Adriaan van der Staay in conversation with Michael van Gessel
Is there such a thing as a subjective Michael, is there a moi profond that supports the great diversity of his projects? It will soon become apparent that his standpoints are firmer than in his rationales. One needs to hunt for those.
On the arts
We talk about the arts first. Does he feel emotionally involved with the arts? The answer is immediate: “The arts are there for the feeling, the arts move you. The arts stand for emotion.” A clear standpoint. Emotion is something that will crop up repeatedly in our conversation, because the role of emotions in imagination fascinates me as well. A critical reflection comes just as fast. “I’m not an audile person; I’m visual, not musical.” He would later relate how he can spend hours working on a problem in total silence, without the distraction of music. Silence is also what fascinates him about meditative monastic life, such as in the Achelse Kluis hermitage where he went on a school trip once. There is a film about a French monastery in which no words are spoken. But that has more to do with asceticism than emotion.
Which art form affects him in an emotionally positive way? The visual arts! “I’m a visual person.” He is not from a background in which art was taken for granted. It was a discovery, perhaps even a revelation, the first time he went as a student alone to see Picasso in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Picasso left no clear impression on Michael since that revelation, apart from opening the door to the art of painting.
“I’m not really a reader. When I go to a museum, I assemble visual impressions. After seeing an exhibition my habit is to buy a few photographs rather than a catalogue. I save those impressions as a visual archive, one that is unconsciously at my disposal whenever I try to find the solution to a design problem. Once the solutions have been found, I know exactly the visual effect but have forgotten the associations.”
When he speaks about the poetry of something, he doesn’t appear to associate it with the human voice as I would, but with a subtle visual affect. I later noticed him standing in front of two kakemonos repeating the contrasting verses of the ancient Japanese scroll paintings aloud, simply because he thinks they’re beautiful: “the wind from the sea raves in the valley / the colour of the mountain purifies my body”. The Zen monk rendered the verses in Chinese characters that conjure up rage and stillness. The text as the verbal message of an image: what will he remember most, the poetry or the calligraphy? The sweep of the brushstroke?
As I listen I reflect on how very Dutch his choice for the art of painting is, that is to say, Calvinist. From the 17th century on, Calvinism enforced severe restrictions on expression. This concentration on the visual at the expense of the musical, the image escaping the authority of the Bible, is this not characteristic of, for instance, the poverty and wealth in contemporary Dutch theatre? If treasure is to be found anywhere in Dutch art, it’s in the visual arts. He shares the art of painting with Adriaan Geuze, a much less retiring personality as landscape architect, but just as much an Augenmensch. When I think of Geuze, I think of Ruysdael: nature as theatre. But what do I think of with Michael? Delft’s Vermeer: the calm light in a room, a woman seated at a table? Or Hobbema, with a line of illuminated trees in a flat landscape?
I am also thinking of something very different, the need for de-specialisation to develop artistically. In the words of a great Russian piano teacher (wasn’t he speaking to Sviatoslav Richter?): “In the area of the piano I have nothing to teach you, I can only advise you: learn from other arts, read poetry”. Michael did not have a grandmaster to instruct him. He acquired a wealth of artistic languages in other ways. How?
What, then, does emotion in the visual arts mean to him? “The sublime,” he says. I ask him to explain. Since the 18th century, there have been at least two forms of the sublime around: the sublime of inaccessible nature (I recall Edmund Burke and his essay on beauty) and the sublime of classical antiquity (I think of Claude Lorrain). Michael chooses immediately: “I’m for the second, the grand tradition of architecture and landscape.” He far prefers Capability Brown, with his sublime command, his mastery over the landscape and the way he played with interventions, to deserts, the Alps, Etna or the South Pole. When he takes photographs, such as in the African Karoo nature reserve, they are always fragments, patterns, unexpected formations. Just as in the museum, he stores these exceptional configurations up photographically “for later”. Once when crossing the Afsluitdijk in the winter, snow appeared blown across the body of the dyke and had created sublime patterns. He got out and took pictures. It is interesting that he sees nature not as something sacred, a holy force to make us tremble, but rather as an ally, a kind of natural artist that bestows sublime ideas and patterns. Should the tremendum mean nothing to him, would he not suffer from vertigo just as Pascal above the abyss of the universe? His words portray nature not as a metaphysical quantity, but rather as a giver of gifts, an artist, a friend.
If control of nature, mastery over the landscape, the classical ideals of designed nature mean more to him than formless chaos – that which the Chinese symbolise as a concealed dragon in the landscape – then what does he think of the Netherlands? “I think the Netherlands is magnificent, especially the provinces of Groningen and Zeeland.” Why? Precisely because of their powerful relationship with nature, one of competition, the intense play of powers that want something other than what man wants, or can produce. He mentions again the image of a dyke, one in the Delta works that is slowly being overtaken by a wandering dune. Man must incorporate the wandering dune, like the dune, working as nature’s accomplice, incorporates the manmade world. It is a race, a challenge. The end result of this open yet uncompromising attitude is sturdiness. “I prefer the stalwart.” In my mind’s eye I envision something like a solitary tree that remains standing in a storm, a lighthouse or church against the horizon, something masculine.
This interaction with nature is more involved, less indifferent, than that of a modernist such as Jeanneret/Le Corbusier. For the Genevese architect, that rational maker of machines for living, nature laid beyond him, beyond the window, outside the walls, on the roof, as an accidental and distant green. For Le Corbusier nature remained elementary, sun, water, but it was not a living presence. A functional use of the word green has arisen from this abstraction fromnature, one that is no longer associated with plant growth, natural diversity, or ecology. Later in the conversation Michael would remark that in many design commissions the colour green could just as well be replaced by red. Sports fields are ecological wastelands, lacking in any form of natural dynamic or diversity. Clients have allowed recreational functions to surf the wave of popular ecological sentiment. It is obvious that this dishonesty is considered fundamentally wrong to someone like Michael.
A kind of rigid conviction is coupled here with the above-praised sturdiness. An insight, a truth, once gained must never be clouded by embellishments. The insight must remain clear, without extravagance. The landscape architect has to stand firm and fight against the thousand-and-one possibilities that can arise out of other motives. “I’m strict. The first thing people do when you come to them with a design is to want something different.” Mediocrity, superficiality, and ignorance are constantly trying to dilute the wine with water. True collaboration is found precisely where principles are preserved. One example out of thousands: the banks of the IJ. “I think that the Amsterdam Harbour area on the other side of Central Station should present a different cityscape to the one within the ring of canals. The city centre’s pattern of bricked canals should be continued on in basalt facing. But there should be no trees placed there, offshore as it were. Another nature dominates there, one of wind, water, light. The resident should feel as if they are living in another world. No compromises.”
This prompts me to raise the question of the modernistic architect’s one-sided vision. Someone who imposes his fantasy or whatever interests him personally, on public spaces, spaces that do not belong to him. Michael dismisses this. We are now nearing the core of his motivation, which is remarkably impersonal. I press him hard: what distinguishes him from a modernist?
First a defence: “The modernists who designed modern neighbourhoods, suburbs, public areas were driven by ideals. We are different; we may not share their utopia, but at least it expressed a vision. I try to add something to those neighbourhoods, while at the same time maintaining their character. Sidewalk cement tiles and concrete edges cannot be replaced with anything else, without it affecting the specific character of the place. The particular nature of modern buildings is an element of diversity within the spectrum of historical forms, and this must be maintained. As an extra point from the past.”
Then the contrast with modernism: “I’m interested in the particular nature of a place, its specific character, the genius loci. Every site has something special, whether it be natural or historical. What interests me is accentuating that unique quality, by either taking something away or adding something to strengthen it.”
This is indeed a huge, even crucial psychological difference, I think. What drove the modernists was not only an idealistic vision of the future, but also a destructive rejection of the present. The environment was ideally a tabula rasa, a virtuality that needed to be filled anew. A complete upheaval, not a respectful treatment. A revolution, not evolution. Michael’s method, his focus, his strength, appears to be the opposite of this. He seeks continuity. He is inspired by what there is rather than what there should be for one reason or another. He does not project, but absorb, analyse and assign new interpretations. The ideal starting point for his design is not the tabula rasa, but the palimpsest.
The question is now which sources are tapped during the design process, from which emotion does motivation arise, and in which way a formidable work ethic is transformed into creativity.
He gave me a booklet. On the cover: Michael R. van Gessel inspirations, with his address in small letters. Inside there are only illustrations, in colour, some spread over two pages, some opposite each other in contrast. It is partly visual material used to inspire his students, to pass on his own sources of inspiration when he teaches. It’s something that he does annually, “even though it takes a lot of time and energy.” An obligation.
What is there of the visual arts in the book? First of all, a correction of the all-too-Dutch image is necessary. His visual world proves to be primarily international. And that too is not exactly non-Dutch. If people see something Calvinist in him, it is tempered by an Indonesian background, such as the humanism from his “Buddhist grandfather”, who lived in Geneva out of distaste for Holland. Michael’s visual art is mainly cosmopolitan. Bill Viola and his answer to Giotto, for instance, can be found in the book. In slow video the androgyne rises anointed, a body of vulnerability, from “amniotic” waters later to be transformed into a Pietà. Another illustration shows the hasty scrawls and splashes of Cy Twombly, the Roman American, in red and black.
Spread over two pages is a painting by David: Oath of the Horatii. In the background are three Roman arches which symbolically divide the painting into three scenes. In the centre the father is handing weapons to his sons, to obtain honour or to die. On the left, with a merciless light shining on them are the three Horatii taking the oath to fight. The brothers grab each other tightly, like on a present-day football pitch before a match. The contrast between the men’s lofty emotions on the left and the disconsolate women’s emotions in the right-hand panel is huge. The mothers, sisters and children appear close to collapse. They huddle together in support and protection. The folds of their attire accentuate this. They are the helpless, the ones who have more to lose than the men. The men can win immortality; the women can lose husbands, brothers, sons, their honour, in other words: everything. The men are resilient, the women are defenceless.
Somewhere in the conversation Michael refers to Lucebert´s most famous line: “everything of value is defenceless”. I recommended this line be placed on the building of a bank in Rotterdam. Tony Burgering made the letters in neon. You can still see it from the train as it passes by. New contrasts between resiliency and defencelessness. But what is the value of defencelessness? Why is it useful to bring David’s painting to the attention of students?
It would be easy to answer that question with a trite remark. The intellect easily furnishes something like: David painted a contrast, one of many, and that’s that. Basta. Indeed, Michael’s book contains other contrasts, between simple camellias and overfull roses, for instance, or between bourgeois architecture and blossoming fruit trees. One contrast more or less doesn’t matter. But why that particular painting, which makes an issue of the masculine and the feminine?
Almost in passing he refers to his homosexuality. “Yes, when you’re homosexual the boundaries are less clear.” To myself I add: and you have more understanding of masculinity and femininity; a better understanding of vulnerability. Is that what he means? While I try to formulate something to carry the conversation further, something about the erotic emotion of submission and domination, about the shifting of passive and active roles in homosexuality, a parallel flow of thoughts develops in my mind.
Homosexuality has, without a doubt, its limitations. It seeks fulfilment not with the other half of humankind, but rather within its own half, or even its own circle. It does away with an easy division of the sexes and the unilateral flourishing of a masculine or feminine identity. But at the same time this limitation of finding another in the selfsame, is a kind of challenge to transform the self into a broader, less one-sided identity, one with more duality than a straightforward identity of man or woman. Isn’t this search for the other in yourself, this contrast of opposite emotions within one person, also an advantage, and not just a limitation? Is the constant awareness that more nuances lurk behind the sexual mask of another not an advantage? Especially in the arts? Is that not one of the reasons why this minority contributes so much to culture?
Back to the conversation, now exploring double-sidedness; duality as a theme within Van Gessel’s work.
He experienced early on during his academic studies that entering a dissenting voice, especially a dissenting feminine one alongside a masculine one, into the world of architects would trigger laughter. It breaks through the monastic, intellectual, technical framework of the profession. To bring the softness of a feminine motif into a design, and not simply for decoration but as an equal counterweight to the hardness of a masculine motif, is met with incomprehension. Standing by his own emotions in the face of incomprehension has become a part of Michael’s arsenal.
It borders on the banal, but is also superficially understandable. Here is someone who was raised in a disciplined, military atmosphere. Someone who visited air fields with his officer father, but also noticed the variation in the flowers there. Someone who sought with dazzling energy and youth and obstinacy his own erotic space, a space that was only to be conquered by opposition to his social background. Someone who chose a strange profession, on the sharp edge between masculinity and femininity, intellect and emotion, technical constructions and natural growth. Such a background explains an unwillingness to accept the strongly a-cultural, imposed diktat of the architectural discipline in the Netherlands. Without becoming a rebel, yet one still feels different. He finds allies and his own circle of architects who are more than simply technicians. They reflect. They bring culture into play.
On landscape architecture
First of all there is the duality of architecture and nature. How to make architecture more natural, nature more architectonic? A finished construction is more or less timeless until it is demolished; nature, because it is alive, is part of the cycle of birth and death, and brings the sense of time closer.
Bringing time into a structure requires the eye of a landscape architect. Van Gessel mentions a problem with an English architect concerning the choice of materials for the façade of a building. The architect replaced zinc with glass. On the other hand, the landscape architect, with his feeling for the ravages of time, wanted a material that weathers well. It is the defiance of the defenceless to weather well.
Clients and architects often – mostly – regard gardens and landscape as a residual item, a supplement aimed at making everything more pleasant, more attractive. To repair what the architect overlooked: nature, the landscape, with the remnant garden or park. This is certainly not his view of the role of landscape architecture. There is, in other words, a more exciting duality needed in landscape and architecture. This can be achieved specifically in the design, not afterwards. Van Gessel is a much in demand consultant.
But even landscape architecture cannot escape from ambiguity or the growth of interest in duality. A designed landscape is not wild nature. How does transience become a little-less-transient, more permanent? His designs often have a couple of relatively simple, basic ideas. (He makes me think of Stefan Themerson’s professor MMAA who says to his students: “the world is simple, not complicated”.) These ruling, simple concepts form, as it were, the backbone of the landscape design and allow variations, changes and diversifications in, as long as these do not weaken the basic concept. The “tree-roof” for the Westerpark was just such an idea. As long as this idea was maintained there was abundant freedom to make use of as many different kinds of tree species as possible to create the leaf-covered roof.
But let him speak for himself:
“An example is the planting plan in my own garden, and lots of subsequent gardens for other people. I always create a mixture of about 10 kinds of plants in a certain ratio to each other, and they are planted at random. All the plants have relatively low foliage and long stems with flowers. Their blossoming time is spread out over the entire year. So there is a continuous coming and going of flowers, which brings the garden as a whole into bloom and not in just one spot. Time is an inseparable part of architecture. The carpet of flowers and plants also changes with the years under the influence of light and shadow, damp and dry, and through mutual competition. Differentiation in the carpet develops slowly, making the carpet richer and allowing the patterns to respond to each other more. But it remains a carpet.”
The inclusion of the time dimension, of the duality between birth and decay, of an openness towards the past and the future, of a sense of place in architecture and landscape, all these reside uneasily within the mono-thinking of the modern West. It explains why the regional architectonic œuvre of the Mexican Luís Barragán or the Portuguese Alvaro Siza remain topical. They seek continuity by including, not excluding.
This is nothing new in China or Japan. Time and the seasons are part of the experience of space. I mention Zhuangzi and his “music of nature”, the earth on which the wind blows as on an instrument. Here garden culture is the pre-eminentcontinuation of architecture, and vice versa. The duality of everything permeates their ideas about the landscape.
It appears that Michael’s experiences in China and Japan have not been experienced and assimilated in this philosophical way. What has stuck with him is the narrative, the artificial and the symbolic in the Chinese garden, which doesn’t appeal to him, in contrast with the Japanese garden’s reduction of nature to a few succinct effects. He chooses Japan over China. Of all the gardens he remembers, it is a moss garden in Kyoto (Saiho-ji) that impressed him most. Its concept is indeed simple, but extraordinarily effective: weed out everything but spare the moss. A few monks are in charge of that. From Bert Schierbeek to Michael van Gessel, the Dutch have a natural preference for the simplicity of the Zen garden.
Then we talk about the Taj Mahal, that Mogul world-wonder on the Jumna River in Agra. Another kind of duality fascinates him about this Persian dream in India, besides that the memorial monument doubles as water garden. On the one hand there is the ambitious concept of the white marble, the dominance and symmetry of the architecture, a powerful concept that cannot be overrun even by a stream of tourists. And on the other hand the details, the fabulous decoration with constantly repeated plant motifs such as narcissus, iris and lilies in white marble bas-relief. This balance between ambition and detail is indeed unparalleled. Is not everything unparalleled also resilient? Is the perfect contrast not invulnerable?
He has even had William Morris flower patterns stamped into corten steel, a detail in a durable material that weathers well.
After this Asiatic excursion I throw into the conversation the showpiece of European landscape architecture, for Michel de Montaigne as well as for Sacheverell Sitwell. Here, in the Villa Lante near Bagnaia, the Renaissance seems to surpass itself, its circles and squares subordinate to the blending and uniting of architecture and nature. Michael recalls especially Vignola´s masterful intervention of having the central flow of water pass through the middle of two casinos, so that you are not sure whether you are in a garden or in a villa. I particularly remember the relationship between culture and nature, the return to the Roman tradition of a gradual transition between indoors and outdoors, between orto (garden) and bosco (wilderness). The recollection of the sublime harmony of nature and culture in the Villa Lante puts a dignified end to the theme of two-, multi- and many-sidedness.
On the creative process
Those who know him will say that Michael van Gessel is both an analyst and a technician. When asked about his creative process he emphasises the analysis of a site: how did it develop? And then there is the question of the client: what are the hidden motives? Besides a learning process, this also seems to be a favourable method of bringing oneself to concentration, a ritual for meditation. A creative process is more than analysis and technique. Concentration is the gathering of strength, of tension beforeleaping. Creation requires something else, something more mysterious. Is there anything to say about this?
Every act of creation has something titanic about it, and it demands energy. Every artist who is continuously creating new work must have an abundant amount of energy, even sexual energy. At the same time that energy has to be bridled by discipline and ambition. An internal tension has to arise and be released through concentration. All these ingredients can be found in Michael. Let us return to his youth.
“I was brought up in a very open, rational, completely non-religious, very disciplined (my father was in the military), exceptionally regulated atmosphere. Looking back, it was quite Calvinist, but I’m very glad about it. At one time, as an adolescent, I really rebelled against it, but later on I benefited enormously from it. I was of course also very frivolous and extremely emotional, defiant and forever following my heart. I’m really quite quick-tempered by nature. And I can be very expansive. But all that was stifled by my upbringing. As a result, a kind of balance was created which I’m happy about. I always think about how I would have turned out if all that had gone unchecked.”
Ambition is also present, in an almost schoolboyish way: “I’m more like, hey, why reach for a 7 when it could be an 8. I think that’s fine, but when I design, the result has to be more refined. I set my sights high.”
Enter Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico means a lot to him: “In general I find De Chirico’s quietude remarkably light: the stillness of the horse and the tower. Some De Chirico images etch into your memory forever. That is also a kind of stillness that I love.” Earlier he said: “Because I’m so terribly restless and energetic myself, I appreciate and am moved by the silence and stillness” (of the contemplative life). And about the city: “I think cities benefit from calmness. First you have to see how you can achieve as much serenity as possible”(in a design).
The choice of De Chirico is a curious one. Ifhe had chosen Piero della Francesca as his hero, he would have been mainstream among modern architects. But behind the tranquillity and calm of De Chirico lurks the subconscious; a horse rears, a tower rises, a motionless train steams past behind a wall. What occurs is suppressed restlessness. This makes joining the words analytic and surrealistic understandable and is explained when he offers a kind of psychoanalysis of his creative process:
“Maybe it is analytic or surrealistic. I don’t like surrealistic paintings at all. But I do work that way. I deliberately allow coincidence in by searching for something to oppose it, in a kind of trance. I will find it somewhere; I’m always convinced of that. I do this in silence, and all of a sudden it appears. I often think about surrealism because it is the method that truly cultivates the inclusion of coincidence and dreams. Simply by working consciously. I have to say, when I find what I am looking for, when it works, that these are real moments of delight. I think about it afterwards, how it was possible, how wonderfully it has become a part of the whole, but I no longer remember how I came up with the idea.
“Besides taking things, comes accepting things as they are, continuing on with them, and not always wanting to have things your way. First add and then append. First know the place and then you will know where you can find the space. You usually progress further that way. Achieving a balance between the masculine and the feminine is a fascinating feeling. I often draw for hours, without music, without sound, absolutely nothing besides drawing.
“That is when I realize how continually occupied I am with this balance; you can do this and not that. It’s never a surprise for me. I always think it’s going to turn out differently each time, that I’m going to process through the project and in the end it won’t work. But it always works right down to the last detail, I’ve been there before. That’s way I’m never surprised. I do think it’s a wonderful feeling when the design becomes three-dimensional. That is indeed extraordinary, it’s not something I’ve learned, it’s just within me.”
What flows from Michael van Gessel’s creative process is less rational, analytical or technical than it might seem. It is an unconventional process because it involves, consciously and unconsciously, dreaming and playing around: “When I think in a completely rational way from within a pattern, I look for a means to work against this by searching in my mind and sometimes in books and magazines.”
In a recent project in Dordrecht, that city of conventions and traditions, that most genuine of Dutch cities, where the rational De Wits hail from, he explored the problem of a square in the old city centre. There used to be trees there and the residents wanted them back. He clustered the trees into a grove of acacias. He put them in the middle of a bluestone platform that also functions as seating, just as there used to be a bench encircling the village’s lime tree. He looked further. He looked at Dordrecht, its history, at the island of Dordrecht, and it occurred to him that Dordrecht’s island was the perfect shape for the bluestonebench. The bench is completely new, but at the same time it returns a historical heart to the square, a place and a memory, without lapsing into imitation. It fights against conventions.
On emotional deficiency
The one-sidedness of the Western view of architecture as a matter of technique, rationality, functionality, control and innovation brings us to counter-forces. He does not think much of the retro-thinking of some architects, though he does value the finer quality of Krier. Some post-modernists’ attempts at exuberance mean little to him. He would rather work with someone like Rem Koolhaas, “who gives you space”. No, the one-sidedness is still there.
This leaves the client and the architect with a kind of structural deficiency. There is always something missing from the building: a human factor. Then the landscape architect is asked to add what is missing. It is an unsatisfactory situation, which can explain the profession’s huge popularity. Miracles are often expected from the landscape architect’s healing powers, perhaps too often.
Is this about an emotional deficiency in modern culture? Can it be that a garden or a park has to compensate for an emotional deficiency? A lack of sensitivity to psychological needs, to losing oneself in nature, to harmony with time? This is the impression he has received, particularly in the construction of new hospitals, where the client sees the landscape architect as therapeutic help. The therapeutic garden, however, is an expectation that is seldom fulfilled. Something vague is expected, like a bandage with balm for the nerves, a heath-bog experience in a postage stamp format, more of a humble bonus than something of equal value. Can landscape architecture meet this expectation?
This is the question Michael van Gessel leaves me with. If I attempt to see his work against the background of a profound cultural deficiency to which the arts provide answers in all shapes and forms, then where does he stand?
If I use all my personal measuring equipment, that means: how does the inner gauge react to words such as 1: beauty, such as 2: consolation and such as 3: emotion?
Beauty, I think, registers the highest. In his pursuit of simplicity, in his struggle to find a way out of unnecessary confusion and in his analytical disentanglement, one can see something of a need for sublime harmony.
The second area, consolation, makes the gauge move. If one acknowledges that part of our experience with architecture as it is now consists of suffering, then his design interventions are often a breath of fresh air. They offer people in a highly technological, highly capitalistic, massive and global society, in short, the human as abstraction, something of a sense of place, a consciousness of the passing of time, a sentiment of natural processes. Without calling this therapeutic, it is definitely the addition of consolation.
For the most difficult area to gauge, emotion, my indicator has trouble; it wavers back and forth. Perhaps my gauge, faultless when dealing with films, fails when dealing with landscape architecture. Perhaps the measuring should end there.
But perhaps there is another explanation in the case of Michael van Gessel. He is not a prophet, not some cult figure of our global times, not a personality thrust upon us. He disappears behind his work. His work recedes into what already is, what others have already done, what nature and time do, and he maintains this through solutions he creates, thereby making the site new again. His personal emotions live forth in the impersonal work. A transplantation.
Onzichtbaar werk / Michael van Gessel Landschapsarchitect, samenstelling en redactie Christian Bertram en Erik de Jong, vormgeving Reynoud Homan, 348 pagina’s, 33 x 26 cm. Engelse editie / ISBN 978-90-5662-038-7 / € 82,50