Wonen in het groen. Geschiedenis van een ideaal / Living in a green setting. The history of an ideal

It’s a fascinating photo, kept in the archives of the Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. Roel van Duijn, the activist, leaning against a Renault 4 topped by a roof garden. The caption ‘Kabouterstad’ (Gnome City) refers to 6 October 1969, the day on which Van Duijn joined the Amsterdam city council – the fourth member of the ‘provo party’ to do so. The photo was clearly taken in the courtyard of what was then the town hall of Amsterdam. In September that year Van Duijn was already preparing to join the city council when he launched his ‘Amsterdam – Gnome City’ utopia. It was an ideal, based on living in nature. He advocated creating allotment gardens and playgrounds, planting trees, turning wasteland into green space, and making roof gardens. Around the city, small farms could produce biodynamic food.

Such criticism of the modern, high-tech city was prompted less by urban design than by moral and aesthetic motives. If town and green space were interrelated, it would not only ‘restore biological equilibrium’, but generate greater harmony between culture and nature. Van Duijn wrote: ‘Amsterdam, let a green wave wash over your carbon monoxide-ridden streets. Let allotments blossom, turn your neglected canal-side gardens into public gardens for children, turn your flat roofs into the Hanging Gardens of Amsterdam. Plant trees, bushes and toadstools in your squares and streets, decorate the outside walls of your houses with ivy and flowers. A green revolution will decentralize the cities. In the new ‘culture-gnome’ city the neighbourhoods will be separated by allotment gardens and parks’.
Van Duijn’s vision may have been typical of the late sixties and the subsequent, burgeoning ecology movement, but in his attitude we can also detect traces of an age-long tradition of thinking about and yearning to live in a green setting.
You start off with the ideal. The juxtaposition of nature, representing what is original and good, and city and society, representing what is artificial and bad, is a cultural construction encountered in the West-European ethos since the 16th century. It stems from classical Roman literature and is a complex and paradox construct. The city-dweller has a primary interest in the political, economic and social life found in the public life of the city. The autonomy of nature is sacrificed for cultural dynamics and progress. At the same time, people need a private world, away from social demands. Seclusion is equated with green space and countryside which represent everything that is ‘unspoilt’ and salubrious.
This paradox has been extremely productive in the dialectics between city and green space, even extending to the ecology movement. Van Duijn’s Renault 4 (the personification of progress, carbon monoxide and all) plus roof garden (symbolizing regenerative nature) is a striking example. In the paradox process, architecture and housing have been selected as representing dynamics and change. Nature has been allotted the ‘eternal values’ of continuity and tradition. In the midst of so much change, we find peace in the certainty of nature’s cycles.

Beauty and happiness

Roel van Duijn’s criticism of the city was, of course, also a protest against the existing practices of the post-war reconstruction period’s urban monoculture, inspired as it was by technology. Living in rural surroundings, with nature and parks, was reduced to open-row housing and uniform strips of green space. Greenery was conceived as adding something to the city rather than being an independent, articulately designed spatial art or part of the urban syntax, with its own vocabulary and typology.
Van Duijn was not the first to present garden, countryside and farming as conditions for ‘green’ city living. He had recourse to examples from the early 20th century. The garden city had been invented in reply to speculative building and poor working-class housing. Anyone who is familiar with Bruinwold Riedel’s book Tuinsteden (1906), can interpret his plea for the garden city as part of a broad and internationally supported drive to ‘edify’ the population. He wanted space and happiness to be created in a new approach to urban planning, in which houses with gardens, boulevards, parks, woods and farms were to be conveyors of ‘beauty and happiness’. The architecture of the garden city was meant to adapt to the pastoral aspects of nature, by means of bay windows, canopies, window boxes, rural colour schemes and front and back gardens. Gardens for children and allotments were part of the offensive. This ‘rural living’ amounted to living and working with plant life by way of gardening. The idea was that this formula would be elevated internationally to a democratic living standard: living in green surroundings means freedom.
This was all part of a 19th-century edification ideal. Life in and with nature was to cure and elevate the city dweller. In the second half of the 19th century, the ‘Maatschappij tot het Nut van het Algemeen’ (Society for Public Welfare) recommended growing one’s own flowers and plants, as part of a popular education drive. Contact with nature was proposed as an uplifting activity, in the assumption and hope it would generate method, order, neatness and cleanliness, as well as patience, dedication, willpower, cheerfulness and friendliness. It was intended to make people susceptible to the good, clean and lovely things in life, which, in turn, would benefit urban life and the intimate family circle. That was why municipal and public parks were introduced in the 19th century. The landscape style, ensuring the creation of an illusion of countryside and nature, has invariably been reviled in the 20th century as boring, passive, ‘spectator’ nature. But for the 19th-century population, the municipal park was a vital and active part of modern city life. It took the form of a park in which to walk, a zoological garden, cemetery or park beside a public building, offering countless possibilities for learning and leisure. Later in the 19th century the character-building function performed by nature, in parks, garden villages and garden allotments, passed on to nature education, amateur botany, nature walks, cycling or camping. In this way, outdoor recreation could continue to have its morally restorative effect on the city-dweller. Functionalism translated that salubrious occupation into sports and physical exercise. Nowadays these activities have progressed to visits to Center Parks, hikes in Peru or canyoning in Switzerland. Nature, for everyone, is still a backcloth for urban projections, a domain of adventure and freedom, which is adjusted to our conception and expectation, if necessary. How else can you explain the plastic palm trees on Noordwijk beach?
This democratic ideal of nature, and particularly the garden village and allotment, is the origin of the average contemporary Dutchman’s dream. The possession of a house with a garden, whatever kind it may be, represents for him a condition for personal fulfilment. The Dutch population is willing to pay 3.1 billion guilders a year, according to recent estimates, to concretize this ideal of a happy gardening life in urban surroundings. Green space would seem to function increasingly as an antidote to the ever-existing, wholesale uniformity of housing districts, even though the commercial market has succeeded in turning the green culture of the garden itself into something indifferent and uniform. But the illusion of an individual, green environment is undoubtedly stronger than its commercial origins. Recently the argument was put forward in an academic thesis that the size of the garden plot was inversely proportional to the distance of the annual holiday destination.
The need to have green surroundings is reflected elsewhere in the Netherlands, in new neighbourhoods whose romantic character harks back to the idea of the garden village. Evidently that typology is still felt to be of value. In this case, the house and concomitant greenery are intended to radiate tradition and security. A democratic ideal has become conservatism, for want of new ideas on the relationship between green space and architecture. The development of urban gardening in such American cities as Philadelphia, New York, Boston and San Francisco, is a different matter. The creation of a better ‘green’ habitat for the poorest in society, by means of simple gardens and parks, is still in the European allotment garden tradition of ‘edifying the people’. Accordingly, and with good reason, some of these green enclaves, reclaimed from road and pavement, bear the name ‘nueva esperanza’ or ‘new hope’.

The rich life in the country

Life in a green setting is not only linked with idealism, but also with status and money. In their numerous brochures, estate agents and property developers invariably package the possession of a villa, apartment or terraced house in an illusion of green space. Housing and apartment complexes, with names like Aurora, the Meadows or Riverside, are set among gardens and trees, and extolled as the rich life in the country. The greenery is by no means a fact, never mind botanically correct, but has to meet only one condition: to help to sell the building in question. The tradition dates back to the first commercial residential estates of the late-19th century, which were promoted with attractive pictures. They were built on former country estates and still had an aristocratic air of noble or patrician provenance, albeit on a bourgeois scale. This bourgeois dream of an aristocratic castle, translated into an out-of-town villa plus garden, was widespread in the 19th century (and still represents what is most desirable in property terms today). House prices in areas like Bloemendaal, Santpoort, Aerdenhout or Velp and Paterswolde reflect this well. And if you can’t afford a villa, you must have a detached single family house with its own plot and a view.
Villas of the 19th and 20th centuries, as the successors of the older country house, best illustrate the paradox of living in a green setting. They are the result of a dual ideal, based since antiquity on the complex relationship between culture and nature. Ideally, the villa should be far away, yet accessible, give a feeling of security, yet be visible too. Its self-awareness requires that the villa be recognized from a distance, but it also wishes to reveal the scenic panorama, even if it’s just a garden. The remark of the 17th-century English theoretician Roger North, that the villa exists for the sake of a garden, indicates that the dynamic correlation between the design of architecture and nature is of essential importance for a successful villa concept. Otherwise, all you have is what the Austrians so aptly call ‘Verhüttelung der Landschaft’ – shantification of the landscape. ‘Green’ living can entail drastic damage to the existing landscape, as well as a subtle improvement of quality. In the 19th century they were already aware that country living required thorough understanding of architecture and landscape alike. The best examples of experiments in that field, certainly in the eyes of the late 19th century, could be found in rural architecture and in the culture of villas and country estates, which had been popular among the aristocratic, financial and middle-class élite throughout Europe from the 16th century onwards.
The country seat was an important element in the humanist ideal and raised the choreography of architecture, landscaping and the countryside to an experiment with nature and art. We are inclined to seek the origins of the Western architectural tradition in Vitruvius’s treatise on classical architecture. Yet Pliny’s letters relating to the villa and country life (written in the early years of the second century AD) are just as important for our design culture. They contain observations by an ‘amateur’, who did not advocate a technical and urban, but a sensual and impressionist approach to architecture in a natural setting. They are the texts of an impassioned principal and chiefly show that the green surroundings were not an unarticulated mass. In design terms the greenery may well have been more important than the villa itself, and varied from extreme architectural refinement to sublime abandon. Architecture and nature were not static, but interacted constantly – a lesson which, from the Renaissance onwards, was taken very much to heart for the design of country estates and villas.
So it is hardly surprising that the country house as a prototype for living in a green setting has been the centre of attention in recent years – more so than examples from the history of rural architecture. The country house coincides with the present-day penchant for status and tradition, as well as uniting architecture and nature in one design. The country houses designed in 1995 by Arcadis/Heidemij for a state-organized competition for new country estates won the first prize, and rightly so. The designs emulated geometrical estates of the 17th century, with their tradition of usefulness and beauty, and again called for integration of disciplines, and interaction between architecture and landscape, nature and culture, ideal and reality. Thus, the theme of ‘living in the country’, because of the very fact that it is paradoxical and complex, makes it possible to discover essential elements in design culture. There is a noticeable realization that nature, like architecture, has a dynamism waiting to be rediscovered and redesigned. Not only with respect to architectural form, but also to plant material. If ‘deregulated’ housing is a biological metaphor for ‘freer’ housing, isn’t a new concept of ‘deregulated’ gardening part of it? So, not only the country seat, but also the allotment garden could be a potential prototype for new experiments. After all, allotments have a great deal of freedom in terms of ‘house’ design and green surroundings.
New country estates, in which landscaping is a decisive component, are gradually being seen as an alternative to uniform housing districts from the Modernist period, as well as complying with the policy advocated in the ‘Vinex’ (Fourth Report on Spatial Planning in the Netherlands), in which the individual urban garden is the substitute for living in a green setting. The implications are far reaching. After all, the new country estate can soon become a vulgar metaphor. Ashok Bhalotra’s pretentious design for a 21st-century country seat, ‘De Overbrugging’ in Overijssel province, illustrates this well. This recent design is an excuse for an exhibition of architectural egotism. It is designed with no feeling for the identity and history of the countryside. But fortunately there are good examples as well. It’s interesting to note that at Haverleij estate, which is currently being built in North Brabant province, no urbanists are involved. Instead there are designers of the likes of landscape architect Paul van Beek and architect Sjoerd Soeters. They have concentrated on building ‘compressed’ apartments and ingeniously concealing parking lots, and have managed to create space for a monumental landscaping design, which, with its aesthetics and functions, overcomes the absence of a private front garden.
Haverleij combines the old middle-class dream of an aristocratic castle with modern comfort. It not only restores in an original way the artistic relationship between architecture and nature, but the complex also revitalizes the countryside, adding new qualities. Experiments like Haverleij shed a different light on the meaning of living in a green setting. Moreover, the equal treatment of the ‘green’ and ‘red’ design components may also force us to take a fresh look at our urban planning history. Why, in countless travellers’ tales of the 17th and 18th centuries, was the Dutch town not thought of as a pile of bricks, but as woods or countryside? Travellers compared the inner city of Amsterdam with the scenery of villas and gardens beside the Vecht river. One could indeed see the canal with its tree-lined quay as an architectural version of the natural peat stream. This landscape element finds an echo in the large areas of green tucked away from inquisitive eyes behind the Amsterdam town houses and whose existence can be traced back to regulations dating from the 17th century. In addition, in many an Amsterdam canal house the ‘best’ room overlooking the garden was decorated with wall hangings painted with imaginary, ideal landscapes. In terms of design and representation, the identity of Amsterdam’s inner city was, and still is, supported by a diversity of green scenes. For those with eyes to see it, Amsterdam is the original urban landscape, a prototype of the yearning to live in green surroundings.
Erik de Jong is an architectural historian attached to the Amsterdam Vrije Universiteit.

Kijkcijferarchitectuur. Woningbouw op vrije kavels / An architecture governed by viewing figures. Building houses on uncontrolled plots