I wrote recently about the need for planting designs to be created in response to their setting or situation. My recent visit to a park in Germany, the so-called landscape park in Duisburg, confirmed my point and at the same time jolting me into seeking new forms and abstractions in my own design work.
We all tend to seek out things we like and revel in their intricacies which we appreciate through their familiarity. But it is sometimes good to experience something totally outside your usual comfort zone and try and understand why and how it has been created.
Pretty parks and gardens are there to offer escape from our urban existence, They are designed to relax and sooth us and provide space to exercise, to play and to get out into the fresh air; but how familiar they all are: grass, trees, water and colourful flowers. Perhaps they don’t need to conform to these stereotypes to function well, nor need to look pretty.
When it first opened some ten years ago the Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord, received international acclaim. The Ruhrgebiet is scattered with derelict industrial sites that once formed the heart of Germany’s metal smelting and mining industry. Instead of demolishing the steel foundry in Duisburg and removing all of the polluted soil and waste, the landscape architect Peter Latz devised a scheme to re-use the industrial buildings as the backdrop to a park in which nature was given the chance to reclaim the landscape.
It took ten years to make the site available to the public during which time the blast furnaces were made safe and thousands of trees were planted to create a park crisscrossed by rusted railway tracks, gantries, towers, water tanks and canals, and the massive walls and workings of part of this region’s industrial history. Since opening it has become the model for many similar projects worldwide. Finally, this summer, I got the chance to visit.
Getting ones bearings in such a vast and alien landscape was not made any easier by the fact that the map at the park’s entrance and every single sign on the site was in German. Only after wandering around for a couple of hours did I feel I had seen the central features, but to experience the far reaches of the terrain a hired bicycle, available on site, would have been necessary.
The scale of everything in this park is overwhelming and on reflection I felt the experience could be compared with a visit to a totally unfamiliar world such as the vast tombs in Egypt or the wonders of Petra in Jordan. Part of Peter Latz’s design ideas for the park was memory. The retained artefacts, which are sometimes moved out of context, are there to signal something about the former use of the site, but not always simply to be preserved as monuments to its history.
What I saw was not pretty, but it was certainly magnificent and offered the same sense of escape and freedom of any traditional park. This is a robust, rough and tumble landscape that can take anything thrown at it. There is room for large festivals and concerts, discrete areas for smaller manifestations, the local diving club can train in the huge water-filled gas tank and mountain climbers of all ages will be found scaling its massive walls and columns.
Even the occasional splash of graffiti seems appropriate taking over the role of colourful flower borders amidst the unfussy planting. Compare this with the Museumplein near my home in Amsterdam where over and over again the grass has to be replaced following public concerts and festivals, or the Millennium Park in Chicago were an army of polite security guards patrol the precious prairie plantings to ensure that you play by the rules.
Within the park there are a number of small discrete garden spaces. These can be entered and offer solitude, but they are also to be viewed from elevated walkways. Their design and impact will be the subject of my next post on this stimulating public park.