An eye for the undesigned Anne Bousema's photographs question the way that we look at landscape and what we choose to value in it
England needs 4.4 million new homes by 2016, said a doe report in 1995 - a figure that has since been revised upwards, to the alarm of green-belt and rural communities. In the already densely-settled Netherlands, the national building programme Vinex will spawn almost a million more houses in the next 10 years. There, as here, the landscape of building construction is ubiquitous but - like other landscapes that are in transition - largely unseen. We glimpse such sites out of the corner of our eyes but keep on walking; their character and qualities go unacknowledged.
Such is the premise that underlies a three-year project, funded by the Mondriaan Foundation, which photographer Anne Bousema has undertaken at Zaaneiland in the Dutch city of Zaanstad. Once the location of a sprawling sawmill, this small island was annexed for a housing development in 1994, and Bousema was invited to record its metamorphosis.
Throughout the period of construction, Bousema spent a day or two each month at Zaaneiland, walking, looking and taking photographs. The resulting images, however, are not what one might expect, for the way in which she has approached the commission is elliptical and oblique. Instead of a panoramic overview in which the buildings, the evolving suburb in its entirety, take centre stage, Bousema prefers details, the ephemeral, the marginal; she calls it 'a fragmented narrative'. These photographs are not of what endures but of what is erased. Deiberately, this is less the portrait of a place than of a process. It happens to be called Zaaneiland but it could be anywhere.
Bousema believes that moments from the process, isolated in her images, have a particular beauty; but acknowledges that not everyone will agree: 'Some people see beauty in them - others think it's a horror story!'
From her vignettes we can infer a larger picture. Planks and scaffolding are loosely stacked at the water's edge, the precursor of things to come. Bricks are scattered on sand flecked with fragments of shells; sand subsequently patterned by the tracks of heavy plant. A lush wild garden sprouts by a rickety fence; in the foreground is an enigmatic wooden crate. As foundations are dug, the ground appears in turmoil - gouged and then displaced in banks and heaps. In one image, the case of a spent firework lies amid shrivelled brownish weeds.
Then concrete floor slabs appear, with service pipes protruding; an orange insignia on one slab is the residue of a rusting nail. Party walls of the new houses peek over the top of a steep, part-vegetated sandbank. Discarded packaging - cardboard, plastic, polystyrene - looks like an arte povera installation. Gradually the facades of the properties take shape, in geometric counterpoint to the more random incident all around. Textures of brick and concrete block assert themselves. Gardens are laid out; patios colonised by plant pots and chairs; roads surfaced and marked. Then a grove of newly-planted saplings brings 'nature' to the suburb.
There are photographic precedents for Bousema's way of looking, her selective scrutiny of what happens to the land. They are found most readily in the work of the American 'New Topographics' photographers of the 1970s - Robert Adams, Joe Deal and Lewis Baltz. All three turned from the idealised natural world of, say, Ansel Adams at Yosemite and looked instead at more mundane transactions between man and landscape - tract houses in Colorado Springs, suburban development in Albuquerque. But a series like Baltz's Park City, shot in 'a bedroom community' for skiers near Salt Lake City, seems polemical in its portrayal of ravaged land. Bousema, on the other hand, isn't wanting to be negative. 'I'm not being ironic in depicting these things,' she says. 'I truly find them interesting. We can learn from them - and we can learn to appreciate them.'
Another photographic parallel, where the attitude is appreciative, emerges from leafing through an old copy of the Architectural Review (May 1950). A view of Ahrbom and Zimdahl's Technical High School, Stockholm, with construction debris prominent, is captioned as follows: 'An example of a diagrammatic facade forming the perfect background to, in this instance, a fortuitous display of sculpture.'
But, forgetting photographs, Bousema's vision seems much indebted to Modernist painting: the frontal viewpoint, for instance, that compresses space and hints at abstraction in a manner that derives from late Cezanne. There is seldom a single subject, an obvious focus for attention; instead, our gaze is dispersed all over the image, each part of it having a similar weight. Such an inclusive attitude to what might be of visual interest is, of course, a challenge to our familiar habits of attention - and to the hierarchy of values which we usually ascribe to our world.
Bousema studied for several years as a landscape architect before turning to the fine arts, gradually deciding on her present direction during postgraduate studies at the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, 1990-92. Among her photographic commissions have been a study of the prefabricated satellite cities being built in the desert around Cairo and, closer to home, research into the coastal and harbour landscape of the Dutch Maasvlakte. But one project, A Story of Trees, which, she says, 'is very close to my heart', arose almost by accident.
Examining a number of her negatives, Bousema suddenly realised that, for four or five years, in whatver city she happened to have been - Tangiers, Madrid, Berlin, Rotterdam - she had been taking photographs of isolated trees, bushes, and patches of vegetation: green intruders or survivors that were 'forgotten or unplanned'. Some 200 images were subsequently reduced to 90 and exhibited in Amsterdam in 1997. Like the Zaaneiland series, they are more universal than specific to a place: 'I now have to look very closely to decide where they were taken,' she says.
What Bousema sees in them is what she sees also in her Zaaneiland images: neglected beauty, and scope for us to exercise our imagination. 'In their unplanned way these trees change the atmosphere of a place. Sometimes they even create a place and give it an identity. The thing I find most touching is the human imperfection they express. They're ignored, they're not in prime condition. I feel protective towards them as if they were something precious.'
In their modest, sporadic way, these unkempt trees contribute to the idea of urban wilderness - something which Bousema thinks the Netherlands very much needs, and for which her photographs are an eloquent plea. But her work has a larger ambition, as a story she tells of the Maasvlakte project, undertaken with landscape architect Wilke Diekema, will make clear. This investigation of harbour and coastal landscapes, carried out for the Port of Rotterdam and the State Department of Roads and Waterways, confounded her clients' preconceptions; whereas the harbour was believed to be essentially industrial, the coast 'natural', the evidence of Bousema's photographs revealed a much more complex intermingling. 'Our images came as a real surprise,' she says. 'Our clients simply hadn't realised those things were there. For them it was like looking at a foreign landscape.'
In these projects Bousema asks fundamental questions about what we choose to see (or disregard) and about what we choose to value (or depreciate). Another story she tells, about the area in Rotterdam where she lives, is revealing. This is a development zone in the city, taking shape in the last two or three years, that she now finds less engaging than it was because 'everything has been thought about and defined'. For Bousema, planners, architects, all the professionals who determine the look of our environment tend to over-determine it. Her photographs have one purpose in particular: they show us the importance of the undesigned.