42 people each spent 24 hours in a pavilion consisting of modular wooden bookcases in a secluded place in Hoeksche Waard and left a record of their reflections (part of the spatial planning survey AIR-Zuidwaarts/Southbound). OTIUM NEGOTIUM An observatorium is a paradoxical space into which you withdraw in order to determine your relationship to the world. Perception of the surroundings is impossible without a gaze into the inner self. Isolation is a form of participation.
Anxiety Landscape is something we experience with all our senses. Even from the air-conditioned interior of a moving car, we experience vistas, changing daylight, heat, wind and rain. A landscape still evokes emotions. Restricting ourselves to the visual experience, to the eyes and the brain behind them, we perceive the New York bay is the only place where you can escape the city without leaving the confines of New York. Netherlands as an alternation of wide, flat meadows, areas of water, towns and woodlands. This perception generally takes place in motion: static observation of a landscape is rare. When major changes in a landscape are imminent, you have to take your time – whether as a connoisseur, designer, resident or proprietor – and postpone your judgement and consider things carefully. Do your ideas, knowledge and opinions correspond with what you see? An intense experience of the landscape is essential to understanding. The insight that the members of Observatorium themselves had in this respect was that spatial planning arouses emotions such as suspicion, aggression and anxiety among those not engaged in the planning. It elicits the instinct for territorial defence. Observatorium's proposal for a one man monastery drew unexpected sympathy because it presented itself as neutral territory.
Debut On seeing Dwelling for Seclusion, Anne-Mie Devolder, director of Architecture International Rotterdam, spontaneously invited Observatorium to take part in AIR -Zuidwaarts/Southbound, a wide-ranging study towards new forms of urban extension and rural renewal. AIR-Zuidwaarts/Southbound had invited six groups of landscape architects and urban planners to consider issues of urbanization combined with preservation of landscape quality and assets. Observatorium was added to a list of individual artists who were commissioned to carry out exploratory studies for the island of Hoeksche Waard, before the landscape architects had their turn. This marked Observatorium's baptism in spatial planning, nature management, urban development, landscape architecture and art in the public space. One thing that Observatorium was about to learn was that none of these academic disciplines can ignore the forces of tradition, politics and beliefs. Typical of the sentiments they had to deal with were: "This conference is all very well but I hope you realize these plans concern my land – you won't get very far if I refuse to sell," and, "You are just using the guise of a cultural festival to soften us up for the big city invading the countryside." Observatorium was still dizzy with the response it had received to the Dwelling for Seclusion in New York, and decided to make a variant of the bookcase-house to be sited in the polders of Hoeksche Waard
The language of urban planning AIR-Zuidwaarts/Southbound sought new concepts for the selected area which would embody a synthesis between new urban functions and the historical and visual qualities of the rural landscape. Important topics which the project addressed were the international discussion on identity carriers for metropolitan regions in Europe, and the qualities the countryside can contribute to growing urban areas. The subject under consideration was the future design of the Randstad conurbation's South Wing and of the Delta (the estuaries between Rotterdam and Antwerp). The project itself, and the traditional commissions for design work, related to the island of Hoeksche Waard, to the south of Rotterdam. This island had so far somehow managed to evade the scrutiny of planners, but the pressure of urbanization was making itself increasingly felt there. AIR-Zuidwaarts/Southbound also aimed to stimulate all the sectors, authorities, corporations and interest groups involved in the spatial development of the South Wing of the Randstad with international visions on the synthesis between urbanization, traffic, agriculture, nature and recreation. The plans that emerged from this exercise were not conceived with realization in mind, but aimed rather to instigate a professional discussion through an active presentation of research and design. In the course of a year, work was to be commissioned from landscape architects, designers, artists, photographers and designers from the Netherlands and abroad.
Mechanization Observatorium had discovered a dead end on the topographic map. On arrival at the site, in the middle of potato fields, they found a fence with an empty triangular piece of land and an empty rectangular area of asphalt. The geographical centre of the rural island Hoeksche Waard turned out to be a car park, placed there for the use of maintenance workers on an underground sixteen-lane pipeline "highway" which links the oil refineries of the ports of Rotterdam, Moerdijk and Antwerp. Farmers rent the land above the pipelines. This is rather strong evidence for the interweaving of town with country and of nature with economics; and in this respect it is an admonition to refrain from categorizing land use. Observatorium had free use of the site, subject to a prohibition on digging into the ground. The helicopter pilots who kept an eye on the pipeline highway had been warned. The potato farmers' crop sprayers took no notice, and the same applied to the firemen who were preoccupied with preventing flooding of this particular area in the rainy summer of 1998. Participants at one of the conferences claimed that the farmland of Hoeksche Waard differed little from an industrial park; but their remarks related only to tilling the soil, for they were unaware of what was happening below and above ground level.
Exploration The task of exploring the potential of Hoeksche Waard was something Observatorium was glad to leave to the users of the new dwelling for seclusion. Observatorium found support for this idea in classical antiquity, especially in the Latin distinction between negotium and otium – between the pragmatic lifestyle and philosophical contemplation. Negotium is politics, trade and the working day of the city dweller; otium is time when work is not required and is free of the pressures of survival. Otium, unlike a holiday, is a time for gathering new energy and preparing for mundane social obligations. To form an impression of the history, politics, character and nature of the district, people in all professional categories, from town and country, were challenged to experience isolation and leave a record of their reflections. To give a sample of the guest list: it included the Mayor, a theologian, nature conservationists, architects, artists, radio producers, seekers after God, secretaries, entrepreneurs and the Head of Planning in the Provincial Executive of South Holland (who favoured major changes for the island, while preserving the putative quality of the landscape). Each stayed alone for a day and a night in a remote corner of a landscape of mechanized agriculture (such as counts in the Netherlands as "nature") and reconsidered or even reversed their opinion on Dutch urbanization.
Solitude is a popular theme. It is reminiscent of childhood, with its moments of anxiety and loneliness, yet many wish to experience it in the hope of gaining new insights or a purification of the soul. Solitude in Hoeksche Waard was also a spectacle: people drove by in cars trying to catch a glimpse of the isolated observer, radio journalists broadcast lengthy reports, and the man from the Provincial Executive of South Holland, who was responsible for the planned transformation of the landscape, awoke in the morning to find himself surrounded by landscape preservationists and members of the press. The distance from the inhabited world made it unnecessary to build a closed dwelling. Instead, the shelter consisted of three bookcase modules on a deck, with a kitchen and toilet, plus outdoor and indoor spaces for the resident. The necessary activities of watching, sitting, washing, eating, writing and observation took place on what may be described as a raised platform with structures placed on it – a very practical arrangement, since bean, potato and cabbage plants were growing ever higher all around.
The Observatorium Hoeksche Waard stood in the middle of the land area at issue. An elevation of 70 centimetres was sufficient to create a sense of distance. The bookcases, which in New York had provided visual enclosure, here offered a variety of communicative openings. Since AIR-Zuidwaarts/Southwards was about the tensions and interactions between Hoeksche Waard and the metropolitan area and harbour of Rotterdam, all the drawings, texts and photos made in Hoeksche Waard were exhibited in Rotterdam. Observatorium built a third version of the bookcase module for the purpose of this exhibition. It took the form of a reading room in the garden of Villa Alckmaer, an exhibition facility belonging to the arts centre Centrum Beeldende Kunst Rotterdam.
Observations by guests Observatorium were asked to present their reflections at a large conference, to be held in Rotterdam, at which the urban planners and landscape architects would come together for the first time. Rather than speaking themselves, Observatorium invited several of their guests to tell the assembled designers and planners about their personal experiences and insights.
Neighbour turns up with dog. Treads cautiously onto the decking. Was he bothering me? I was busy drawing but, never mind, I put it down. It was a funny kind of building, he thought. And he was surprised it'd been allowed. The farmers around here can't get away with anything, he complained. It'll be rotten by winter, he said, if it didn't fall down first. Good soil here, good farming. Layer of silt, with dykes all around. He knew the names of all the dykes. The land was built up layer by layer; a new deposit of silt on top of the old one, and dykes all round.
location: Klaaswaal/ Rotterdam