Thijs de Zeeuw: ‘I’m a natural optimist, but of course it’s not going well’

When you come from the subway, you first pass a fenced area where two large pigs are foraging: Barry and Rosita. But they are not why landscape architect Thijs de Zeeuw, who specializes in designing zoo animal enclosures, chose VerbroederIJ in Amsterdam-Noord for lunch. He is also not interested in the city beach at the IJ or the socially involved activities that the café organizes. No, VerbroederIJ, not far from his studio, offers a ‘beautiful view of the Albemarle chemical factory’. And that area, he says, “is actually a very beautiful nature reserve.”

I noticed De Zeeuw in June during an evening at De Balie’s debate center on the relationship between humans and other animals. The reason was the new collection of essays by biologist Tijs Goldschmidt, Wolves on the trailand De Zeeuw always unashamedly chose the side of the animals in the debate.

I knew his name: I knew that he belongs to the North Sea Embassy, ​​which means that he will ‘engage in dialogue’ with eels and other aquatic animals to ultimately represent them politically. I read in Fidelity that as an ‘opening sentence’ to that dialogue he hung shelters in the water at Amsterdam’s Arcam architecture museum, where last year he architect in residence used to be. And that next autumn his ‘volunteer aviary’ in a hotel in Amsterdam-East is ready: an open cage where city birds can go in and out freely (but where not only large groups of pigeons come to ‘hang out’). I saw the project that was in the news five years ago: the then-completed elephant enclosure in Artis, four thousand square meters, on the former parking lot. He also needs to house the Artis lions again, he says towards the end of our conversation.

And now De Zeeuw (46), wild hair in various shades of gray, short beard, wide light yellow T-shirt, pastel pink sweater, looks eagerly at a chemical factory. He was there last year, he says. “Wild orchids grow there, a falcon has nested for a long time, a hawk has sat there, and there is a fox den.” He has seen videos of employees where a fox enters the company canteen. “So the steel desert that roars and smokes is also a resting place.”

The site is of course not freely accessible. The factory produces catalysts to make chemical processes in chemical companies and refineries cleaner. Dangerous substances are used. But the municipality of Amsterdam wants to build a residential area next door: Hamerkwartier is to have more than six and a half thousand new homes with residential towers two hundred meters from the factory. These are exactly the kind of situations that De Zeeuw finds interesting: an area full of unexpected nature in the city, its temporality, how people must relate to it, and above all: how it gnaws.

At Albemarle, he says, they are “kind of proactively concerned” about the planned residential area. Afraid that once people live there they will still complain. “But if you can show that the factory also has something to offer…” De Zeeuw would like to design a buffer zone of urban nature that people are allowed to enter. He hopes that the manufacturer will find it interesting. “That factory site is probably the most biodiverse area in the entire area. I think it is important to show such an image of nature.” He collects non-pathetic stories about nature on his Instagram account, @NatureOptimist. “As a counterbalance: Normally, attention is only paid to nature when things are going badly.”

roof garden

A sparrow comes begging beside the table. In vain: we have nothing yet. De Zeeuw orders his falafel salad and ginger beer from me so I can pay with a QR code. Landscape architects, he goes on to explain, create “everything in public space that is not a building, from street profile or park to the whole of Western Europe.” He did his graduation project for the Academy of Architecture at Artis, a roof garden with an urban nature, which was canceled because a parking garage was planned, which was canceled. “But that’s how I rolled into Artis, I’ve been designing animal shelters ever since.” Then for the elephants and prairie dogs, Japanese cranes, snowy owls, giant tortoises, cassowaries (ostriches) and false gharials (a species of crocodile).

Zoos often try to mimic the landscape their wildlife lives in, he says. “A piece of the Congo.” It is not necessary for him. “I would rather think: how can I give such an animal a meaningful life on a small piece of land in a historic city? And it generally does not lead to the restoration of the Congolese rainforest. It costs a lot of energy and requires plant species that will not grow here. I am looking for: what is a logical landscape here for such an animal?”

His elephant enclosure is based on “supposed elephant wishes”; he sees the animals as patrons. For example, the elephants got a mud pool because in nature they like to roll in the mud: it was the first thing they did in the new enclosure. He also had 164 concrete slabs made that come out of the landscape as soil layers, in different colors that retain heat to different degrees, and with four surface roughnesses, so that the elephants can grind themselves coarser or finer. And there is bath water.

One dilemma, he says after the waitress brings our ginger beer, his falafel salad and my kimchi toast, is whether to make sure a zoo animal is missing something. “Of course your day is super boring when everything is safe and organized.” He realized this when he designed an enclosure for the fake gharials. The goal was to get them to mate, in the wild there are at most a few thousand. “But how do you get a crocodile in the mood for?” He looked for ‘overlap between his experience and mine’. And thought: “Seasons! In the summer there is a more exuberant experience of sexuality in the air.”

In the wild, the false gharial has a dry and a wet season, so De Zeeuw had rain machines made with ‘a nice thick drop’, designed by a sprinkler specialist. But the crocodiles didn’t like it, they immediately crawled to a dry place (and mate, oh no). “But: if you’re inside just before the storm, you feel in control of your well-being. By not organizing an accommodation optimally and by making changes, you also give an animal that experience.” He even gave the elephants some control over the area outside their enclosure: when swimming, the water splashes over the sunken walkway where people stand and watch them. Laughs: “I think the elephants sometimes deliberately make waves that make people scream.”

Hole in the conscience

To my surprise, De Zeeuw now and then manages to cut through a lettuce leaf with the side of his fork, behavior that I have never seen a human display before, certainly not successfully. But I forget to say anything about it because I suddenly wonder: does he actually have pets? “None. With the design for Artis, I also notice that I think it’s quite intense to lock animals up and limit their freedom. I think it’s interesting to put myself in the shoes of the animals, but to do it for my work I find me enough. My girlfriend has a bird, a shama thrush, do you know it?” A beautiful, red-black tropical songbird with a long tail. Sometimes she lets him fly freely in the garden, which De Zeeuw finds ‘super scary’ because in the winter he wouldn’t make it outside. The beast doesn’t like him (probably jealous), but: “You feel responsible.”

This is how you saddle yourself, he says, with a responsibility that extends from zoos and the pet industry to the entire nature policy. “That’s where things went wrong with Oostvaardersplassen. We would like to let horses stray, but we are not used to a horse being a wild animal. Seeing horses die because there is not enough food? A lot of people don’t like that.” Whereas: wild deer with food shortages are only protested if they have to be shot. “Pretty much the best venison you can get.” De Zeeuw eats meat, yes, if not from factory farming.”Even though I think I’ll stop at some point, it’s still a hole in my conscience.”

Next to our table, an almost grown sparrow begs its mother, chirping loudly, wings quivering and wide. “Find out for yourself, fuck off,” De Zeeuw’s voice-over tells the mother sparrow, but in the end she still gives the child some food.

De Zeeuw calls himself a city person, although he clearly means urban nature person. He only lived outside of Amsterdam for a while during his studies: in Wageningen, for his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. Together with his father (social geographer) and mother (psychologist), he already watched a lot of birds and other animals, and he has always continued to do so. He counts them too. “In the garden of my studio,” he says, “and also a small park in Noord, where I think: they will build there one day, and then we will be able to show that twenty species of wild bees live here.” Laughs: “Because I’m a natural optimist, but of course things don’t go so well.”

Partly because of his guilt about zoos, he started the online thinking platform Zoo of the Future with friends: “I think landscape architects also have the skills and the responsibility to imagine possible futures.” In their imaginary future zoo, they envisioned a meadow with high stones for the vultures, a landscape where you can hold a beautiful funeral ceremony, after which you can give the body of the deceased to the vultures. “Whether you want to see it happen is another matter, but underground you’ll be eaten just as well.”

He has already said: he likes when it rubs. Perhaps he will also put in some herbaceous grassland in Arti’s new lion enclosure, which attracts pigeons and songbirds. Or a fishing pond, good for herons. “A piece of urban nature with one species of animal that cannot get out.” He would like if such a well-fed lion occasionally thinks of a bird: hey… bugs! And then it raises its mighty claw once more.

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