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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  n.72 Santiago ago. 2009 

ARQ, n. 72 Urban Rivers, Santiago, August 2009, p. 78-81.


Low Countries, Reversible Territory

Carolina Contreras *

* Cruz & Browne Arquitectos partner, Santiago, Chile
** Professor, Escuela de Arquitectura, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile


The Low Countries’ experience with control of land and water is extensive. Its inhabitants possess comprehensive knowledge of its characteristics, dynamically interacting with their habitat. However, environmental and economic needs have required the review and even the reversal of this complex hydraulic system.

Key words: Urbanism-Low Countries, floodable land, hydraulic resources, water control.

HORIZONTAL PARADISE / The curious travelers that during the 17th century visited the Low Countries could not help being surprised by its flatness, with some actually complaining about the monotony that characterized the landscape (Corbin, 1994). Nevertheless, the genius with which the Dutch community had domesticated the nature of the water at that time guaranteed these visitors a clearly superior transportation system, in terms of commodity, compared to what they could have found in any other neighboring countries.
The economic power attained by this nation during the famous Golden Age was based on the dexterity of its men in fighting the sea, from the simple exploitation of its resources to the audacious adventure initiated by its shipyards, cartographers, and seafarers. The increase in port population that this victory brought with it was compensated with an important inland agricultural activity, which required domination of the swampy land located around the Rhine River delta.
The attraction that the Dutch landscape held for the rest of the Europeans was based on the contemplation of a fertile land due to the collective effort of its men. For some philosophers of illustration, like Voltaire, this landscape constituted a true earthly paradise (Corbin, 1994), a product of the absolute control and homogeneity that provided a base for an equitable society. From an esthetic point of view, paintings of maritime and agricultural scenes played a role in promoting the artifice and control of Dutch land, like a sort of Arcadia, where the luminosity in the sky projected over its surface of prairies or of ice, comes to celebrate the extension of the sea like the origin of this horizontal territory.
Under the assumption that territorial administration is in and of itself a way of guaranteeing equity, the recent disasters that have occurred in various countries due to the confrontation between nature and human artifice, seem to occupy us as much as or more than the social ideals of past decades. From this point of view, it would be worthwhile to revise the Dutch project with the purpose of understanding what benefits its skilled hydraulic technology would bring us, in order to confront present environmental threats.  
the systematic drainage of dutch landscape / The delta of a river is defined as a plain that is ramified, producing multiple outlets to the sea. In its natural state, a delta, besides offering a notoriously dynamic scene, presents multiple textures and vegetation, not an immutable horizon of water, like many tend to imagine the Netherlands to have been before human intervention. This diversity is much a product of the variance of the sweet water current, which depends of the annual precipitation, the effect on the waters due to the tides and corresponding salinity, the different constituents of the ground, and the presence of lagoons, dunes, swamps, and the underground aquifers.
From the point of view of technique, the attitude of the first Dutch appears persevering and intransigent, by downplaying the humidity of the ground described before, in order to obtain the privileged access to the sea that their location granted them. Nevertheless, the technology to produce the systematic drainage of the delta’s surface has a history of almost ten centuries, where different inventions, ideologies, artistic movements and economic interests have been responsible for shaping its efficiency and control.
According to Dutch researcher Fransje Hooimeijer (2008), there are six periods of colonization of the territory: the period of acceptance (until the 10th century), the defensive period (10th to 15th century), the offensive period (15th to 18th century), the early manipulation period (1800-1890), the manipulation period (1890-1990) and the present transition between manipulation and adaptation.
In the beginning the first inhabitants settled on the highest lands of the turf, located at the border of the rivers, razing the land from vegetation proper to the landscape, with the dual objective of producing fuel and laying out fertile land. Because the razing of land spanned from the roads to the interior and depended on each landlord, the fronts of these properties tended to be narrow, resulting in elongated parcels which are still visible in Dutch farming. At the same time, with the purpose of keeping the ground gained from the turf dry, the first canals were drawn between parcels that where no more than simple excavations capable of draining the new lands towards the natural course of the water.
Even though soil extracted from the canals was used for raising the levels of the parcels, it was not foreseen that the same soil would eventually erode, due to the water carried by the canals, which by being linked to other water flows connected to the sea, had oscillating levels, and inundated vast surfaces of gained land. This is how in the 10th century one of first inventions surfaced, the dam(1), which by interrupting the course of the water, was capable of preventing erosion and guaranteeing drainage through a floodgate.
Nonetheless, climatic variations required the use of more aggressive practices, like the construction of dikes that would compartmentalize the gained soil and protect it from the sea and river growths. Slowly, the drainage systems within the perimeters of the dike became coordinated with each other, until the construction of one single system of water management, all based on a mosaic of patterns of gained soil (Reh, Steenbergen y Aten, 2007).
This would not have been possible without the intervention of the windmill, a simple hydraulic artifact capable of catching various orientations of the wind and transmitting the forces to a wheel endowed with oars that achieves transferring a current of water into another current located at a higher level (Fig 03). This invention, despite refinement throughout the centuries, didn’t succeed in raising the water much more than a meter high, leading to the systemization of a line of windmills. This system raised the water four meters, higher than the dikes themselves, and carried it to the next level in a sequence of polders(2), until reaching the sea.
Other inventions, like the steam motor and then the fueled motor, eventually made the drying of lands more efficient, occupying fewer infrastructures and creating a gradual divorce between hydraulic engineering and urban design disciplines. This technocratic system ended up guaranteeing a dry and flat ground, a true tabula rasa, which architects and urbanists could lay out for urban expansions required by increase in population.
In the 17th century the compartmentalized structure of this drained land gave way to the establishment of an innovative military strategy that permitted the Dutch to defend themselves from Spanish invasions. In 1629 the first measures were taken for construction of a defensive line (Reh, Steenbergen and Aten, 2007) that as a mission would guarantee the protection of the main cities through a sequence of fortresses and, among them, the presence of vast floodable zones. The drawing of this line was based on the natural topography of the land as well as the logic of the polders, so that later they could be subdivided into different flood plains, each with its own water level.
At the end of the last decade, product of important climate changes, this military strategy received a new interpretation by the Dutch environmental authorities. With the purpose of producing new sweet water reserves as an alternative to its accelerated expulsion, the abandonment of some drainage structures and the flooding of its respective compartments of land were suggested.
One of the first of these project types, to be executed between 2012 and 2032, will be a project by Wieringen, designed recently by the offices Palmboom & van den Bout (Fig 04 a 07). This intervention consists of the gradual inundation of land gained from the sea in the north of Holland. The strategic position of this project coincides not only with the intention to store water, but also with the structuring of an ecological corridor that will lead the migration of some birds from the interior of the continent towards the North Sea. Likewise, this inundated land will permit the connection between bodies of water with different levels of salinity that, from an ecological perspective, will nurture the growth of interesting halophyte vegetation, and from an urban development perspective, will provide a new and attractive waterfront.
The hydraulic structure that today guarantees drainage of aforementioned surface, will allow this flooding process to be done gradually in the future, avoiding the ecological disaster that a sudden inundation could imply, at the same time accompanying a flexible process of urban transformation. In this sense, it should be emphasized that the disposition of the ground for these effects has been strongly connected to the actual decay of agricultural activity. The recent incorporation of countries like Poland to the European Union has caused Holland to no longer be the principal supplier of lactic products of the old continent, habilitating these lands for other uses and stimulating the generation of new economies.
the role of time / “A landscape is a space deliberately created to speed up or slow down the process of nature. As Eliade expresses it, it represents man taking upon himself the role of time” (3) John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1986).
The rigorous knowledge of nature has permitted inhabitants of the Low Countries a dynamic interaction between man and environment, to the point of offering alternatives that allow today to reverse a complex hydraulic system with the intention of favoring new environmental and economic needs. In this sense, the work and versatility of the Dutch landscape has profoundly validated John B. Jackson’s comment regarding time. The refined control exerted over the velocity with which the water of the delta is expelled to the North Sea, has permitted its acceleration as well as its retardation, yielding the opportunity to slow down a process that in other lands would have looked like the irreversible product of obstinate canalization of watercourses. Nonetheless the Dutch territory continues being inarguably fragile. The high probability that in the future this country will disappear under the North Sea waters, victimized by global warming, has produced a gradual tolerance towards the water that crosses various spheres of quotidian life. From the design of a well known water-proof shoe, to the mandatory swimming classes, the rowing classes, and architecture that explores the future of an aquatic country, the inhabitants of the Low Countries today review the artifice of their landscape with a humility that should at least seem challenging to us.

1. From here derived the names of the cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam, with Amstel and Rotter rivers as principal flows of drainage.
Polder: word of Dutch origin that makes reference to a land compartment, surrounded by its own drainage system that succeeds in maintaining parcels located in its interior dry. Some of the polders conserve a slightly oval shape, hinting at its origin, a drained lake.
3. “Un paisaje es un espacio deliberadamente fabricado para acelerar o retardar el proceso de la naturaleza. Como lo expresa Eliade, representa al hombre desempeñando el papel del tiempo.” (traducción de la autora)



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