutch policy on art, which in the period between 1965 and 1983 coincided fully with welfare policy.21 Although much of the later criticism of the artistic achievements of environmental art is justified, no serious evaluation can dismiss its ideological alliance with the welfare state as an irrelevance. The environmental artist can in some sense be seen as an instrument that Dutch society made use of to fill a particular gap. In a nutshell the programme of the welfare state boils down to mitigating and alleviating the negative effects on society of the capitalist system; to adjusting a modernization process perceived as blind. In the face of progressive secularization this programme acquired something of the character of a philosophical surrogate. The short-lived success of environmental art was determined by the extent to which it gave that ideological programme a concrete and expressive implementation. It was considered capable of translating important philosophical issues – questions of ‘orientation’ and ‘identification’ – to a spatial–formal level and of resolving them at that level.
Visual artists of a younger generation who started working in the public realm in the 1990s are, with their integrated approach, still unintentionally and unwittingly operating within the tradition of 1970s environmental art. Although the abstract-geometrical idiom of those days has been cast aside and traded in for ostensibly more topical genres, this renewal comprehends too little to be called a revolutionary breakthrough.
The problem is, however, that the ideology of the welfare state has been so thoroughly forced onto the defensive that it is no longer able to come up with arguments in support of art projects in the public realm. The backing art projects once received from the public sector has disappeared. After fifteen years of full or partial privatization and ‘market-oriented’ policy adjustments, the various government authorities (the major commissioning bodies in this field) can no longer simply refer to some public cause that would be well served by ground-breaking art projects in the public realm. While the vetting of the new policy criterion for autonomous art production – quality – has been delegated to expert advisers who know what they are about, it has become much more difficult to justify projects in the public realm in the absence of external or social arguments. The result is that artists are still, just as in Lunetten, being saddled with the task of ‘particularizing’ certain areas of the public realm; of endowing a place with a special identity that people can recognize and respond to. This is an empty relic of an outdated welfare philosophy. Paradoxically, this erosion of the public interest contributes to the manifest lack of collective identity that is a recurrent motive for commissioning artists to produce an artwork for the public realm.
6. See e.g.: Raoul Bunschoten et. al., De Maten, postcode 8265, Kampen. Cultuurplan voor een nieuwe wijk, Bussum (Thoth) 1996; Marieke van Giersbergen, ‘Wateringse Veld. Stroom draws up art plan for Vinex area’, Archis no. 9, 1996, pp. 6-7.
7. Cf. Cees de Boer, ‘Vormgeving van het engagement’, op. cit., p. 66.
20. Rob Birza designed a new work for this location in 1998.
21. See the ministerial Discussienota Kunstbeleid (1972) and the subsequent Nota Kunst en Kunstbeleid (1976) in which ‘social relevance’ was identified as the main policy criterion, further elaborated in terms like democratization, distribution and participation. See also Warna Oosterbaan-Martinius, Schoonheid, welzijn, kwaliteit. Kunstbeleid en verantwoording na 1945, The Hague (Gary Schwartz/SDU) 1990), pp. 68-72.