It feels a bit like his private testing ground; a corner of water behind Amsterdam’s architectural center Arcam. This is where landscape architect Thijs de Zeeuw’s dream of an underwater park, where people and (aquatic) animals meet, was born. And here he went ‘talking’ to the eel.
“It’s a mysterious beast. Until the 1800s, we didn’t know it swam all the way to the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean to breed. It’s also a common fish. Everyone has eaten an eel sandwich at one point or another. Today, it’s no longer possible: The European population has fallen by 90 percent in fifty years. We need a new relationship with the eel.”
The ‘dialogue’ with the eel consists of a series of experiments that De Zeeuw carries out in the water at Arcam as Architect in Residence. He points to a row of yellow balls on the surface. “I lowered gabions there, a kind of cages in which eels and other fish can hide. I consider that my opening line. Now let’s see how the eel reacts.” Young fish in particular need shelter.
De Zeeuw placed one fish finder with sonar in the water so he can see on his phone when there are fish near the hives. Have you ever seen an eel? “Recently I saw a cormorant here with an eel in its beak. But they have not yet appeared at the cages,’ says De Zeeuw.
“Experiment failed? Oh no. This dialogue is one of my more speculative projects. But it led to the idea of an underwater park for eels and other species.” If that inspiration comes from the eel, then the animal has made itself heard.
A model of the eel park has been lined up along Arcam’s glass wall since the beginning of July, so you can look directly at the water outside to imagine what it would look like. Red figures on the model represent people entering the park over a glass-bottomed bridge where they can see underwater.
Small red eels, bass, catfish and crabs look back. After the bridge, the ‘Jesus path’ follows in a zigzag pattern. “It’s just below the water table. From a distance it is as if you see people walking on water. And yes, you will get wet feet. Both effects stimulate thinking about water as a landscape.”
The park has a beach, a snorkelling route, a water garden, an ‘air bubble screen’ to catch floating debris in the water column and an underwater calm spot. The model has a headset that you can listen to how it sounds underwater. On the dock, a garbage truck is just about to dump its load into a stationary, flat garbage boat.
The noise on the headphones is unbearable, you can’t let it stay on your ears. “Sound carries a lot more underwater than on land. So that’s what fish hear. Imagine making this noise in a park above water. That would be a huge protest. Well, underwater it’s actually a park too. The water is not empty, it is full of life.”
Jellyfish in the canal
De Zeeuw points to Oosterdok. “Here there are pike, zander, bream and bream. Thousands of young herring swim in the IJ’s brackish water.” Of course, it’s not unspoiled wilderness, Amsterdam’s aquatic nature. Although there are quite a few exotics, they probably came along with the ballast water from ocean-going ships: the black-billed goby, the Chinese mitten crab and the American comb jelly can even found in the canals.
De Zeeuw: “Contrary to what many people think, the water quality here is quite good. Problems for marine life are the pollution of the bottom and the large amount of ship traffic, which destroys aquatic plants and stirs up silt from the bottom, which hinders visibility.”
The dreamed eel park would be a haven for underwater biodiversity. “The location is perfect, largely sheltered, bounded by jetties and moorings. In addition, we are also on a migration route for fish, from the fresh water of the Amstel and the canals to the brackish water of the IJ. That the city is a biotope for countless animals on dry land – think of herons, foxes, grass snakes, bats – has already occurred to us, but we are often not aware that there is also nature beneath the reflective water surface.”
In October, there will be a program in the public library with workshops and video portraits, where this new relationship with the eel is sought. De Zeeuw will ask the visitors with drawings of his model for their ideas for an encounter with life in water. Is the eel farm ultimately also a ‘speculative project’? “I’m going to lobby the city to get this done. The people I’ve already talked to have been enthusiastic.”
Speculative projects and concrete design often go hand in hand at De Zeeuw. He has designed various animal enclosures at Artis, including for the elephants, more recently the algazels, and a new enclosure for the lions is on his drawing board. Even then, he starts from the animal’s wishes. But it becomes complex because animals in zoos are kept there by humans.
It led to the idea platform The Zoo of the Future (Zooof), with the more or less philosophical concept of ‘voluntary zoo’. In it, animals seek the closeness of humans on their own terms. So when a private client, the Pillows hotel in Oosterpark, requested a design for an aviary in the hotel garden, De Zeeuw knew what to do: a ‘volunteer aviary’.
“You can make a cage and put birds in it, but that’s the colonial idea of owning animals again. And there are already birds in Oosterpark – the blackbird, the blackcap, the redhead, species that you really want to wake up to. Therefore I designed an open construction where city birds can fly in and out on their own initiative.”
Private rooms and good food
“To attract the birds, we give them the same thing that the hotel offers its human guests: rooms and good food. Birdhouses and feeders, made of ceramics in the style of the hotel service.”
The aviary is open to the public and will open in October. What if the hotel mainly receives pigeons and starlings as guests? Not all non-human townspeople are equally eager to meet. “The hotel really asked me to design pigeon repellent measures,” laughs De Zeeuw.
“For example, if I make edges with a slope of 35 degrees, they cannot sit comfortably on them. It was a weird thing to do, but I get it. We don’t mind the urban pigeon, we just don’t want them to come in huge groups. Same logic as with loiterers. Here we have to talk to hanging pigeons.”
In all his designs, De Zeeuw tries to put himself in the shoes of the animals as much as possible. He reads the biological literature and observes the behavior of animals. “When you see birds approaching, they always land first on a branch to take in the environment. So we have included many horizontal beams for them in the volunteer aviary. There will be a pond where they can drink and bathe, but we will make sure that there is enough shrubbery around it so that they feel safe.”
For the eel park, he literally immersed himself in the world of fish: with diving goggles and compressed air bottles. “Only then do you discover how dark it is at the bottom, how muddy, how noisy. You get closer to the experience that the city’s animals have. I don’t mean anything mysterious by that. You don’t hear me tell you to ‘become an animal’. We can’t, we always stick to the human interpretation. But such a physical approach to another biotope gives me courage to make statements about animals. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. But we always talk.”
With every new construction project, the city has the choice of whether you want to have that conversation with animals. “We often call this nature-inclusive construction. But because the city has more non-human than human inhabitants, I prefer to see it as a nature reserve. Human Inclusive Nature.”
The city teems with animals
In the sequel to ‘The New Wilderness’ and ‘Holland: Nature in the Delta’, no vast plains, total silence and grazing cattle. ‘The Wild City’ is about nature in the city.