ING / Kunst & Bedrijf
October 2004

A Zen garden along the Zuidas

On Droog Water, an artwork by Diederik Klomberg

Perhaps the largest Zen garden in the world is situated at a spot which most people will never see, although some will see it every day. On top of two water basins owned by the Amsterdam Water Board on the Zuidas ('South Axis', the urban development area along the southern branch of the Amsterdam beltway, A10), 500 tons of light and dark gray gravel and soft green and dark blue glass marbles have been neatly raked into 20 overlapping circles, around twenty mirroring cores. An eight thousand square meter garden, which no-one will ever set foot on apart from maintenance workers - a landscape to explore with your eyes, not with your feet.

photo: Max Bruinsma

This rhythmical arrangement of circles is seen by those who work in the two buildings which embrace it: the remarkable glass headquarters of the ING Group, alongside the A10, and the new office building at right angles to it. The reason for the artwork can be easily imagined: both office buildings have a splendid view over the immense expanse of the water building's roof. Without visual enhancement it is a 250 by 32 meter gray gravel desert. Especially from the new ING headquarters one must have thought that it may be interesting to reside in such an exceptional building, but that all this architectural and aesthetic finesse rather clashes with the desolate view. The developers of both projects, ING Real Estate en Blauwhoed, presented Kunst & Bedrijf ('Art and Business') with the question of what to do about it, upon which the latter formulated a brief and selected an artist to provide an answer.

Artist and 'environmentalist' Diederik Klomberg, who was eventually commissioned, had experience with large surfaces. Wall paintings in the Jan van Eijck Academy in Maastricht and Kunst en Complex in Rotterdam, large colorful windows in a primary school in Papendrecht, and a geometrical wall drawing in Hoogvliet's city prison show that he is not intimidated by a few hundred square meters. These works are prominently present and at the same time they merge with their surroundings, they adjust themselves. Or better, they enter into a dialogue with their environment; the drawing comments on the space and the space gives meaning to the drawing. Not self-centered 'autonomous art', but 'applied art' in the best sense of the word: an artistic solution of a well defined problem.

photo: Max Bruinsma

The problem of the water basin roof looks simpler than it is. The 'owners' of the view are not the owners of the water basin - that is the Amsterdam Water Board -, and you cannot just think up anything without taking into account the constructive and maintenance preconditions of the building's rooftop and its vulnerable contents, below. Things like weight, material, (im)possibilities for attaching things, wind stress, sound, maintenance etceteras, limit the artist's creative bandwidth here. So the parties concerned sat down and formulated a brief including conditions, which was then further developed by Kunst en Bedrijf. Point of departure were "associations in which reflections of water and sky, perspective distortions, color, light or movement could come into play." The goal was, as Kunst en Bedrijf put it, to create a space "worth seeing, and acting like a creative and spiritual counterbalance for the businesslike environment. (…) The urban context makes another appeal to this work, which should not behave like a drawing or a painting, but within the two-dimensional expanse of the roof convey three-dimensionality." The artist, thus challenged, immediately thought of "a Japanese dry Zen garden in which rugged rocks in a sea of tidily raked gravel represent the elements." The elements in a Japanese dry garden refer to aspects of weather and landscape quite different from the Dutch environment; here, no rugged rocks and mountains, there, no endless polders and expanses of water. Klomberg: "It became clear to me that the work on the water basin's roof should represent the elements land, water, and sky, and that their aspect should be subject to change under the influence of changing weather conditions."
Klomberg's design was met with approval by all parties, after which the Water Board conceded the use of their roof as basis for the artwork for at least fifteen years.

Gravel is not a problematic material on roofs - it has to go there anyway, to stabilize the roof. With this 'standard material', and a few relatively small but important additions, Diederik Klomberg succeeded in making something that is quite exceptional nonetheless. Radiant with plenty of contrast on a rainy day, brilliantly glittering when the sun shines, and subtly graphic under a cloudy sky. This wealth of visual effects is largely due to Klomberg's 'additions' to the gravel: green and dark blue glass marbles. And to the slightly convex mirror-glass reflectors, which form the center of each circle. Like big drops of water they lie in the middle of their expanding rings, as if they had just rained down from the sky and now strike ripples into the quiet waters preserved below the roof. Truly an excellent metaphor for the water basin's function and for the famous rainyness of the Dutch polders. And, for those who oversee it, it is an image as fascinating as it is calming: never changing, never the same. That is how, according to tradition, a Japanese "kansho-niwa", or meditation garden, should be: a "Karesansui", a dry landscape, carefully arranged with minimal means, across which the mind can freely wander.

Tofukuji rock garden, Japan. photo: Frantisek Staud, 1998

But apart from the fact that Klomberg's "Dry Water" answers an artistic brief, it also addresses an important architectural problem, that of the 'fifth façade'. More and more, this term is used for the top side of the four façades of a building, its roof. The flat roof, popularized by modernist building in the 20th century, has initially pushed this notion of a '5th façade' into the background; one generally doesn't see a flat roof as one sees a pitched one, especially if the houses and buildings in each other's vicinity are of more or less the same height. The 'form' of a flat roof is a typical zero-state of functionalism; the plane is only punctured by what needs or wants to come out from underneath: chimneys, emergency exits, ventilation and elevator shafts, plumbing, skylights. The arrangement of these elements is dictated by the structure underneath, and is hardly deemed worthy of any aesthetic accentuation. It won't be seen anyway.

Now that in recent years an ever greater variety of building heights is permitted, and a greater mixture of office and residential buildings, flat roofs are seen more often from above, especially from high-rise offices. When looking out from the higher floors of a building like ING Group's headquarters, over the residential neighborhoods of South-West Amsterdam and the businesses and offices of the 'Mahler area' at the Zuidas, one sees an endless mosaic of gray planes amidst the green: flat roofs between gray-black streets aligned with trees. This more frequent 'top view' give rise to more consideration for the aesthetic form of a roof; seen from above, the roof is a genuine 5th façade, as representative for a building as its four other façades, and as much part of visual public space.

One of the few modernist architects who cared for the top view of his creations was the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. On houses like the 'Villa Savoye' he designed roof terraces with a proper entrance, sunscreens and 'furniture' cast in the roof's concrete, and the roof of his 'Unité d'habitation' in Marseille is a veritable cityscape all by itself, with a swimming pool and other communal facilities. Aesthetic enhancement of the top view was not the main purpose here - Villa Savoye was the only house around in the vicinity, and the 'Unité' was one of Marseille's tallest buildings for a long time -, but to make the roof part of the house as a whole, a natural extension of the interior into the exterior. For climatic reasons this connection is less self-evident in the Netherlands than it is in the South of France. Still, one can imagine that in densely built areas such as the Zuidas intends to become the motive of public space can be taken into account in addition to esthetical reasons when considering design of and access to flat roofs.

Le Corbusier: Unité d'habitation Marseille, roof.

Klomberg's 'Zen garden' is no 'public space' in the sense described above; you can't walk through it, nor sit down on a terrace. Still, it is public space in the visual sense, a space which, through its accentuation, adds character to its surroundings and offers the users of the adjacent private buildings a point of identification and orientation. Therefore also, it is remarkable that this 'visual public space' has been realized by private partners. More and more we see that in public-private collaborations, public authorities - governments and municipalities -- take care of formulating the urban development and zoning plans, and installing the necessary infrastructure, and leave shaping the area largely to the private partners, especially when dealing with commercial projects. The responsibility for warranting the quality of public space - which increasingly is in fact private space - therefore increasingly falls to the private partners.

With a considerable number of high-rise office and housing projects under construction in the Mahler area along the Zuidas, an abundance of views over flat roofs is being created momentarily. Vistas over undifferentiated and unused planes of gray concrete and grit are as unwelcome there as they are next to the ING building. One can imagine Diederik Klomberg's 'Zen garden' serving as an example for more and more advanced commissions in the field that we have summarized here as 'visual public space'. An innovative approach to the '5th façade', as part of public space, which can even lead to an increase in the amount of 'floor space' available and accessible for public use. From 'hanging gardens' to public terraces, one can imagine an elevated public space new to the Netherlands. A high-rise urban expansion, not only in terms of commercial and residential surface, but one that also expands the two dimensions of ground level into the third.

Imagine: a square on top of a residential building, a city park atop an office tower, a pedestrian route along the roofs of adjoining commercial buildings! Art can give an example here, and artists and designers can develop innovative proposals for this elevated public space above the city's street level. But most of all, commissioners will have to develop a vision on the view they are jointly building around each other. A vision rooted in collaboration and shared responsibility for the quality of the public domain. The collaboration between ING/Blauwhoed, Kunst en Bedrijf and the Amsterdam Water Board is a case in point: one helps solve the other's problem; an example of good commissioning - and good neighborship.

max bruinsma