DE ARCHITECT no.1, March 2021
author: Astrid Aarsen
‘Conversation with a landscape’
translation: Nanne op ‘t Ende
Conversation with a landscape
the creek the Dommel in Sint-Oedenrode you can find a ‘landscape observatory’ made by visual artist Frank Havermans to articulate the slowness and naivety of existence itself. In the experimental building material Havermans found a counter-balance as well for the hastiness of our current time. Photographer René de Wit captures this place of contemplation and encounter.
The Dommel is winding its way from Belgium through the landscape of North-Brabant. The lowland brook springs south of Peer in Belgium, crosses the Dutch border as a creek and flows into the Dieze as a small river in ’s-Hertogenbosch, 85 kilometres downstream. Somewhere along the way, near the hamlet Rijsingen (Sint-Oedenrode municipality), the Dommel flows with an average speed that never exceeds one meter per second underneath the landscape observatory Kaptar/TO-RXD (2009).
On this spot, where an elevated convex field descends into the lower marshy landscape, Frank Havermans wondered in 2009: “How could such a beautiful place possibly be enhanced? What’s the need? Isn’t it perfect as it is?” Today, it is hard to imagine this site on the west bank of the Dommel without the presence of the landscape observatory.
The pioneering work in bark tree concrete even seems to have become essential. As if the landscape and Havermans engaged in intimate conversations and seduced one another. There is no sign of rivalry. The two of them seem to have formed a symbiotic relationship. That is why the observatory doesn’t feel as an intervention, but more like an organism germinated and grown in its natural habitat.
Chief Government Architect Floris Alkemade, who grew up in this landscape and still lives here, couldn’t agree more. To him, the way the observatory has been inserted into the Dommel bank is astonishingly natural. “Frank Havermans knows how to condense the intangible poetic side of the landscape into concrete shapes. Landscapes seem to attain new meaning whenever he passes by.”
Alkemade attributes wider significance to the observatory. “Most interventions in rural areas are of an agricultural nature, like large cubicle stables and silage pits. They are brute and insensitive, but they are productive. It’s as if ugliness is a prerequisite. The observatory constitutes a mirrored universe: its design is sensitive and very precise, and it is in no way productive. This beauty confounds people in a wonderful way.”
“This beauty confounds people in a wonderful way.”
– Floris Alkemade
With his project, Havermans shows the beauty of imperfection as he harnesses the strength of transience. Feeling his way, and relying on his sense of spatial relations, he uses models to arrive at the eventual shape. Havermans builds from a self-defined ‘conclusion model’. During the design process, material and shape literally pass through his hands. Anyone looking for drawings of the landscape observatory is bound to be disappointed. There aren’t any.
Havermans starts his production process with an intuitive search that consists of observing, physically perceiving and exposing the site’s characteristics. All his senses are heightened as he feels, listens, looks, smells and tastes. He lies down in the reeds and climbs up trees.
According to Paul Roncken, landscape architect and curator of the art walk that includes the observatory, Havermans communicates events, through his work, that are expressly not about his work. Roncken mentions “a hare rushing past, a jumping deer, bird songs, the trees that bend further and further over the water, clouds drifting by, the current of the Dommel”.
Play with the landscape
Inside, in the sunken observatory, with the landscape at eye level and with the flowing water below you, the sensation of outside is intensified. This is not about designing an object, but about a spatial design without separation between inside and out. The work is playing with the surrounding landscape, with the experience of the site as a whole, and the attention to detail. To some, the observatory feels like a desolate place that only comes to life in the presence of people. To others, its reclusiveness is the purpose of their visit.
For those who allow it, this place offers an opportunity to escape from the accelerated speed of every-day life. Here, you can experience the ‘present of the place’ – to do nothing for a while and surrender to the slowness of existence. In this way, Havermans touches upon two intangible concepts within architecture: wabi-sabi from Japanese aesthetics and (atmo)sphere. The latter concept had been ignored for a long time, until architects like Peter Zumthor, Juhani Pallasma and Tadao Ando reintroduced it.
Experiment with tree bark concrete
While architects in residential and non-residential construction were exploring the aesthetic possibilities of patterned elastic polyurethane formwork liners, Havermans started his own experiment. His dislike of synthetic materials motivated him to search for a practical and ‘honest’ alternative. He was also looking for a way to naturally accelerate material aging.
Eventually, Havermans developed ‘tree bark concrete’, a combination of tree bark and concrete that allowed him to materialise the site’s energy. It references the concrete artefacts in the direct surroundings, like a water well, an exhaust of the water sanitation plant and abandoned remains of agricultural concrete, and at the same time it refers to the bark of the trees in the vicinity.
During the construction of his observatory, the materials turn out to combine surprisingly well. As the concrete unexpectedly seeps through the tree bark, it causes a stronger adhesion than Havermans had held possible.
Mosses and lichens
Nothing in the landscape remains the same, not even the observatory. Havermans absorbs the dynamic, unpredictable process, embraces the aesthetic of transience and transforms it into an architectural shape. What Havermans was hoping for, has happened: the occurrence of a synergy between the artificial rock and the dead wood – the concrete has taken on a natural appearance. The bark slowly falls away and organically accelerates the formation of mosses.
Havermans asked landscape architect Dirk Sijmons, a great lover and expert of mosses, for a survey of the rich world of mosses and lichens that is forming on and in the observatory. Sijmons established the presence of rough-stalked feather-moss, blunt-leaved bristle-moss and silvery thread moss, in addition to the wall screw-moss, the cypress-leaved plait-moss and lichens like the maritime sunburst lichen and the white rim lichen.
According to Sijmons, the choice for a diagonal tree bark structure is a very fortunate one. The structure obscures the defacing stains that often appear on smooth concrete walls, and helps to spread the moisture. Floris Alkemade is positive too: he knows no other work of art with such a high degree of what Albert Speer termed Ruinenwert, ruin value. Alkemade calls it “the ability to undergo any form of time-induced degradation as an ever more convincing exposure of the essence”.
But is the application of concrete still defensible these days? Alkemade is inclined to think so. “Concrete is architecture’s work horse. It is despised, denounced and hidden behind a cladding whenever possible. On top of that, it is responsible for about 10 percent of CO2 emissions world-wide. For considerations of sustainability alone, we need to initiate a different culture of construction. Now that its days seem numbered, it is time to look at the qualities of concrete with some more compassion.”
With his tree bark concrete, Havermans demonstrates that the concrete itself is not to blame if it often looks brutal and insensitive, but that it is we who determine its shape and texture. Although wood is synonymous with natural materials, Havermans proves that concrete too can be sensitive to natural processes. The future value of the combination of bark with concrete is borne out by the Zestien Eiken Schuur (2018) by HilberinkBosch architects, that has been constructed using a concrete technique inspired by Havermans’ experiment.
As a scenographer, Havermans deploys his architectural installations to zoom in on anything that is about to fade or disappear, or on a possible next step. In al its humbleness, the observatory is a subtle provocation. It is a wake-up call that briefly immerses us in the slowness of existence, rather than to keep everything under control at high speed. The observatory is the sensual, physical counterpart of the fast society striving for perfection with its abundance of virtual, spatial images and experiences. With his experiment with tangible matter, Frank Havermans offers a healthy antidote against the present-day mental impoverishment.