Het Nieuwe Instituut has recently acquired the archive of garden and landscape architect Michael van Gessel, a designer the general public has encountered, often unknowingly, through visits to public parks, redesigned estates, public spaces in new neighbourhoods and larger landscaping projects. He has worked across the scale from grand urban planning structures to the smallest details such as planting and the selection of paving, always with an eye for the area’s historical identity. Who is Michael van Gessel? And what does the acquisition of his archive mean for research into Dutch garden and landscape architecture?
We can, of course, regard an archive as a delineated, personal and professional portrait of the archive creator, whose documents and testimonials are part of the existing design culture. Simultaneously, we can also read the approximately six hundred archives preserved by Het Nieuwe Instituut as a larger, cohesive whole. With the addition of each new archive, this inexhaustible source of knowledge is extended and challenged. For example, the archive of landscape architect Michael van Gessel not only provides a resource for research into design culture from the 1990s to the present day, it also facilitates research into the design methods and thought processes of the professions throughout history and into the various forms of interaction between landscape design, urban planning, architecture and design.
Michael van Gessel
Within the history of Dutch landscape architecture, Van Gessel (Bandung, 1948) belongs to the generation of designers that established an authoritative position for landscape architecture in relation to other design disciplines such as urban design, urban planning and architecture. He has worked for more than forty years as a garden and landscape architect in the Netherlands and abroad on projects ranging from small-scale designs for private gardens (garden for Van Leeuwen/Van Asperen House in Amsterdam, garden for ’t Berghuis in Maarn and the garden of Museum Het Grachtenhuis in Amsterdam) and public city parks (Valkenberg Park in Breda and Artis Stadspark in Amsterdam) to large-scale urban design projects, of which the IJ-oevers and IJburg in Amsterdam are important examples.
Alongside his design work, he has also made regeneration and management plans for estates (Twickel) and development visions for larger areas of land, such as a design for water storage based on the structure of the Elfstedentocht (an ice-skating route that passes through eleven cities in Friesland).
Acquisitions policy for landscape architecture
The acquisition of the archive of Michael van Gessel adds a new chapter to Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection of landscape archives. Not only because of the larger urban-planning scale in which he has worked but also because it offers another perspective on the relationship between landscape, urban planning and architecture. It was only in 2013 that Het Nieuwe Instituut formally added the archives of landscape architects to its collecting remit (in Making Choices, 2013). Nonetheless, the institute had already acquired a considerable number of files relating to garden and landscape architecture prior to 2013. This acquisitions practice reflects both the level of integration between landscape design, urban planning and architecture and the changing and hierarchical relationships between these professions. In the 1950s and 1960s, many garden and landscape architects designed gardens and parks as part of larger architectural and urban-planning projects. This practice is clearly evident in the collections of architects involved in post-war reconstruction projects (1950-75), in which landscape architecture was a component of larger urban planning projects: specific designs within expansion plans and structural plans such as recreational facilities, green urban spaces and large city parks.
These archives, such as that of urban planner Cornelis van Eesteren in relation to the IJsselmeerpolders, reveal the dominance of a hierarchical planning apparatus, the practice of tabula rasa planning and the cultivation of the straight lines of the polder as the ideal landscape.
The notion that an entire design could be steered from a landscape approach with an integral artistic spatial vision was unheard of between 1950 and 1975.
This was more or less the state of the profession when Van Gessel took his first steps as a landscape architect with the Bureau voor Stedebouw ir. F.J. Zandvoort, whose archive is also in the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. It is one of the archives that reveal a new orientation in relation to the position of the landscape architect. Van Gessel joined the practice in 1974 when he was still a student. The archive of Bureau Zandvoort shows a critical reflection on garden and landscape design in the period of post-war reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. The practice was characterised by its interdisciplinary approach and an integrated response to the living environment, with an interest in undervalued landscape traditions such as country estates.
From 1975, Van Gessel worked on a regeneration and management plan for Groeneveld Castle in Baarn, a severely neglected country estate in the English tradition of landscape design. He graduated cum laude with this plan in 1978 under the supervision of Hans Warnau. The design includes an investigation into the application of the English landscape style in the Netherlands, a subject for which there was no interest in the Netherlands at that time because of a one-sided focus on the modernist tradition among landscape architects.
This research led Van Gessel and Warnau to a remarkable insight. Although the landscape style had earned a reputation as a formal design template, it was also a tool for research into the soil, planting, land subdivision and buildings on a given site. The characteristic winding paths and hills are the result not only of aesthetic decisions but also of knowledge of the underlying and existing structures.
Applied to the Dutch landscape, this landscape style produced entirely different results than the landscape style as design template. After graduating, Van Gessel worked on the implementation of the regeneration and management plan for Groeneveld Castle. From 1979 he worked for the recently established practice of Riek Bakker and An Bleeker (later renamed Bureau B + B), two former colleagues from Bureau Zandvoort. Together they built upon Bureau Zandvoort’s characteristic integrated approach to develop an equal status for landscape architecture within spatial and urban planning.
Expansion and specialisation
The archive acquired by Het Nieuwe Instituut principally covers the period from 1997, the year in which Van Gessel resigned his directorship at Bureau B +B to establish his own practice in Amsterdam. Although his office was a one-man operation, his archive reveals an organisational network because, for many of his projects, Van Gessel established partnerships with landscape architects such as Dirk Symons, (social) planners such as Tineke Blok and Arnold Reijndorp, architecture historians such as Erik de Jong, and urban planners and architects such as Frits Palmboom, Koen van Velsen, Sjoerd Soeters and Hans van Heeswijk.
The archive also reveals Van Gessel’s activity across a range of scales. Although he gradually expanded his professional field as a landscape architect to embrace urban planning, large public spaces and regeneration and management plans, he also worked at a more modest scale, designing small private gardens. Within this broad design portfolio, he played many different roles: designer, consultant, and supervisor of large urban regeneration projects.
Common to these projects was Van Gessel’s conviction that a site was to be viewed not as a tabula rasa but as a historical location with its own identity.
Both as a designer and as a supervisor, Van Gessel analysed existing parks and landscapes with a keen eye for topography, flora, fauna, existing settlements and buildings, and previous designers’ plans for the same location. As supervisor of the public spaces for the Zuidelijke IJ-oever, for example, he emphasised again and again that the form of the islands should dictate the new, spatial design.
Many of the design files in the archive have an open and process-oriented character. There are few definitive statements and presentation drawings. Instead we encounter commentaries on design drawings, emails with questions and suggestions, short memos in which Van Gessel expresses his vision as supervisor so that everyone was kept informed, and concise notes relating to a design’s major elements and its details. This documentation reveals a consistent design approach: an examination of what is already there and why, the development of an insight into what should be preserved and strengthened and a consideration of the relationship between past, present and future and what this means for one’s position as a designer or supervisor. This attention to the documentation of the conceptualisation and design processes gets to the core of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection of archives as a whole: the elucidation of the design process, in which research is just as important as the end result.
Drawing and designing
The design drawings that Van Gessel made himself cover a vast range of subjects: suggestions for large spatial structures, recommendations for material choices, planting proposals, suggestions for maintenance, street furniture, public transport, adaptation of public amenities, the form and function of existing buildings, and so on. His own drawings are relatively abstract, simplifying complex compositions into geometric forms. Some files contain series of analytical drawings suggesting variants in relation to spatial construction and aspects such as size, scale, proportion, materials, texture and colour.
Van Gessel often used a black pen for his drawings, and his style determines the manner in which the information is codified, for example using characteristic crosshatching and plastic foils with exuberant ‘planting’ to indicate beds and borders.
Analogue and digital
Van Gessel’s archive consists of analogue and digital components and has a hybrid character due to the integration of the two. The nature of the various relationships between the two is currently being investigated. For example, the analogue archive contains printouts of born-digital drawings and the digital archive contains scans of analogue drawings. The digital image bank probably contains both analogue slides and digital photos. The analogue archive also includes many faxes and printouts of emails. Het New Institute strives to preserve the hybrid form of the entire archive, because this will facilitate future research into digital design culture in relation to analogue design culture. The hybrid form also says a lot about Van Gessel’s working and design methods, which involved collaboration with many other designers (architects and urban planners) in which many of the exchanges during the design process were conducted by means of fax, email and born-digital files such as AutoCAD drawings.
Michael van Gessel’s archive also contains an impressive visual library. Van Gessel constantly collected all manner of images and organised them in a databank. During his travels, he took photographs of trees, flowers, avenues, colours, means of transport, etc., which he organised in a database with metadata. He also collected patterns in a variety of styles, shapes and colours on paper. This image archive functioned as a source of inspiration during the design process. Van Gessel’s fascination with images betrays another of his areas of professional activity: he was also an art historian. As an intern at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen while a student of landscape architecture, he organised the museum’s archive of newspaper clippings, and archiving images has been an important component of his conceptualisation and design processes.
In their simultaneous cohesiveness and diversity, these collections of images are reminiscent of the fieldwork of a biologist who discovers patterns in the evolution of plants and animals and realises that everything consists of the same fractals and is interconnected: the veins of a leaf, the clay in the river and the rocks in a landscape.
This image collection sheds a special light on Van Gessel’s design approach and of that of landscape architects in a broader sense, in which the relationship between the existing landscape and the new landscape design is constantly changing.
Further research in Van Gessel’s archive will also shed light on how his personal and cultural background has influenced his thinking and working method. To what extent have his origins determined his independent position in relation to the modernist tradition and his receptiveness to a variety of histories of the landscape in different periods? From interviews with Van Gessel we know that, although he studied and was active professionally in the Netherlands, he was shaped by a much broader cultural context.
Born in Bandung in Indonesia in 1948, he came to the Netherlands via Paris. His father was an aviator and his grandfather had a plantation in the former Dutch East Indies. His mother was half Scottish and half English and grew up in Australia. This diverse background may have made him immune to the Functionalist thinking that dominated architectural and urban planning education in the Netherlands in the post-war years. In several interviews, Van Gessel discussed his deep respect for history and placed himself in the tradition of garden and landscape architecture of Jan-David Zocher (1791-1870), Hugo Poortman (1858-1953) and Eduard Petzold (1815-1891). Summing up his design method, he quoted the eighteenth-century English author and landscape architect Joseph Spence: ‘What is is the great guide as to what ought to be’.
The archive as a research resource
This quote raises several interesting research questions. How did this declaration of love for existing landscapes, settlements and designs take shape during the design and consultation process? The designs show that Van Gessel sought a synthesis in varying ways between existing elements and new and future needs. The modernist mantra also seems to be present, with the question of how this philosophy relates to the investigation of historical structures. How did this tension between conservation and renewal take shape during the design process with other architects, designers and professionals?
In addition to this archive’s importance for design history, the acquisition is also important for cultural history because it places the subject of landscape architecture in a broader cultural context. The relationship with the Zandvoort archive has already been mentioned, and other archives in the collection such as those of Cornelis van Eesteren, Alle Hosper, Frits Palmboom and MVRDV facilitate research into the relationship between architecture, urban design and the landscape.
The acquisition of new archives invites us to revise existing interpretations of the collection and to make new speculations about the future of design culture.
The acquisition of the Van Gessel archive offers an opportunity to conduct research into the spatial design of the Netherlands not only from an urban and architectural perspective, but also from the specific perspective of garden and landscape architecture.
Cataloguing of the analogue archive will begin in the course of 2019 and is expected to be completed in 2020. The transfer of the digital archive will also begin in 2019. Het Nieuwe Instituut aims to have the archive publicly accessible via the Search Portal in 2020.
Research and text
Ellen Smit, in collaboration with Eline de Graaf.
With thanks to:
Michael van Gessel
C. Bertram, E. de Jong and F. Palmboom, Michael van Gessel. Landschapsarchitect, Rotterdam 2008
T. Blok, M. van Gessel and J. Rodermond, Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie: landschap met een geheim, Rotterdam 2005
M. van Gessel and A. Angelillo, In Touch: Landscape Architecture Europe, Wageningen 2012
H. Harsema, Landschapsarchitectuur en stedenbouw in Nederland, Wageningen 2007/2008, 2009
M. Steenhuis and H. van Tilburg, ‘Als je weghaalt en leegmaakt, komt de schoonheid boven. Landschapsarchitect Michael van Gessel, winnaar van de Bijhouwerprijs 2006’, Blauwe Kamer (April 2006), p. 21-33
Archives consulted at Het Nieuwe Instituut
Various files and texts in the Michael van Gessel archive
Archive of the Bureau voor Stedebouw ir. F.J. Zandvoort