Reflections on the Amsterdam Bos

In 1999 Anita Berrizbeita published an essay on the Amsterdam Bos park, ‘The Amsterdam Bos: The Modern Public Park and the Construction of Collective Experience’. Anna, a MA Landscape Architecture student at the University of Greenwich, reflects on the significance of this article today.

Being an ecologist by training and new to the world of landscape architecture is has been refreshing to learn of the design approaches used for The Amsterdam Bos in Amstelveen, Netherlands (bos meaning wood in English). It seem that the paradigm shift here has been from designing park land for solely aesthetics purposes to designing for process and function. However I fail to see why these approaches are either, or. If the argument is truly “how it works” versus “how it looks” I must say I’m on the functional side, however I am yet to walk through an area of woodland whilst thinking “If only someone had put more thought into the  composition of these trees”. Of course the Amsterdam Bos approach may not result in the idealistic landscape vision, strived for in the C19th public park designs; presenting vistas that are perfectly composed to be captured with oil on canvas. Still it is a far reach to then imply that theres is no aesthetic quality to a functional park. The term ‘bland functionalism’ I feel is unjust and unnecessary. If there is nature then there is beauty. Are landscape architects a one trick pony who can either provide an impressive aesthetic design with little use or a highly functional design that is visually unremarkable? I think that the way to incorporate both approaches may become clearer with working at different scales; an initial large scale dissection of the site into function and an aesthetic and creative approach to take the design forward at smaller scales.

The idea I will refer to as neo-niche constructions i.e. the choice of design elements and species composition being based on ecological states and processes, such as succession, are a reflection of a more fundamental appreciation and respect of the natural environmental. However, it is an inevitable and unavoidable issue that humans may think that they can simply build an ecosystem that is functioning and healthy. A single tree in a city park does not support the same amount of biodiversity as a single tree would do in a woodland environment. Therefore a spread of urban development cannot be mitigated by neo-niche constructions and it would be dangerous to suggest so.

Finally, the change in the park layout from a contained pocket of “nature” surrounded by trees that block the busy city atmosphere from the serene interior, to the continuous mosaic structure of woodland, lawns and wetlands at the Amsterdam Bos is thought to influence the perception of the space in a potentially deleterious way.

The visitor moves from area to area with the impression of never having quite arrived.

The park is stripped of metaphorical content and spiritual intention. it is demystified.

Ultimately, this shift in the conceptualisation of landscape redefined the psychological space of the park as one that is not private and subjective but civic and public.

What is the purpose of public open space? Is it simply space for the cooped up inhabitant of the city to play, exercise, socialise and just to be? What about its role in creating a sense of community, a sense of appreciation and respect for the natural environment? Do we want are parks to be an escape from the city or an integrated element? In the current climate, with the high percentage of people in the developed world living in urban areas, it is paramount that people can develop a sense of connectivity with nature beyond the view from their window.

(The essay was first published in Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Theory. Ed. James Corner. Sparks, NV: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. 187-204.)

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