Interview

Adriaan Geuze

The masterplan for the Yongsan National Park explores the healing power of nature in a place with a turbulent history. The founder of West 8 talks to Kath Hudson


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Conjuring up prestigious national parks and gardens from derelict and contaminated land around the globe, Dutch landscape architecture and urban planning firm West 8 has been involved in a range of landmark projects, including Schouwburgplein (Theatre Square) in Rotterdam; the award-winning Madrid Río linear park in Spain and Jubilee Gardens in London.

The firm was co-founded in Rotterdam in 1987 by Adriaan Geuze, who now runs it with partners Edzo Bindels and Martin Biewenga, liaison Daniel Vasini and principal of the New York office Claire Agre.

West 8 employs a team of 70 architects, urban designers, landscape architects and industrial engineers across offices in Rotterdam, New York and Belgium. The New York office was set up after winning an international design competition in 2006 for Governors Island Park in the New York Harbor.

The firm is working on a range of projects including Yongsan National Park in Seoul, South Korea, where a US Garrison is being transformed into a public park.

When did you decide you wanted to be a landscape architect?
I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. When I graduated, in the mid-1980s, the Dutch economy was in serious recession. As there were no jobs, we started up our own practice, and won some small projects.

During our first five years we won several awards – the Borneo-Sporenburg urban design project in Amsterdam was particularly successful – and these boosted the business. Now we have a staff of 70, and our work combines architecture, infrastructure, urban planning and landscape design.

How has the industry changed over the years?
Within landscape architecture there has been an urban renaissance internationally. Public spaces, waterfronts and urban parks have become the motor for revitalising cities. The profile of landscape architecture has been driven by international cities seriously competing with one another. High quality public spaces have become part of city branding.

What skills do you need to be asuccessful landscape architect?
Much of it is to do with engineering, but it requires a poetic approach to take it to the next step.

How would you describe your style?
We change our approach according to the context of each project, so West 8’s style isn’t easy to recognise. We like to include humour and irony. Our work should not be predictable.
I have been described as romantic, and I won’t deny that. In the Netherlands we’re accustomed to artificial nature, linear wildlife, a manmade landscape and no topography. I believe the Dutch are culturally fixated on the surreal concept of ecology and nature as product engineering.

How do you ensure that each project reflects the locality?
It’s important to us that our work relates to the context of a site, so we start off by really trying to understand the area. In addition to this, we work with local firms to ground our work.

Governors Island and The Hills completed in New York in 2016. What did this project involve?
It was Mayor Bloomberg’s vision to situate a new public park for New York in the middle of the harbour on an island which used to be a base for the US Coast Guard.

Its landscape was as flat as a pancake. We envisioned the transformation of the island through its topography in order to manipulate the eye and explore the horizon. The mayor’s vision was to build the park as a magnet for all the people of New York, and to catalyse future development.

How would you sum up your work there?
The idea of sharing was at the heart of the mission statement; we were charged with creating a park which would enable multiple experiences. A place that would welcome play, experimentation, installations, local food, sports and festivals.

People arrive by ferry, they have access to free bikes, and they have the opportunity to escape their New York neuroses and experience the feeling of being on holiday. We want people to relax and use the park however they wish: play games, have a picnic, enjoy the sculptures, cycle or stroll around.

Did you achieve what you set out to achieve with the Governors Hill project?
Absolutely. I’m thrilled with the outcome, particularly with the granite blocks of the former sea wall, which have been recycled into seating elements. The client team had a very clear vision for this park – to create a new standard of democratic public space – and they succeeded. Other than having to sacrifice some ornamentation due to budget, we were able to realise our full design.

You created the masterplan for the Yongsan National Park in Seoul. What is the aim of this project?
This is likely to be one of the most extensive projects West 8 will ever undertake. The park will be located on a site which is currently a US Army base, and which symbolises an extremely turbulent history of war and occupation in Korea. It’s in downtown Seoul, which has a population of about 20 million.

The site is about one and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park and, from a cultural standpoint, it’s sacred land. It is situated exactly between Nam Sang Mountain and the Han River, a place where the Emperor went and prayed for rain. It has a soft undulating topography with a beautiful ridgeline connecting to the mountain.

Because of its importance, the site was seized by the Japanese to create a military base, and has since been used by the US as an American/Korean Army HQ. Once the military relocates to new headquarters, it will be transformed into an public park. It’s an honour for us to work on this project.

What challenges does the site present?
The political situation is very challenging, because we can’t start work until the American Army has relocated, and this move is very caught up in the complex international context, which we hear about on the news all the time. The site and soil have also been seriously contaminated by its military use, with oil, chemicals and gunpowder.

As Europeans, it can be tough working in Asia, to understand the complex layers of culture built up over 3,500 years of civilization. We work with a team of Korean colleagues, together with Iroje architects from Seoul. As such, we better understand and appreciate the archaeology, history, botany and narratives of the site.

How will you bring the concept of healing into the design?
As a result of the chequered history of the site, we have chosen to base the design on the concept of healing.

The act of healing is a process that transforms the existing site through an awareness of its history into a world-class park.

By creating a central lake and restoring the authentic topography of the site, the park will be anchored in the continuous mountain geology of Seoul. The park will reconnect the foothills of the South Mountain Nam Sang.

All over the park the design introduces ‘madangs’ (an ancient Korean word for an open plaza). These are the ‘footprints’ of the military buildings which dominate the site, and will take the form of simple granite stone platforms in the undulating park landscape.

What stage are you at with this project?
We’ve been working on it for five years, and are currently at the schematic design phase: synthesising a layered design, naturalistic topography and developing the site narratives.

Tell us about the Houston Botanic Gardens project. How is it progressing?
This is still at the schematic design stage, with the design development starting in early 2018. Led by a client team of civic leaders who happen to be gardeners, the aim is to deliver a world-class botanic collection for display, conservation and research purposes, including an edible garden, a large international garden and an aquatic garden geared towards children. Our garden will be reimagined as a multi-user space for all, on the site of an old golf course, situated on a bayou, which creates an island apart from the city.

What are the main challenges?
A major challenge was dealing with the hot, humid Houston climate, which requires a lot of shade for both people and plants, so we have invested in trees, shade and trellises. Plus there is the consideration of hurricanes and flooding.

Gardens of this sort take a long time to mature – London’s Kew Gardens has developed over ten generations, for example. 

We will soon be introducing a tree nursery to start establishing workhouse species along with rare specimens. The peripheral area will be built from native species, which grow quickly, and once mature will form a shelter in the core for more precious international collections.

What appealed to you about this project?
Houston is the most diverse city in America, and one of the most dynamic, rapidly growing, and optimistic. When matched with the warm climate, we saw this as a chance to build an incredibly diverse and globally-reaching botanic garden.

Botanic gardens are more important than ever right now, as they are conservators of plant DNA from the world over, and have an incredibly important role in shaping a love and knowledge of plants for all generations.

You helped develop the landscape design plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District park in Hong Kong. What will this offer?
This is a dramatic 23 hectare site on the Victoria Harbor, with a panoramic view of Hong Kong. The West Kowloon Peninsula will house a new cultural district. It will include many cultural icons, a park, green avenues and waterfront promenades. Hong Kong lacks public space, so this will be a wonderful resource for future generations. We’re halfway through construction.

What was appealing about this project?
Creating a cultural district for Hong Kong, with facilities for exhibitions and cultural events, is very exciting; this is one of the largest cultural developments worldwide. The first phase opened in 2016 and has attracted more than 700,000 visitors.

One of the key design features is a seaborn promenade around the site, with shaded alcove seating. Above that is the upper level, housing the rest of the undulating park.

It has been designed so that even if a ticketed cultural event is happening, there’s still space for people to come and enjoy the park. It is a romantic space, with shaded areas for people to sit and take in the stunning views across the water.

What were the challenges?
The constraints of the site were a big challenge. We envisioned a park filled with trees with intimate green spaces. Part of the site wasn’t ready for this; it was landfill, with derelict land on top of tunnels. Another area used to be a typhoon shelter. The loadbearing constraint was also a complex challenge. On top of that, the park needs to serve multiple and diverse programmes at the same time.

Are you working on any other cultural/leisure projects?
Since 2014, West 8 partner Edzo Bindels and I have been working on the New Holland Island Park project, a wharf island in the centre of Saint Petersburg, Russia. The project will continue until 2025, but its first phase, the park and public space, opened in 2016.

In 2011, the non profit organisation IRIS Foundation started hosting a summer programme on New Holland Island to help activate historic spaces, bringing in gallery-organised temporary exhibitions. The masterplan by West 8 envisioned a combination of cultural village and a festival park. It covers 2.2 hectares (5,4 acres) and features more than 200 mature trees, as well as a central basin and herb garden, a children’s playground shaped like the hull of a ship, and temporary pavilions.

In winter, the central basin holds an ice skating rink. Three restored historic buildings have been converted into a variety of facilities including shops, a bookstore, cafés, exercise studios and children’s creative studios.

In the US, we’ve also been working on Longwood’s Main Fountain Garden revitalisation project in Pennsylvania. The Main Fountain Garden renovation project, a collaboration between West 8, New York architects Beyer Blinder Belle and water feature consultant Fluidity, was completed in May 2017. It replaces the 83-year-old fountains’ infrastructure with the latest technology, improves guest access to the garden, and adds innovative new elements which honour the original design by Longwood Gardens founder Pierre S. du Pont. 

What are the biggest trends in landscape architecture?
Mass culture cultivates instant illusion. Commercial exploitation creates a sense of almost permanent excitement. I believe landscape architecture should be the antidote. It can offer seasonality, play, authenticity and honest human interaction.

THE WEST 8 APPROACH

The West 8 leadership team from left 
to right: Edzo Bindels, Martin Biewenga, 
Daniel Vasini, Claire Agre and Adriaan Geuze / Photo: ©Carel van Hees
The West 8 leadership team from left to right: Edzo Bindels, Martin Biewenga, Daniel Vasini, Claire Agre and Adriaan Geuze Photo: ©Carel van Hees

West 8 approaches the production of nature in two different – but characteristically Dutch – ways. First, we take a classic civil engineering approach for creating landscape; a logic based on utility and necessity. Second, we are part of a landscape tradition that confers identity and so we understand the need to create symbols in the production of landscape. This method envisions a new nature, a ‘second nature’ of constructed landscapes that respond to pragmatic demands (water management, population growth, traffic congestion) and that also reinforce the culture to which they belong (identity, symbols, expression).

In a departure from the old ‘demolish and install’ engineering methodology, or the current ‘preserve and protect’ model’, we are adding and expressing new natures. The real future in today’s debate about sustainability lies not in a political or philosophical dialogue about what we are protecting or how we are going to ‘sustain’ it, but rather in how to actively create new ecologies.

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