LILA Honour Award 2019: Michael van Gessel

Past Saturday, November 2nd, some 120 guests gathered at the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam to participate at the awarding Dutch landscape architect Michael van Gessel with the 2019 LILA Honour Award. After the welcome speech by Hanneke Kijne, Head of Landscape Architecture at the Academy, invited experts contributed their thoughts on the winner Michael van Gessel and his works. Please read the speeches below this gallery of photos, taken by photographer Jonathan Andrew.

After the speeches, Michael van Gessel and his husband, Mr. Martin Doyle prepared a moving speech and handed to the present speakers Michael’s recent paintings.

Sobriety and Ambiguity in the Works of Michael van Gessel

Zaš Brezar, editor-in-chief, Landezine

I’m extremely happy that you Michael are here this evening and I’d like to thank to a couple of people that were essential in the making of this event, especially Tineke Blok, Adelaida Larrain, people at the Academy and our speakers; Lisa Diedrich and Frits Palmboom and also to Marc Treib who sent his message in a form of a video from California. I also thank to Grijsen Park en Straatdesign for their financial support.

I have to tell that organising this event was a charm. Every door we knocked on, opened for us widely, which speaks for itself about the respect and love Michael enjoys here.

You may wonder why there are these mesmerising wheat fields. In 2014 I met Michael in Barcelona at the Biennial and asked him if he would do an interview for our platform, as we were already fans of his work. He said yes and one of the questions I usually ask everybody is ‘Why did you decide to become a landscape architect, what was the catalyst, the trigger?’ He said ‘I saw a movie, black and white, in the 60’ and it started with the wind blowing through the wheat field.’ But he didn’t remember the title, nor the director, as it was really a long time ago. I googled “a movie that starts with the wind blowing through a wheat field”, and eventually I found it.

Appropriation of Zemlya, meaning Earth, a silent film by Ukrainian director Aleksandr Dovženko, produced in 1930.

Today we are here because of LILA, Landezine International Landscape Award. It was founded in 2016 in collaboration with our advisor and a friend Robert Schaefer, whom you may know as the founder and long-time editor-in-chief of Topos Magazine.  LILA aims to recognize practices and projects that make unique contribution to our global professional community. This award is very demanding, solving problems of today’s world is very important, but not enough, LILA wants more than that and is specifically searching in the field of the unexpected, unique, abstract and experimental. It’s an area of our profession that is more difficult to talk about and teach, and where it’s not really possible to establish a precise set of criteria.

In terms of design, this surplus value of projects has been called many names by sociologists, art historians and philosophers, they called it temperature, electricity, presence. We chose to use the term ‘tension’.

LILA is in fact a family of recognitions for offices and projects. This year we added LILA Honour Award to the family. It’s an award for established body of work for practitioners, academics or other profiles related to landscape architecture. With LILA Honour award we want to start a continuous communication namely a growing series of carefully posed thoughts on landscape architecture. That means that the conditions will shift from time to time. This year we are at the very core of landscape architecture, later on we might move towards the margins of the profession.

So, how to start an Honour Award? We thought that at the beginning is a good idea, so for this first time, we knew we were searching for a practitioner. Someone who is bound to minimalistic design approach in order to show the full anatomy of the profession and does that in an effortless and remarkable way. As if we were searching for a definition of the core of our profession.

The key questions for LILA Honour Award are two: What can future generations of landscape architects learn from our winners and why is that important at the very moment? In case of the latter, LILA not only celebrates excellence, but also gives a critique to our professional community. To cut the long story short, LILA Honour award is not for acknowledging something that was important in the past so we can move on. It’s precisely the opposite; to acknowledge it and to say that we need to study and use that knowledge more today. This is the true job of LILA Honour Award, to bring what needs to be brought back in the spotlight.

So the first winner of LILA Honour Award is Michael van Gessel, who I believe needs no introduction in the Dutch professional community. Thank you for accepting the Award, the honour is for sure ours.

So what can future generations of landscape architects learn from Michael van Gessel?

One of the paramount particularities in Michael’s work concerns his approach to history of a place. The way how he juxtaposes the new and the old reflects a unique virtue that can’t be learnt quickly. Michael found a unique movement through layers of time and then curating what he had found on the way. He’s been able to make many relevant suggestions or statements in few design moves. He made it a bit in the language of poets, never literate, always leave space for ambiguity, personal experience and abstraction. He knows well that this is how a memorable place is designed.

And here we come to the essence of why Michael’s work is so special. The tension between two notions: sobriety and ambiguity.

Sobriety in Michael’s work is the carrier of clarity, focus, reasoning, simplicity … Sobriety establishes Michael’s own universe, a reality of certainties. Ambiguity enters the process as a counter pole that tries to disrupt it but precisely by doing that it in fact complements it. You need these counter-attitudes, or counter poles to start the dynamics that produce the tension and make the electricity. And that’s why simplicity in Michael’s work is never plain and the clarity is never boring.

It’s been 101 years since German sociologist Max Weber was complaining in his speech about the Disenchantment of the world, modern society being overly scientific, intellectualised, too technical, predictable and so on. Weber’s thoughts are still very much alive today, chewed and digested frequently by contemporary theoreticians from the field of architecture.

Ambiguity in Michael’s work acts as means of re-enchantment. Ambiguity engages the visitor to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. Michael knows well that by engaging the visitor’s abstract thinking, the site may become meaningful to them. This is the most beautiful invitation by any landscape architect to the society.

Every visitor can simply enjoy the outdoors freely and in a relaxed way, but for the curious minds, Michael’s landscapes always reveal some treasures, quiet spectacles and are eager to offer an invitation to play.

Layers of time often build an aura around a place as Walter Benjamin would say and I consider this aura as the enchantment. It means that there is a unique value of a historic site not only in its original state as such – as visual structure, but also in the meaning of what that original state meant in its original time, namely the context. As they say, great works don’t just open up new futures, but also change the past. As the context gets changed over time, the meaning gets transfigured as well. The meaning also needs adaptation to today’s context. As in these wheat field shots. In the original version, there is this soviet choir music which produced a certain feeling back in 1930. If you noticed before, we added a more contemporary sounds to it. This way, it immediately produced a new powerful tension between the old and the new, it became more understandable and hence more relevant and recognisable to a listener today. As building a bridge in time.

There is no better way to make a visitor think about the history of a site than to provoke a constant questioning of what is new and what is old in a design. In this dialogues of architectural language, in building these bridges in time, Michael has really been so good at.

To conclude; why is this knowledge so important for future use?

Landscape architecture just as the rest of the world is facing very big and very real social and environmental problems, they are so big that they began to occupy the same zone and they are slowly merging one with another. We all need to take an active part in solving these issues in our work and in our lifestyle. But at the same time, we should take care that the landscapes we design, offer depth, an interesting, engaging experience, just like listening to music or going to the theatre do. These things are wanted. If people will want our work, we will save ourselves a great deal of campaigning and advocating of how needed landscape architects are in the society.

Michael, you gave as a big gift. We would all want more of your projects. I hope other practitioners will be influenced by your work.

And now we will hear from three experts that also know Michael personally, much better than myself. These are Marc Treib and two speakers who also contributed to the wonderful book called Invisible Work, Lisa Diedrich and Frits Palmboom.

Michael van Gessel: An Appreciation

Marc Treib, Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley

Seeing Michael van Gessel’s landscapes brings three adjectives to mind: restrained, elegant, ethical. For his contributions to the landscape architecture profession, however, we would need to add a fourth word: significant.

Michael’s has been no ordinary landscape practice, although it might have begun in a somewhat ordinary way with student years at Wageningen and less typically, the many years he spent running the design projects for Bureau B&B in Amsterdam.

Each of the Michael’s landscapes is marked by restraint—restraint here meaning not the will to act, but the will not to express in an overly obvious manner.

The project for the Museum Belvedere in Oranjewoud, for example, transformed—with grace and continuity—the landscape of an eighteenth-century manor house to its new use as a museum.

With a canal as its primary structure—certainly nothing novel in The Netherlands—he defined the various zones associated with the museum building that had been conceived as a bridge.

Using primarily grasses, with few trees, he anchored the building to its site, defined paths, and screened the parking area.

Some years ago I had been taken to the museum by a Dutch art historian, primarily to see the building, which he regarded as an interesting new work. At the time of my visit I didn’t know Michael, nor that he had designed the landscape for the museum.

But that landscape possessed some special quality, despite the fact that every feature of the design was ordinary and underplayed—restrained—and marked by a certain elegance.

In the reworking of the courtyard of Kloostertuin in Dordrecht, the central intersection of the two parts of the landscape meet at a curious angle, framing a small space that serves both as the point of entry and the place of exit.

Using only a single feature— a zigzag bench, inspired I was told by ripping paper—he marked the intersection of the two elevated panels of grass with their existing trees. That single gesture—a space formed by those benches—was sufficient.

Their jagged geometry both joins and separates, to make a place characterized by both repose and tension. The use of the single understated—yet influential—gesture is characteristic of almost all Van Gessel landscapes.

In what may sadly be his last major project— for the Plantage plaza at the Amsterdam Zoo, Michael reasoned that the pavement could be used to unite the diverse buildings, and proposed brickwork designed as a richly textured carpet.

To one side, a wonderful water feature spills, and pools, and delights the children who play in it.

And of course, there are other parts of the project—but the simple carpet of brick controls the design, and not much more is really needed.

It has been said of graphic design, that it should function as a glass does for wine. The glass exists to present the wine, and heighten an appreciation of its taste; any appreciation of its form should be secondary. In a similar way, the key features of Michael’s projects deliver the landscape, using perhaps only one feature to instigate the design—and that is enough. Its effect is often felt more than seen.

Elegance is also characteristic of each these landscapes. Paired with restraint, it produces designs marked by a certain touch. Much of the landscape is handled in what appears to be an ordinary way, but each landscape is characterised by unusually careful detailing, and an appropriate choice of materials.

These characteristics describe the reworking of the nineteenth-century park in Valkenburgh that actually began by removing over 200 trees to open the landscape for visitor safety and heighten visual interest. In this case, removal stimulated revelation.

Due to budget constraints the paths were paved in asphalt, but each path was bounded by a concrete curb that transformed the asphalt and lent it a certain elegance.

And now that third word: ethical. Today, the ethical aspect of landscape architecture prevails. Most of the journals, and most of the awards, are devoted to designs which save, preserve, or protect existing conditions, or mitigate the environmental forces that we fear will control our future. Of course, these efforts are worthy and needed. However, it seems less attention has been devoted to the cultural and aesthetic consequences of these projects, and I wonder how the contribution of the landscape architect differs from that of an engineer or scientist.

A humanistic perspective would be the broad answer. I often wonder why we can’t achieve landscapes resilient, socially aware and beautiful, landscapes that strive for a level above the functional. Michael van Gessel’s landscapes have always pursued that high goal. The projects I have visited appear popular with people; I assume they also meet the stringent Dutch requirements for water management; they appear to use appropriate species of vegetation. They are provocative when needed, and they are usually beautiful.

I appreciate Michael’s concern for the small detail as well as the broad concept, and for the particular species as well as the construction material. His has been an ethical practice accompanied by high goals.

Michael has a wonderfully warm personality, and treats everyone with respect—although in my experience, he has never shied away from expressing his own views, however different they may be. In later years he often worked individually, but his concern remained more broad, for society as well as the profession. It seems there was no limit to the amount of time he would give to a cause, whether in the landscape architecture or administrative arena. (back to MT speaking) A few years ago Michael spent a year in Berkeley as a visiting scholar; he generously offered to co-teach, without pay, a graduate design studio for the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California—and he often spent more time in studio with the students, than the person nominally in charge of the class. His role in the European Federation of Landscape Architects was primary, and he is, to a large degree, responsible for the organization’s award system, and the books that resulted from those juries, among them On Site, Fieldwork, and In Touch. He is indeed an exceptional person and exceptional landscape architect.

I would venture to say that ANY award given to him is fully deserved, and I am proud to claim Michael van Gessel as a friend, as well as colleague.

‘Michael van Gessel. Heart and Soul – a European Perspective’

Lisa Diedrich, Professor of Landscape Architecture, SLU Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Feeling European is still difficult. A while ago I asked Michael: “Do you feel Dutch?” – “No.” Michael van Gessel’s determination leaves no doubt, even if it is the answer of a Dutch landscape architect, living in Amsterdam, with a majority of projects realized in the Netherlands and some characteristics in his working method that, seen from outside, appear typically Dutch. What makes one a European? In Michael van Gessel’s case, perhaps the absence of a single cultural origin provides the first explanation: his father is Dutch, his mother half-English, half-Scottish; the family lived in Australia for generations. Secondly, there is the trajectory across cultures: Michael van Gessel was born in Indonesia, partly raised in Australia, as a child entered Europe via Switzerland and Paris before studying and working in The Netherlands. We may add a third factor: the willpower to find a home for his multifaceted identity. He reports that he was attracted to living in Sydney, but felt he had a need for spirituality, poetry, sensitivity in life, which he only found in Europe and which made him feel at home there. His choice for Amsterdam was due to the privileged cultural climate, as he calls it, which made the Netherlands a stimulating place for architecture, landscape and urbanism. He liked the kind of “socialism” one could find there, which stimulated him to make the best possible creation for the general public, to create a world that is not only functional, but also full of beauty.

Since the turn of the century, we have observed landscape architects joining the flying jet set of star architects, around the world. If we did not see Michael van Gessel as a member of this crowd, we did find him on another European platform at that time: the European professional association for landscape architecture, then EFLA, today IFLA Europe. He was a delegate during the key years of the profession’s consolidation, when it aimed for the recognition of the title in the European countries and supported the European Landscape Convention, voted in 2000 in Florence. Michael was convinced that such corporatism was necessary but not sufficient. That policy alone would never bring about the kind of lively cultural debate European professionals needed in order to realize who they are, where to get inspiration from, and how to create European identity. Michael van Gessel’s idea was to develop a yearbook, from the midst of the profession, as an ongoing publication of contemporary European landscape architecture. We sometimes have a hard time to remember that in the early years of the 21st century, landscape architecture publications were still rare. So Michael’s ambition was foundational. The imagined yearbook came into being upon the creation of the Landscape Architecture Europe Foundation in Wageningen, by a team around Meto Vroom, emeritus professor of landscape architecture, who we mourn this year, and the publication professionals of Blauwe Kamer, headed by Harry Harsema. I joined the team in those years, attracted by the collaborative model of creating a professional publication, as experienced in the Dutch Yearbooks of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism. Instead of an editorial office selecting projects, the idea was to invite professionals to do it together. Consequently the editorial home base in Wageningen turned into a kind of “factory” launching a call for entries first, and then gathering the teams: a jury of practitioners led by Michael, the board of Foundation members as consultants including Meto, an editorial team to conceptualise the publication under my auspices, and a production team to make the book directed by Harry Harsema. All of those people came from different European countries, and they created what Stig Andersson of SLA, one of the first jury members, called ‘the other Europe’, not only striving for economic opportunities but for quality of life, through landscape.

The first book, Fieldwork, Landscape Architecture Europe, was published in 2006, printed and distributed in four languages by three editorial houses around Europe and the world. It proved to be exactly the discursive platform Michael van Gessel intended to establish. In the meantime five editions have been published, a sixth one is in preparation, and the network of involved professionals is growing, new people have come in, be they members of the board, of the juries, of the editorial teams, or project authors, writers and other contributors. LAE has become more than a book, it is a family of free thinkers and a European instance for the critical reflection of contemporary European landscape architecture.

Unusual in comparison many of his fellows, Michael has not been running after international lectures (and fame). Travelling, for him, was always for inspiration and not for work. His work has often been about drawing for twelve hours a day in Amsterdam, and he needed a break every six weeks to travel and free his mind. The freedom to travel links him to the French landscape architect Gilles Clément (born 1943, and so of the same generation), an obsessed traveller to the most remote regions of the world, where he never carried out a project, but collected precious plants, objects, odours, words, impressions, and convictions. Convictions that distinguished him from his French colleagues but alimented the French landscape architectural debate. Clément introduced ecological thinking, humanistic ambitions, written poetry and new concepts like the “Garden in Motion” into the French profession, practically from the “back office”, his garden in La Vallée where he stubbornly pretended to be a gardener. Clément is even further away from typical French landscape architecture than Michael van Gessel is from the Dutch one. Both are “untypical” for their countries, but loyal to themselves and constantly extending the borders of their minds. In European landscape architecture, national schools and attitudes create the rich panorama of the profession, but the state of the art is evolving because of those who dare to step aside, who don’t follow national trends, who irritate and inspire at the same time, and who engage in “political” initiatives. In Michael van Gessel’s case, the accuracy and depth of his designs inspire as much as his opposition to the Superdutch boldness may irritate, and his struggle for European landscape architecture kicks his fellows out of their offices in order to take common action. In this sense, Michael van Gessel is not only a motor for Dutch but also for European landscape architecture. He stands for a culture that is made of movements and collectives, which takes its life energy from free spirits and their counter-movements. For me, Michael is the voice of European landscape architecture we should all take up, while he keeps lending it heart and soul.

On Michael van Gessel

Frits Palmboom, Emeritus Professor of Van Eesteren, TU Delft and co-founder of Palmbout Urban Landscapes

Dear Michael – dear Martin, dear Zas, dear friends;

It is an honour to add some words to this tribute to Michael – to celebrate his work, his career, and his person. I will start with a personal touch.

Michael and I first met in the early eighties, working on the projects of Zevenkamp and Prinsenland in Rotterdam,
(together with Tjakko Hazewinkel, with Riek and Ank, with Joost and many others).
We were both young, dedicated and ambitious. Already in those days we had vivid discussions on themes that in the course of time turned out to be quiet fundamental to your work:
– About simplicity and evidence,
– About logic and romanticism,
– About formality and randomness.

Lateron, I had the privilege of cooperating, for years and years, in the Quality-teams of IJburg in Amsterdam and Belvedere in Maastricht. And once, in 2011, we really made a design together, for the competition (Open Oproep) about Droogdokkenpark in Antwerp.

Looking back, I realise again how many of the basic characteristics of your work were present in that project:
– First of all, the motto that you proposed:
“What is, is the great guide as to what ought to be” –
(Joseph Spence, …. I have to confess never heard of before ….., somewhere in the eighteenth century….)

Secondly the feeling and fascination for the site:
– a truly ‘elementary landscape’,
– full of traces of history,
– but also of a very material and tactile character,
with the eternal granite of the harbour docks on the one side,
and the ever-changing mudflats of the tidal landscape at the other side.

Third, the incredible fast analytical view, as expressed in this ‘anatomy’;
together with a suppleness to accept and to embrace the technical necessities related to flood protection etc.

Then, the pleasure of making beautiful and precisely elaborated drawings, as a way to empathise yourself deeply with the site and the design,

to bring in strong, timeless images to animate it,

and to provide it with a certain poetry and stillness.

All these aspects run as common threads throughout your design work, as well as through your work as a supervisor.
I learned a lot from it – and besides that it was just fun: cycling around on the site, shouting, “look here /look there!”…. the first intuitions, ….. the enthusiasm and the energy.
I am still grateful for this shared experience –
and still regret that we didn’t win this competition.
(I fear this part of your work will stay a little bit too ‘invisible’….)

In the Big Van Gessel Book I described how the supervision work differs from the design work, but also how it is deeply related to it.
Supervising is
– more about coaching than drawing,
– it is about continuity in guidance,
– with the public space as a physical framework,
– where urban uses can ‘address’ themselves to.

The role of the supervisor is not so much to be the head of the army, but to be the host of a company, of a team, with many ‘actors’ involved.
His or her role is ‘to lay out, to stimulate, to let land’.
So, attitude is very important, and Michael has been very inspiring in that respect as well.
He acted as a host, but not as a neutral one, not as a sort of diplomat. He acted as a host who sets the tone with a certain aesthetic intention –
akin to the motto of Joseph Spence (cited before in relation to the Antwerp Droogdokkenpark).
It implies to ‘read’ – and to enjoy – the site and the assignment together, and to look for an evidence “as if it has always been there”.
It is an attitude that permits the combination of contrast and stillness, of peace and drama, and that can produce images of great poetic power.
I remember discussions, with others, with the jury, about our Droogdokken design. “Where are the people, the attractions the park is meant for?”, they asked.

But stillness does not contradict vitality; it precedes it, it offers it a scene as well as a certain decorum.
In this sense, the ‘invisible’ work of supervising is not over. The harvesting season has just begun:

take a summer Friday on the harbour or on the beaches of IJburg,

take the rush hour at Oostelijke Handelskade,

take a falling evening around the Bassin in Maastricht, and see the people relaxing or strolling or hurrying around: they offer the living and vivid evidence for that.

Those are ‘real-life’ congratulations, that measure up to this beautiful, well-earned 2019 LILA Honour Award.

Published on November 7, 2019

One thought on "LILA Honour Award 2019: Michael van Gessel"

  1. So happy to see Michel is receiving LILA Honour Award !!
    All my love for him !! Teresa Moller .

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