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Lasting landscapes

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Floriade 2002 At Haarlemmermeer-Amsterdam until October 2002

What the Dutch have, they have wrested from the most challenging of elements: water. It is not for nothing that the Dutch say that, while God created the earth, they created the Netherlands. Given the fragility of their landscape, and their efforts to maintain (and indeed extend) their compact country, it might seem that a country most threatened by global warming is, ironically, one of the best prepared to deal with it.

Against this physical background, an instinct for survival has produced certain national characteristics, which have subsequently informed Dutch towns and landscape. These are pragmatism, an essential requirement for order, and a remarkable individualism, which in turn have produced an enthusiasm for the new, especially in the fields of architecture and landscape design.

Dutch landscape design was one of the first to espouse ecological principles during the 1960s and '70s, and promote the use of a bolder range of perennial planting in its parks and open spaces. Meanwhile, Dutch urban design has followed a strikingly individual path, with practices such as Rotterdam's West 8 challenging accepted boundaries. Moreover, there is a robust Dutch horticultural industry, a steady economy, and a benevolent planning system.

Since 1960 the Dutch have been harnessing all this talent to create a series of 'Floriades' or World Horticultural Exhibitions every 10 years. In addition to promoting horticulture, however, their aim is to produce a lasting piece of landscape; the Amstelpark and Gaasperplaspark in Amsterdam being two such examples.

This year the district of Haarlemmermeer, close to Schipol airport, was selected, and a 65ha exhibition park has been carefully created over the past six years. One of the major factors in Haarlemmermeer's success over the 10 other competitors was the fact that the district is zoned for a huge degree of expansion for industry, airport facilities and around 15,000 homes. The Floriade aims to organise this exponential growth and change by the provision of some major open space. The organisers think of the park as a 'garden at Europe's lowest point: a garden at the crossroads'.

In many ways the site is a microcosm of the Dutch condition: flat, exposed, and watery. The park's designer, Niek Roozen, has synthesised the commercial demands of the exhibition with a desire to harness the long-term needs of the environment - a respect for nature and the promotion of art in all its forms. The theme is logical enough - 'Feel the Art of Nature' - and its tripartite message is translated literally into the landscape design of three distinct zones. Each of these, from north to south, has its own leitmotif: 'Near the Roof ' (defined by the stimulation of the senses); 'By the Hill' (defined by the artistic possibilities of man and nature); and finally 'On the Lake' (the shaping of nature and other worlds).

This thematic programme proves to be extremely elastic, even confused, with an unsettling lack of connectivity through the site, principally due to the highway and old defence canal that subdivides it. There is also an impression that the exhibition is trying rather too hard. Nevertheless, Roozen has adopted a bold use of elements, existing and new, to create an almost surreal landscape.

The northernmost segment of park is focussed around a body of water contained by a shallow valley, partly oversailed by a colossal glass canopy the size of four football pitches. This impressive structure uses neutrally coloured columns and vivid yellow beams to support a series of 19,000 solar panels (enough for the exhibition's energy needs), while simultaneously sheltering the Floriade's indoor exhibitions.

The lake and its tributaries meander through display gardens from Europe, which are too small in scale beneath this structure and so appear rather insignificant. The layout of the many eateries is rather pedestrian, and the presence of a miniature rail stop interferes with the main vista into the zone from the entrance. Similarly, glasshouses and a conference centre clutter the pure form of the roof. This is by far the most disappointing zone and its long-term future is uncertain, but the interior exhibitions are impressive enough, and the huge Dali-esque red lips at the main restaurant's entrance should be kept at all costs.

To the south, past the Geniedijk with its magnificent allée of trees, one feels reconnected with the landscape. Here water dominates, despite the presence of the 'Hill', a 30m-high folly, which shares its proportions with the pyramid of Cheops but eschews funereal associations. Instead the viewpoint, enlivened by Auke de Vries' cheerfully eccentric sculpture, lays bare Roozen's vision with its stylised Alice-like square islands intertwined with water, which connects with the distant polders. The view is extensive, stretching to the outskirts of Amsterdam.

The organisers must really have liked this idea, as the statistics for its construction in an area already 4.3m below sea level are staggering and a testament to Dutch engineering skills. Within the islands' watery environment is the ambitiously named 'Green City', which extends the theme of art to a prediction of man's future durable living environment. The gardens in association with these buildings are neat and fun, but the different houses are disappointing with their somewhat static exhibitions - light years away from the stunning Dutch pavilion by MVRDV at Hanover Expo 2000.

The contributions from some of the Dutch provinces are more dynamic, but this beautifully conceived, theatrical landscape will be all the better once the exhibits have gone. Horticulturally sophisticated, with a changing palette of willows, lilies and perennials, this zone is an example of well-ordered landscape design. The perfectly proportioned islands are enlivened and framed by the very element that used to pose such a threat; in all, it is a park for reflection and peace.

The final swathe, the 'Lake', provides a striking contrast to the theatricality of the 'Hill'. This area is part of the Haarlemmermeer Bos, an inundated old sand-pit, and part of a valuable ecological resource in the district. Cleverly, the whole scale and character of the water contrasts with the polders, and its verdant woods provide a visual complexity unique to the exhibition. This has been fully exploited with the creation of new valleys and extensive areas of planting.

Here the Dutch horticultural industry gets a chance to really sell itself. The 'Valley of Flowers' contains more than one million bulbs and actually hurts the eye to look at.

The pastel colours of the English landscape tradition are carefully fused into the new gardens, and a huge area of water lilies is contained by sinuously looping Corten steel walkways. By contrast the edge of the water is made more accessible by the use of enormous slabs of Ardennes stone.

Like all good horticultural exhibitions, the Floriade is about its legacy. Even now, the concrete frames of future houses are emerging. The park will eventually become part of a protected Green Belt around Schipol airport and be ringed by roads and railways.

In essence, the Floriade embraces current planning thinking which, like the aforementioned Expo pavilion, has its functions disposed in layers. The theory is that to separate transport, recreation and development in such a postcard-sized country is illogical;

instead they should merge and blend. The Floriade park will enhance the water system, maintain heritage, strengthen the ecological value of the area, and provide a buffer to the maelstrom of surrounding activity. In a country like Holland there is probably not much alternative to this integrated approach; again pragmatism and order have prevailed.

The exhibition itself is perhaps a little lacklustre, but the overriding vision is exemplary. The Dutch know their system of water management is under threat from climate change, and this Floriade is the bluest on record. The park also acknowledges a bitter truth in Dutch landscape planning - that the best way to maintain the polders is sometimes to sacrifice them to the waters. The Floriade has to a large degree done this for its neighbours-to-be, the new citizens of Haarlemmermeer, and has done it with style.

Peter Sheard is a landscape architect with Gensler, London

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