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Community effort

By Tim Waterman
The physical boundaries around Máximapark in the Netherlands are not strictly defined, and neither is the role of the public – which is a benefit.

It has been nearly 20 years since West 8 first won the competition to design the Leidsche Rijn Park, in Holland’s Randstad. It is now known as Máximapark, named after the Netherlands’ Argentinian-born queen. Not that it has been under construction that whole time, but rather, as Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, a founding partner of West 8, tells me, he has approached the process like ‘a surfer waiting for a wave.’ He has watched carefully and, where necessary, guided the development of the political will, the community spirit, and all the other planets that have had to align to create the park. Construction of the park as part of the development of the surrounding neighborhoods at Leidsche Rijn, a large new middle-class suburb west of Utrecht, only began some 10 years after the original designs and was significantly hampered by the massive failure of banking and finance in 2008. 
 
Development of new houses along the park’s edge, which West 8 had intended to provide a firm boundary for the park, has thus far failed to materialise, and indeed they may never be built. Geuze believes that the market that created vast stretches of suburbia in the fields and polders around the Randstad, fuelled by the ready availability of mortgages for 120 per cent of the price of a house, will never return. The park’s relationship to the surrounding housing, though, is still profound in a number of ways. 
 
First, of course, is the relationship that the community has with the park. In the project’s early stages, the park’s progress was driven largely by the political will of the local officials, in particular the area’s alderman. In recent stages, the will of the community and of the local Friends of the Park group has taken over the momentum. 
 
Second, the park was cobbled together from various agricultural plots, many once occupied by the giant greenhouses of Dutch industrial agriculture. The heartland of this agriculture is now shifting north to Friesland, where land is cheaper. Today, there is a concentration of former farmhouses and some newly built houses running in a strip right through the centre of the park. 
 
What this creates is a park without a clear definition. The approach to Máximapark from the local railway station at Vleuten feels entirely accidental and provisional and begins vaguely in a parking lot. There are pavements beside the railway tracks, but they peter out and the pedestrian is then forced nervously onto either bike paths or the roadway. Next come an underpass and an oblique shunt across a main road on-ramp and then, just past what appears to be a scouts’ clubhouse, there are suddenly people in evidence, a generous raised bicycle path, and a dawning realisation that one is in a park. 
 
This doesn’t run counter to the park’s conception, though. Its green infrastructure is meant to flow through the neighbourhoods, and it was not West 8’s intention to programme every bit of the park. Its main functions are concentrated within a compact 50-hectare area called the ‘Binnenhof’ (courtyard) that contains the more focused elements of the park, including an extensive playground, watercourses and gardens. The street of farmhouses passes right through the centre of the Binnenhof. The interpenetration of houses and park spaces curiously and delightfully provides a strong sense that the park is owned and occupied and, above all, safe. The very contingent character of the park – that it has depended upon happenstance, bricolage, and good timing – bestows on it a feeling of warmth and homeliness. 
 
There is no lack of humor in the park either. Two recurring motifs that serve as emblems for the park are owls and daisies. Daisies appear in the exquisitely finished moulded concrete of the bike-path edges, and in floral exuberance on the pressed aluminium railings of the Hiroshige-inspired bridges that arc above the water like tightly strung bows. 
 
Both owls and daisies festoon the gables of the pavilion that anchors the centre of the Binnenhof and houses the restaurant Anafora. This playful building is a physical quote from a pavilion designed by Pierre Cuypers (the architect of Amsterdam’s Central Station and the Rijksmuseum) for the Heineken family. Cuypers’ design for a peak-roofed folly is multiplied by four laterally so that its series of peaks plunges downward into three roughly catenary arcs. Pressed aluminium gingerbread climbs the gables toward owls that perch, wings outstretched, at each apex. 
 
How appropriate to this sweet architectural confection that I took shelter inside on a blustery day and spoke with a man named Happy Megally, who runs the café in the pavilion. Megally, a Coptic Egyptian by birth though now very much Dutch by affection for and affinity with his community, is an elegant man who runs his business with warm generosity and keen attention to detail. He feels that the pavilion has taken the place that the church might once have had in what is now a very secular community. 
 
Sitting next to Megally is Johan de Boer, the figurehead of the Friends of the Park. De Boer has given up a Saturday to meet me and show me around the park. I worry that he is missing out on weekend time, but he assures me that he likes ‘nothing better than to talk about the park.’ He confides that if he could quit his job and work full time for the park, he would do so without hesitation. Megally calls him an inspiration, and he glows with modest pleasure. 
 
Both of them embody the public spirit that is building the Máximapark. De Boer has been instrumental in raising the money and coordinating volunteer efforts to build the new bridges, install various sculptures around the park, create gardens, and build the first section of what is certainly destined to be the park’s calling card, the Park Pergola. De Boer walks me past plantings of oak and beech with ash and poplars interspersed, many arranged in characteristically Dutch grids. 
 
The grids, the orthogonal watercourses, and the flatness of the landscape conspire, as they do everywhere in this part of Holland, to create a landscape that is experienced as a set of nested frames. This gives a beguiling sense of interiority to exterior spaces. We come over a wooden bridge into another framed space, and there ahead is the ghostly frame of the new concrete pergola. Its parapet hovers over the tops of the young trees like an ethereal and benign battlement. 
 
The first third of the Park Pergola has now been built, and it will eventually describe the whole boundary of the Binnenhof. It encloses and bounds the space, but its scale and presence are both so unexpected and unprecedented that it frames space in a startling and refreshing way. Its stilted, colonnaded base supports a flexing, honeycombed form that will soon carry vines. Its finish is startling, too. The concrete, like that cast for the edges of the bicycle path, is so perfectly mixed and set that it has a milky translucency like bone or ivory. Its smooth surface demands to be caressed. I can’t help feeling that it’s a shame to cover such a beautiful surface with vines, but West 8’s photomontages of the pergola planted with vines are equally compelling. 
 
Only one side of the pergola’s skeleton is smooth. The other side is left rough, with a pebbly, pitted finish reminiscent of puffed rice. This will provide habitat for greater biodiversity within the wall and a different surface to provide purchase for climbing plants that need it. 
 
An early and much smaller version of the Park Pergola with a simpler hexagonal form was built at Geuze’s second home, in Spain. Images of this structure show how the honeycombs can be filled in with bird boxes, insect hotels, beehives, and such. This is fully the intention for the Park Pergola as it matures. As the vines have already been planted, any temptation to leave the skeleton unclothed hopefully has been averted, and any infill of the pergola for biodiversity will not be hindered by a desire to preserve the structure in architectural purity. 
 
Though Geuze tells me that the pergola ‘wasn’t particularly expensive,’ de Boer points out its costliness. He tells me that when raising the money for the structure he reminded people that Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona would never have been built if it weren’t for a belief in the necessity of superfluous beauty. Cost is clearly relative, but in this case when the pergola represents the common wealth and mutual pride of the people of Leidsche Rijn, then it’s certainly best to think of it as an extravagance. 
 
Of course, one wonders whether such a project would be viable in a less affluent community, but it does give hope. The suburbs around Máximapark are neither ostentatious nor wealthy. The Park Pergola stands out all the more because this symbol of affluence is not individual but collective. 
 
As we come to the end of the existing stretch of the Park Pergola, there are a number of volunteers working out of a converted shipping container to prepare beds for planting. This is a garden within the park called the Vlinderhof, in which soil has been mounded to create a theatre. Marc Kikkert, the volunteer who has spearheaded this particular project, shows me the plans and talks about the plantings. The Vlinderhof, he explains, is the first time that two of Holland’s landscape greats have worked together. The plantings for the garden have been designed by Piet Oudolf within Adriaan Geuze’s framework. Geuze, as well, had been eager to point this out to me. The collaboration is clearly a source of pride for all parties. 
 
Some 15,000 plants should be well rooted in and blooming by this summer [summer 2014]. Parks in the Netherlands receive relatively little funding for either initial construction or ongoing maintenance, so they have traditionally been built in the margins and on a shoestring. Máximapark was built referencing the tradition of Amsterdam’s Bos Park, which was a New Deal-style project to combat unemployment and improve access to nature during the Great Depression, but in this case the employment created was often carved out of the spare time of volunteers. There is an element of old-fashioned anarchistic mutual aid or tactical urbanism, perhaps, though I’m sure the volunteers don’t see themselves as anarchists. 
 
By the time I reach the end of the day with Johan de Boer, I’m feeling overstimulated. We’ve covered only about a third of the whole park, but, particularly within the Binnenhof, every element is so rich with story and community involvement – I haven’t even spoken about a whole series of sculptures that inhabits the park – that I find reassurance in the fact that the large areas we haven’t visited are largely unscripted. They’re places for people to fill with individual meaning, places for children to explore. Geuze worries that the surplus of enthusiasm for the park in the community will result in a surfeit of ornament and sculpture and that the park’s good bones will cease to be visible. It’s ironic that this should be the case with a park that was built on a shoestring from the beginning – it’s gone from rags to an embarrassment of riches.
 
This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, the magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects.


Project Credits

Client / process management:
Project Bureau Leidsche Rijn, Nieuwegein, Netherlands Manufacturer ABT, Velp GLD, Netherlands.

Contractor: Ed Züblin AG Fertigteilwerk, Stuttgart, Germany

Wooden moulds: Verhoeven Timmerfabriek Nederland, Venray, Netherlands

Foundations and groundwork: Van Wijk Nieuwegein, Nieuwegein, Netherlands

Design: West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
 

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