Village square – BOOM Landscape – Netherlands

Reviving modernism in a Dutch polder villageIndira van ‘t Klooster – Images: BOOM Landscape

‘This urban tapestry really ties the village together’, would be a first-hand, unmediated thought to describe this tiny intervention, with a nonetheless evident effect on the small town of Nagele. The municipality commissioned BOOM Landscape to redesign the shopping street of a heritage-listed, post-war modernist village shopping street, originally modelled after the Lijnbaan in Rotterdam. BOOM are well capable of reviving forlorn public areas, as they have proven in Albania (see A10 #65, p. 38), but where to start with little budget and on only a very small part of the total area? Even the two elderly ladies at the site, professional architecture tourists by the look of them, have difficulty recognizing the historical grounds on which they walk. ‘Ah, so this here is Nagele?’

Many European cities have high-density suburbs designed by post-war modernist architects, but there are few examples of post-war villages. The Dutch village of Nagele, isolated in an empty polder landscape, is a fine example of just that. Designed between 1949 and 1965 by famous architects such as Aldo van Eyck (urban plan), Gerrit Rietveld, Mart Stam, and Jaap Bakema, it soon became an icon of post-war ideals in urban planning and housing. ‘Space tuned to the eternal needs of man’, they called it. ‘As an expression of unity’ the original plan accommodated some 270 houses, 3 churches, 3 schools, shops, a community house, sports facilities, and a cemetery – all carefully encompassed by trees (to protect the village from the unrelenting polder winds), and with communal open spaces and small-scale border-units designed by the famous Dutch landscape architect Mien Ruys. The project used to be the focus of intense debates at the CIAM conferences in the 1950s, but like all post-war architectural visions, it had difficulty keeping up with the times.

From the 1980s onwards, a series of new infills, extensions, street furniture, and alterations slowly ate away the original plan, even though most of the beautiful buildings and structures are still standing. Lots of research has been done by heritage organizations, public bodies, and local initiatives, and the reconstruction of the monumental houses has slowly taken off, but how can its public space be restored to its original bliss in a contemporary setting?

BOOM found a solution in a form of post-war archaeology transformed into new public space. In an attempt to visualize the original ideals, they started digging up the collective knowledge of the current Mies Ruys Landscape Architects, who take care of the heritage of the late Ruys. In the original plan, public space consisted mostly of natural elements. Trees and canals surround the village, meadows define the larger public open areas, and small gardens outline the inner-city streets. Jan Maas: ‘Basically we worked on three levels: the first is the level of trees and canals that shape Nagele in terms of wind protection and the water management of the polder. The second level is the urban plan, which divides the larger housing blocks into smaller units, amenities, and shops. The third level is the materials that make the streets. Most of the public space was cluttered up by all sorts of garbage bins, benches, advertisements, but originally it was clad with traditional 30 x 30 tiles and smaller “waaltjes” – bricks.’

In the recently finished first phase of their design, which is the shopping street, the original design principles have been transformed into an urban tapestry that connects the south of the village to the central square. The pattern translates the historical urban plan of larger units and smaller plots in modular squares of yellow and red bricks. Philomene van der Vliet: ‘We aimed to re-elevate and reconnect the renovated shops by creating a continuous space without any interruptions. This meant that we had to rethink the drainage system, as the usual solution would disturb the intended “expression of unity.”’ The opportunity to redesign the benches wasn’t wasted, either. According to Jan Maas, ‘We took the white fascia boards of the buildings as an inspiration for the benches, whose concrete blocks seem to float above the street due to small iron frames that carry them. Also, the garbage bins that have been selected match the delicate yet robust design.’

The result has indeed restored some of Nagele’s pride, as well as highlighted the principles on which it was founded. The next phase of their commission includes a lush meadow and the village square. One would love to see how their version of a landscaped tapestry could revive the whole village.