Wednesday, June 13, 2007

More building; another dwg..

A big day working at Mildam today – drawing from 7.30am to 9.00am (finishing the section/elevation above), then building all day until 5.30pm. Yesterday we had been taken around by Peter Brinkman to our respective sites allocated to us by the King (Le Roy). Today Sieber, our Latin and Ancient Greek co-worker took us around too. The orientating point was a pile of blue stones that was next to the big modern pile – the last area that Louis worked on.

Its worth explaining that Louis has plans for us and much of our meetings have centered around those plans. They involve Thomas coming up from one side. Me from another and both of us meeting Occa in the middle. This is foundation work for the 200m skyscraper. I have concerns about the status of these things as objects. That is I think there is an obvious Phallic aspect to this – boys building erections. I find myself more interested in making surfaces or landform, and I like the objects best when the forms make up a surface, that still has some architectonic quality. Thomas suggests that this is because I am a landscape arechitect and Peter Brinkman would think this too. I think that this “man making huge thing with his own hands” is a bit macho. My attitude would be that certainly, I want an identifiable thing too, but also I think that any bit you do is a small contribution, and that the whole is a mosaic of actions that are cumulative but where an individuals moment of work is juast another small piece in this process, no more important than any other. It is the process itself that has primacy. To return to Louis plan, both Thomas and I have a resistance to the sites we have been given and also the direction. We are told that we can ”make our own form” BUT it must be here, it must meet, etc. I think that both Thomas and I are now pursuing little projects that we are using to improve our technique. He is “laken maken” (making a layer?), a piece of paving, and I am working on a platform and some steps down from it. Both sites are at the entry, and come from a subtext of clearing space from the stock pile for more trucks to deliver at the middle, where our dedicated sites are.

Thomas and I have been joking around this notion of “ecocathedral terrorism” that is taking principled action on the ecocathedral which would involve modifying the clear intentions of other peoples schemes. Doing things like pitting a triangular peak on a space that was clearly a table, or changing the direction of a wall. Part of the reason that we are thinking about this is that we have been discussing whether the Stichting is the supreme voice of the ideas of Le Roy of whether those ideas are autonomous and bigger than this organization. Perhaps the organization itself is against the ideas of the ecocathedral. I am attracted by this free space idea but think that this seems far from free according to the Stichting ad Louis: its all hard work. So how free is it? Peter said today that the project was not for tourists – its for workers who make a contribution. I think this is interesting and telling. I will think about it some more. I think Thomas and I find that the martial arts aspect of this is a bit full on: old guys telling you to be free but just so. Its like the Karate Kid: you cant fight until you can catch a butterfly with chop sticks. So thus the idea of the ANTI-ecocathedral… Its just being provocative, but also noting that the liberation of the ecocathedral is not just the idea of self-determined creative free energy, but the reality. You can refuse planning but accept another sort of planning without thinking about your position on this issue.

The fact that the trucks have not arrived, that there has been accommodation hassles, and that Louis has not been able to make it to orientate us mean that at least I will not be starting work on this area, though I will finish this platform and steps. I have 4 more days and then go to Germany for some art shows and to meet with Lisa Diedrich to escort her to a SCAPE meeting and share my joint birthday. I had been planning to stay longer, but now realize that this visit is only the first in something I will do annually if I can for a long time. What I need to learn will take years and so, weirdly, I have enough for my research now. Its also important that I see some more new things on t his trip and so I will visit landscape projects in the Ruhr, the IBA projects.

I am drawing (see below the finished drawing of the pinnacles) to try to unpack the craft of the project and its formal language. I think this project is a mega-structure and that it is an interesting study in how individual objects can make up a rich landscape. They also become the ground. I discussed this yesterday. Today I thought more about this in terms of an idea about formlessness and the ad-hoc. How we can talk about this as form and as a compositional language. There are some nice accidents that arrive from it. If I can unpack it it will open up a range of terrain for discussion to do with these self-generating spaces. But I don’t want to fall into the problem that Krauss and Bois’ “Formless: a users guide” had of just talking about the discourse of art in terms of how it dealt with things outside of composition. This is a valuable language. Louis is the key because he was formally self-conscious but also choosing not to be. I think its about spatial vision and imagining and incremental adaptation. I am more and more seeing the link between Christiania and Nimbin and the Ecocathedral. I also think that if you look at the work of Peter Cook in his early 1990’s period he was seeing a language in ad-hocism that was chucked out with post modernism. It’s a language that is about the decisions made on site – I will talk more of it when I have done more.

ETO 6. The Ecocathedral is a history of Friesland paving

The ecocathedral, at both Mildam and the Kennedy Laan is made up of mostly pavements, so presumably the contractors are paving contractors rather than demolition contractors. Correspondingly Le Roy and others have adapted what was a surface module to suit a (near vertical) use. When one observes the structures certain pavers have certain uses. By far the most important paver is the 300 x 300 x 45 paver which is used as the main pedestrian pavement material. Because it is flat and large it can bond across a number of brick pavers, and also covers a lot of space with little risk of overturning. These pavers also give a very local connection because they can still be seen in the streets of Heerenveen. Correspondingly the ecocathedral is a history of Dutch paving.

As I have been riding all around Heerenveen I have been both fascinated and horrified by the way that space is segregated (combinations of bike lanes, service lanes, pedestrian lanes, cars, trees, planting beds, all in very tight strips), I have been saying to myself as I try to perform normally on a bike, “hey, there’s that brick” “ and there’s another”. I think that there is an important cultural dimension to this connection between bricks used for strict control of functions in space and the same cricks becoming somehow mis-used, or mis-interpreted. I have also started drawing sections of some of these paved spaces in the town and thinking about an exhibition at QUT when I get back of these drawings of the Ecocathedral and the streets side buy side and some prose interpretation. I am thinking 5 drawings each, that is 10, but I have only done 2 so far and the rest might have to be with photos and measurements.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Form Language of the Ecocathedral

Today was spent at Mildam, at the Ecocathedral rather than at Kennedy Laan. I arrived at 7.30am (after getting lost on bike tracks) at the area I refer to as the Pinnacles (though I think Louis and the Stichting call it something else). This area is at the southern end and is the most elevated area with layers and layers of structures that end up perhaps 5-4m in total. I was working on another drawing of the complex (unfinished – I will post it tomorrow. As I said before, I suspect that drawing these “tables” is more complex than building them). I was listening to Tool on my headphones and was absorbed with the drawing when I suddenly noticed an old man looming above me on the stones – I jumped out of my skin.

It turned out I had met this guy before on a previous visit – he was a nearby neighbor, and very nice. He had a bucket and was picking out the odd small weed amongst what to my eyes, was a huge amount of weeds between paving. He discussed how he had introduced interesting plants that would colonise, and how these plants had been stolen by visitors. He also discussed working with Louis over 20 years, and I remembered how he had been raking paths between trees last time I had been there. I asked him if he was a member of the Stichting and he scoffed and said that they were “all talk – they don’t do enough work” he said, “when Louis was here he would work 10 hours a day”. He commented that the project needed a constant presence to keep it seeming safe and active. I remember from my own experience as a gardener that we had a similar role in parks for Councils. Gardeneers yes, but also kind of security. This is an important aspect because the Ecocathedral process is just that, a process, and visibility of people in action is vital to the perception by people of that time. This process could be staged to address the most visible areas, as it is already doing somewhat at the entry. This makes the piles like stages and the construction a performance. This is almost happening now at the Kennedy Laan.

I have been pursuing the drawings for a number of reasons. Yesterday, after my bike was stolen and I was stuck in the center trying to get a new one, I got so annoyed I sat by the canal in the center of town, on the grass in the shade and re-read the Culture : Nature book about Le Roy. I managed to finish the book in 2 ½ hours and was stuck by what a good book it is, and what I could add valuably to its coverage. There were a things that came to mind: Description of specific processes and techniques that I could observe in the construction or noticed through doing it; Social and cultural aspects of the Stichting that put the theory in perspective and; the constructions as formal configurations, in terms of the relationship of their seemingly ad-hoc construction to the type of space they created. Considering my expertise it is the last that seems to be most valuable and is important because they all don’t think that the forms matter, but put all their energy into them. And these forms they create have experiential qualities, that can be talked about. The pinnacles is a good example, and elucidates another principle.

ETO 5. All Ecocathedral construction is about building foundations.

Since the eco-cathedral is a process not a form or a thing, any construction is temporary. All work is at an intermediate stage. That is to say that there is no definite end to it and the end is not what is sought specifically. Since time passes both on site and during ones own life the amount of variables increases so that the design changes every time, if only slightly since one has last worked. Correspondingly what you build is both practically and ideologically, simply a foundation. This leads to a certain size since the start must be sized to allow a lot of improvisation in future. This activity builds the ground effectively and begins the process of elevation of the ground which is probably the formal basis of the project. It makes topography in a flat country. Louis regularly talks in metres, such as his desire to have a 200m skyscraper in 3000 (I will provide an obvious gender critique of such erections at a later date). So all the tables are built wide or long to accommodate future change, of an unknown nature, at a later date, The most important characteristic is actually that these forms do not PRECLUDE anything for the future. Its what they don’t do rather than they do that counts. They should not limit possibility. They must be suitably generic both constructionally and aesthetically. In terms of construction the aim is to make a large, battered masonry platform that has thick walls and consistent fill. If the form is a consistent rectangle then there is maximum possibility of other things to occur. Heres a drawing that shows what I mean:

The Pinnacles is very much a combination of foundations. The gentleman I met told me it had been built in approximately 1990, and that the rough surface concealed a pile of 390 massive Kerb blocks. You can read the stages of the construction in the overlap of the different overlapping and interlocking stages. Similar details, such as “The Bulge” (where the bond climbs outwards) and “The Strip” (the protruding line of flat blocks half way up) are used to give detail to the foundations. In the pinnacles one climbs gradually up a platform and then suddenly you see a tall pile that looks about 2m. Then you descend into a chamber and the pile is revealed as 4m high. The foundations have come together to make a space and so it’s a sort of interior-exterior space. I spent 2 hours in this space today and it was pretty magic – it felt very deliberate compared to Louis’ disdain for design. I like how these objects at times transcend simply being things but are instead an infrastructure. I am interested in the language that these objects have, not because I always love it but because its an interesting choice for this type of improvisation (jazz rock gardening is what Thomas and I have been calling it).

The form language of the project is something I want to consider both because I think it’s a contribution I can make, but also because iit is ill-considered, potentially interesting but also kinda hideous. To talk about the ecocathedral as form it to also talk about things like vernacular construction, community art and kitsch. The same conversation could be had about Watts Towers in LA, and numerous community development projects all over the world. They think that form is irrelevant without realizing that it is Louis’ ability to navigate art, design and concepts that have allowed the project to get esteem in these circles, rather than seeming just the work of some country teacher in a tiny town. There are things that Louis did with the form that were very canny even as he dismissed them. They are about the sensibility of the construction and also as a typology. When Louis is no longer the voice and visual arbiter of the project it will be difficult to keep these forms under control considering the more community orientated concerns of the project.

THE 5 principles..

Thomas Richard, who I am working with and chatting with a lot about the project (its avery positive collaboration to date), is doing some translating for the Stichting and has also translated Louis' 5 principles for me. In summary, here they go:

1. Redevelopment of urban areas should aim to encourage symbiosis;
2. 1% of all territory should be free of planning;
3. This 1% should be developed by harnessing the "Free Energy" of people;
4. Unemployment could be lowered in a natural way by using their "Free energy"
5. Symbiosis with nature and mans free energy offer creative colutions to dealing with issues as they emerge.

These are not entirely right yet. As they stand however I have to say that these are not the most interesting aspects of the project to me. The most exciting is the 1% free of planning idea, which seems to be the core to me. Like Christiania in Denmark and also Nimbin to some extent in Australia, this 1% could allow for a freedom of space that is vital to ones ability to have a full existence. Individual self determination. Louis also calls this the idea of the "double town", which seems to be a simultaneous town of freedom enmeshed in the real town.

The other day Louis talked to us (see photo above) about this idea of 'Free Enegery". I had thought that this idea was about the persuit of some sort of free behaviour, the right to a sort fo active uselessness taht cumulativel came to something. But when I talked to him about it, it started to sound quite protestant - like capitalism wasnt getting everything from the people. They had more "free energy" that should be used somehow. When he said it, I thought "this is recreation - what about being free to be lazy". I have to clarify this idea.

The unemployment angle is a good thing for sure and has been rewarding but I just think that the principles dont get to the nature of the process, but rather are like a speculative utopianism. I think that they reveal the time they were written, whereas now its clear that the energy flow aspects are more precise and the development over time that has actually happened allows for greater articulations. The Culture-Nature Fusion book was good at finding the right pieces of Le Roy's writing.

(As an aside there have been some visits to the 2 projects that I havent been informed about because of the accomodation weirdness, one of whom was one of the authors of this book - a real loss not to meet this gentleman. the accomodation hassles are behind me now, in so far as I am looking after myself so taht I dont get moved all around teh place. Hardly satisfactory but the project is the focus. I will discuss my perceptions of the Stichting later, which arent all negative, but are about the question of "what should an organisation that does the ecocathedral be?" and even, "Is the idea of an organisation against the principles of the process itself?")

Friday, June 8, 2007

Drawing the organic and..

I spent much of the day woking on the machine because it takes so much to record it all. Of course the focus has to be the working but I want to document things that I see as I see them. Riding the bike around is a major part of being here and represents a certain sort of rationality - it all flows. And teh surface you ride on is made of modules. These are the same modules that the ecocathedral is made up of. So in a way the constrcutions have a dialogue with the previous use of the stones in pavements. As it is evident from looking at the walls certain pavers are used in certain ways and so I wanted to document these urbanistically as well as in use in teh ecocathedral - linking them. The drawing took forever and has a bit of a studied disorder to it, bujt I want to persue so,e drawn documentation of the tables at both Mildam and at Heerenveen. Its interesting what Louis would say which is that it is more difficult to draw these than build them because their form is so specific and different. Which is why its a study im making Autocad loose while the world is trying to be tight.

There is trouble brewing about accomodation on the project, that is no ones fault but emphasises that this is a hobby or a community organisation. Money is too tight to mention - fair enough. But the question of reasinable support for projects is going to be an issue is the organisation wants to expand ts creative mmission. I will wait until I see how iit turns out before really posting on it - but the words Polder Model arose as did issues of principle that cuts to what the ecocathedral is about. But for Thomas and I its more simple - we are in the middle of something and dont need to think about where we will be sleeping tonight.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

After only 8 hours

After about 8 hours of this work over 2 days I think that I can say what it is: its just building as meditation. It is as hard work as you want to make it and it is endless. Its worth just describing what it involves.

First of course it involves sorting, as discussed in the earlier email. This is about recovering material and spreading the pile. It is DE-forming the geometry of the tipping process through RE-forming according to ones own “ecocathedral feeling”, that sense one gets at any particular moment of working. It is practically impossible to discuss what the process is generally without reflecting on any one moment of the actual process one has personally undertaken. It is only a generality for as long as it is talked about because when its happening it is completely specific.

ETO 3 The process is always reactive; between site and stockpile.

It is only on plans that sites can appear blank and this is the value of them. Through surveying processes certain identified characteristics are prioritized and represented, generally n the basis of permanence. As much as designers want accuracy what they really want is a precise ignorance. When gardeners build or garden they work from what is happening on the site, right in front of them. They make an evaluation on the basis of the potentials in their immediate milleaux in terms of materials or forms to react to. To build a form that is perfect is to set it against the information that is in front of you. In the Ecocathdral process there is always the site as a vegetated ground or the stockpile as an intermediate potential.

So its instructive to look at how Thomas and I started. We worked from an existing wall alignment that Peter had been working on. It comprised two tables, one on the right as you entered was almost complete and was about 1.5m high. It was perfectly formed and was immaculate except for one dodgy-stacked corner. After our initial sorting we moved onto constructing the wall according to the detail of the opposite table. Continuing the configuration of Peter’s was definitely going to produce an elegant treatment but at a certain point we introduced a tangential design which was about putting in a ramp onto the platform. This act changed the direction of the construction and re-cast the existing work, and was in no small part an act of rebellion, that is our own desire to quickly make a mark. Even while I was doing it I knew it would not give a better outcome but the desire to make a mark is strong.

Turning the corner to start the ramp we attempted to undertake a corner detail that mimicked the one opposite us and we were confronted by a lack of material, which referred us back to sorting and assessing the geography of the pile. This meant uncovering what we would hope to be the right material, but might not necessarily be or undertaking laborious unassisted transits of pieces at the farthest outer edges of the stack. In examining the required modules it was obvious that a sense of the constituency of the stockpile must first be ascertained to make an informed decision about what constriction methods to persue. This is like gambling on what is buried.

ETO 4 Design in construction is about control of material beyond the immediate.

In the Ecocathedral it is easiest to make “something” with whatever is at hand, in a “craft” manner (to use what is probably not the right expression). Because the time that one works is so intermittent and because there is no plan, the most immediate approach is to use whatever is available to build something visible there and then.


The first day of my work on the Kennedylaan started late because I got lost cycling around Heerenveen. I am still yet to conquer what I suspect is a very simple town layout. Peter Wouda and Thomas Richard were already working.

The Kennedylaan is a traffic island running along the center of a street (or lane) in a housing area. It is bounded on two sides by roadway, 2 lanes wide. The strip is about 4 lanes wide. It is cut across in three places, creating four strips. Most of these are filled with mature trees, growing amongst the work Louis did there in 1973 approximately. He created elevated terraces with a path running down the center. Louis walked off the job acrimoniously for reasons that I still need to decipher. The Stichting Tijn, fo which Wouda is a member has begun working with the Council again, who are keen to continue to deal with Kennedylaan as it had been originally intended, but are suspicious of Le Roy due to their previous relations. Le Roy in turn does not want to deal with authorities so the society does this for him and both parties win. THE society is a negotiating devoce between Le Roy’s concepts and the practical urban project. The section that Peter and Thomas were working on was one of the few open sections of bare ground remaining. For the rest of the project workers have been working underneath the original canopy that resulted from Louis previous work, eathier cutting back into vegatation and soil to uncover previous work, or exacavating to make new areas. Wouda noted that the Kennedylaan was the playground, the place where you had your trainer wheels on. Mildam was where the serious stuff happened and

I interrupted Peter and Thomas and suggested that we start documenting again from scratch what we intended to do, and who we were. After this , with the camera still running, I asked Peter where one starts and he said that the basis of the project is sorting, and beginners were generally encouraged to start there. That said, he suggested that most people however wanted to build something visible. And so he said “Well, what we do is we just start work and take it from there!” “Albeschrift (?) (There you go then). I made my first Ecocathedral Technique Observation (ETO).


The stockpile is the pile of dumped masonry spoil for the demolition contractors who stupply Le Roy or the Stichting with their material. It is deposited by dump trucks in great piles on the edges of the strip, and is then sorted to grade material. The grading is for half bricks which are for filling or for putting behind walls. The different types of full modeules are also graded. In general the bricks are thrown as close to where they will be used as possible. On the whole all the work is done with the hands, because the piles are a mess of soil and bricks that does not surrender well to the shovel.

Correspondingly most of the work is within throwing reach of the stockpile. Maybe three metres from the edge of the flattened stockpile is going to be its final dimension. The total cubic metreage flattened will determine the size, added to this throwing factor. In many ways then the determination of the the location of the dumping is the critical design decision. Additionally each dump block the path of the truck for another dump and so this sets another type of geometry. Perhaps the design act is in determining the path of the truck, since this will set the trajectory of what is possible afterwards regardless.

I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, otherwise why do this, and so I jumped in and started sorting bricks. It has a mindless quality to it as an activity that I find attractive, and so I started throwing bricks around. I was impressed straight away by how clean the fill was, there was no rubbish amongst it and most bricks were not broken. I was sifting through the dirt on the hunt for goodies, scraping and tossing. I thought I was making pretty good time of it when Peter came across and said “Its faster this way”. He bent over the pile and began throwing bricks backwards through his legs like a dog digging: dodgy half bricks to the left against the wall that was coming up and full ones to another side. I wondered, for what I am sure will not be the last time, how my back would take the return to physical labour, which had been the reason I stopped originally. As I moved into the stockpile I began digging with my hands into soil looking for bricks and pulling out weeds. I had another revelation:

Piles are not always dealt with immediately and so they may get submerged under a mound of clean fill. As it rains the soil moves in amongst the bricks and the whole lot beds don into a mound of material. This material gets colonized by vegetation if its left too long. A neat pile and a messy pile are irrelevant to the plants. Both the finished table and the pile function in exactly the same way, and since the basic mode of the project ois that mothing happens mostly (that is more time passes on site when nothi9ng by humans happens), these piles are the default treatment for the project. This material will ideally get dug into for material bit may not. On the other hand some of the work at Kennedylaan has been about uncovering and using 20 year old piles. The foundation of the projects is therefore the pile.

I was very interested in how this orientation stage would progress because I was interested in this as a design stage, that is I was interested to see how the “system” got taught and what influence this orientation would have in how the system could be interpreted. In conversation with Louis I always have tested a speculative extension of the system into an area that I had not heard him address before, with an idea already in my head of what the answer would be. I have never found myself incorrect. This is just to say that the system is close to a fully fledged ideology, it makes sense and is predictable. In starting work on the project at Heerenveen I was interested to see how the theory worked in the field, whether the principles were practical. I was expecting that thre would actually be a strong deisgn vision in the orientation and that we would follow a certain set plan, albeit mental.

Instead what I found with both Peter and Sieber was that they spoke of “What I am doing is this”, with an emphasis on THE DOING of it. This seemed to be more about being told what they were doing so that you could position yourself in relation t it, negotiate around it. When instruction was provided it was into little tricks of bond, batter or pattern – practical stuff. There seemed this respect of making ones own choices, but the reality of negotiating around what is already done. Peter suggested not getting worried about productivity but to enjoy and use thoroughly all the time you had available, regardless of how long it was. “In time” one might say, the constriction would happen, and you have been involved in it regardless of whether you had formed it as such. Participation is in the process and the final form produced is only the evidence of that process. The process on the other hand is about your experience of it, and a trust that that particular experience has measurable productive outcomes. During the morning a couple of people from the local paper turned up to write an article about what we were doing. Before we had even done anything we were being photographed and instructed ‘Can you pick up that brick..”, “…and put it down facing the camera”. When the journalist talked to us about it he was interested in how the innovations we discover might be able to be used back how, the international flavour of an Australian and a German doing the work was a popular favorite amongst the Dutch generally.

The process is about working, but for what? After Peter, a visitor from the construction site over the road came to ask us about the work. Thomas is studying Dutch and also the Dutch and the Germans can understand each other, so Thomas talked to him. As I saw his expressions change I imagined what a construction worked in NL would say about this compared to Australia. From my own time on construction sites in Sydney I could see the labourers react as they did to wearing work boots socially: only someone who didn’t work with dirt all day long would want to wear boots out. They are tools, and unless you are in the Village people you don’t wear tools for ornamentation. Work stuff is work stuff, and recreation is recreation. Thinking about what I had seen of the people I had met who worked on the Ecocathdral, I noted that most are white collar workers, for whom physical work is something of an abstract idea. As I watched Thomas talk to the construction worker I was impressed by the fact that he did not judge this work as workless but he was perplexed by why you would do it. This is one of the questions I have myself and I suspect that it is an indulgence for office folk, but even so it is a philosophical activity with a physical component that is quite personal.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt described the labouring human not as a person but as an animal “Animal laborans”. For her labouring is the basic human act because it is through the labour of the body that sustenance is provided. For her labour was animalistic because nothing showed for it apart from survival. As a process labour is visceral and fluid, with things taken in and expelled and no productivity to it. In a sense the way that the work on the Ecocathedral works is partly to enjoy that intangibility of this activity in the sense that Arendt uses it. Its like the Monks who make sand mandala’s just to have them blown away by the wind. There are some interesting contradictions in the project because in its doing it seems like its closest to either gardening, or a sport like Karate or something. It is an activity that is about its doing and learning from that doing. Over time one gets better at it. With time the dsire for an immediate impact changes and it becomes more of a continuum, a discipline. Along the way people will intervene in your work and change it and when you turn up next there will be some change that you will then have to deal with. Indeed what you are doing is just dealing with change from one visit to another, whether that be the change of the thing or ones own change that affects what you will do next time. You are changed by time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The first day of Herring in the Netherlands

This is the second bit first, but sometimes that’s the way things come out. The next mail will deal with the first steps at the Kennedylaan.

We had gotten ambitious with our bit of wall because we wanted to have a something to show for our time here and some target to achieve. We realized that this was a predictable response and that the real interest is just in the doing of it and the faith that something will result. But truly one wants to see results, to see form. We were pursuing Peters instructions and laying rows of flat tile alternating with double stretcher bond sections, and then we decided to create a ramp or a surface, to move onto the top of the wall. We started to prepare the foundations for a corner and wall return to start to close the table. We spent some time trying to use a large ugly chunk of glued together rubble but could not make it work. We were due to meet a gentleman who had been working on the project for years and was a trusted advisor. We became scared that we might appear amateur and so tied to downplay this ugly learners corner. We tried to build more wall as a disguise or a ruse or a foil, to distract him.

I didn’t even know he was coming and then he was there, walking his bike up behind us. Thomas is working on his Dutch as well as his work on the Ecocathedral and Siebe Homningg, the second supervisor of the day on the project, walked up yelling something in Dutch. I find sometimes already that I can get a lot from the context and sometimes it almost sounds English. He was very excited and from his bag he pulled out a plastic container fresh from the delicatessen, sealed in glad wrap. “Fresh herring, today!” “Salted; you want one; like this:”, and I found myself holding a fish in my mouth about to drop it down my throat. I believe in being courageous with local foods and eating traditions, but it can get you in trouble. I once ate some kangaroo from a community group that refused to enter my body, and as soon as this herring made it into my mouth, my body said “What are you doing!”. I managed to deal with the mouthful and respectfully gave it back. Siebe was excited because today, 6th June was the day when all of the Netherlands got herring. It was controlled so no one got it first, no one got it second. It was a very genuine gift to share his herring with us but no amount of goodwill was going to swallow that fish for me.

He returned later and the apprenticeship would be different than I thought. He was gentle in his advice and discussed not what you should do, but what he was doing. His own system was based around alternating colour arrangements of the bricks. Working between red and black. He admired the corner we had made and suggested ways to use brick chips and the angles on the large kerb modules to create the batter on the wall. We had been persuing a stepping back of the courses rather than an angling of the wall. After this he resumed his own section of alternating colours, and began to take our bricks that we had separated earlier. I realized of course that this is not a selfish exercise since it is entirely improvisatory. You may separate rocks for a day for yourself, but if you do not get to use them, then someone else does and gains the same value for them as you would, and with the same net outcome of production. We worked quietly in parallel and I made an important realization about the nature of the process, which is that there is a reservoir of experience but not a set guidebook. Siebe begins pursuing an interesting alternating in out brick bond which is much more creative than the restrained wall erection we were doing. He walks over and says to me smiling “Ah you have an imagining, a design in your head” suggesting that there is a certain point in the process where the construction starts to become a clear form, moving forward.

What the Dutch context of Heerenveen feels like as I start work.

Its impossible now that I am here to avoid the Dutchness of the whole situation, and I mean – why would you. Its Surreal – you love it and hate it at the same time. This is the first time I will have lived in a Dutch country town and the experience of that, or the experience of the whole project I should say, will be indivisible. The nature of the community tells you a lot about the project. It is fundamentally operating as a community development project, and has all the tea and biscuit aspects that come with such projects. But what makes it exceptional, and why its really good to spend time with Louis is that you remember amongst how humble and invisible the project is, that it is an incredibly cerebral project, very speculative and engaging, and that there are not many community projects that are so patently about ideas.

Ok, so as a community project, there is an economic aspect to the project which is that it doesn’t exist financially. It is made up of Louis land and some council land and a few contra deals. I was supposed to be put up in those contra deals: a “farm house” that was actually more of a light industrial building. It was intended that this facility would be a visitors center, a place for visiting workers and have a library. Which they assure me it will have, but not until September. In the meantime they found a “bed and breakfast” for me and also for Thomas Richard, the German student who is also working here while I am. The bed and breakfast is basically the spare room (the attic) of a very nice Dutch woman and her Iranian partner. Angela and I had decided that the minimum I required was a bed and somewhere to close the door and work, and it is more than that, though I must work out how to operate the window. There is an intimacy to any place of residence in the Netherlands and so one finds space outside, which seems luxurious in comprison.

I have had a couple of stumoch clenching Duthcness when I have accidentally done something wrong in the pedestrian or bike realm. The segregation of space is so profound in NL because it has yielded a lot of space. The segregation of space results from a segregation of activity. Since I very first saw the Parc de la Villette project of OMA I became interested in a particular spatial organization that I have subsequently realized is a Dutch way of making space. Understanding it goes a long way for me to explain what both fascinates and scares me about the Dutch. In Kollhaas’ project he created long strips that were all parallel, running along next to each other. Each strip had its own character, likea desert garden, or a forest and if you move along their length then you seem to be in a large space. It is really just a long space but the continuity of it makes it seem extensive. On the other hand if you cut across the strips you discover enormous complexity and therefore there are careful controls along these strips to ensure the complexity does not surrender to chaos. Because the order is so simple, if it is kept to it can be easy, but everyone must use the same logic. When it works in an epiphany of bikes and cars and nature strips and housing strips – it is beautiful and spacious. It can also though feel a little suffocating and over determined. This is exactly why Le Roy did the Ecocathedral project, to create a space that is generated by man and nature but not by human political processes – by something much more visceral and ancient. Human toil and time. It is also a reaction to the Dutch way of thinking.

After going through a range of bike issues (potential purchase, borrowing a bike, it has a flat, hiring a bike, getting flat fixed), I have also discovered a place to work in a very chilled out coffeeshop in Heerenveen called Canupe. It is casual, timber, funky music and smoke, and crucially free wireless internet access. The people are very friendly and are interested in the Ecoccathdral personally also. There is a casual hippy vibe but it really feels like your living room. I will be coming in here in the evening to do my posts. I started today and there is so much to say before I even weigh into the content. My hands are dirty and its all very, very simple.

Some thoughts on the train to Heerenveen, about this project as research.

In doing this project the research model I am pursuing is one that is both empirical and experiential.

During the (what now looks to be less than three weeks) I will be continuing interviewing people that I met on my last trip through the Sticting Tijn. These people have diverse interests in the Ecocathedral and form part of a social network that is the society. The society seeks to continue LeRoys ideas and projects, at the sites in Heerenveen and Mildam. However when one examines the range of people involved in the society and their own individual interests and backgrounds, patterns that one might not expect emerge. My main contact is Peter Wouda, who seems to be the main organizer and is based out of Heerenveen. He has an interest in photography and works in computers. As well as working at the Kennedylaan (the Kennedylaan is an urban project that has recommenced that Le Roy did before his own project at Mildam) he runs the website that now operates in a number of languages promoting Le Roy and the concepts of the work. For Wouda there is no stretch between the practical ecological principles of the Ecocathedral and the past and future development of the web through public and organic processes, such as open source. His personal connection to the project is through his father who knew Le Roy and growing up Wouda has spent a lot of time talking to Le Roy ar his house. I will talk more to Wouda while I work on the project, but I am very interested in how a practical series of principles from one domain, such as ecology, or art, can move into another, such as the digital. I will be using oral history or rather video interviews to document these different views in the interviews.

It is also the personal that I am interested in. I discovered Le Roy on the way to the dentist, but how did others? Remembering my conversation with Peter W. last time I was struck by the fact that there was a pastoral element to Wouda’s interest in Le Roy. Louis is an old man now while Peter is a young(er) man. There is a strong element to this project that is community focused, because the projects occur in a relatively remote area, with a small community, so they are centred around that community. I and another guy Thomas Richard from Germany are exceptions – most people doing the project are from Heerenveen or parts nearby. Woudas cares for the welfare of Le Roy and values him for his long experience and his seniority in age.

In the interviews I am going to conduct my emphasis will be on this personal connection between people and the Le Roy idea because I think that this will give a clue to the viral expansion of the idea. Another important empirical aspect to my research will be to tie down a reasonable biography of Le Roy as well as a chronology of projects and collaborators. I will get as much of this from Le Roy as I can, though he is a little tired at the moment and his health is not great. That said I am going to push because a significant part of my mission is to get as much about his into English as possible and now is the time that will have to happen. Le Roy collaborated with Lucien Kroll and I would like to see if I can talk to him about Le Roy but also how Le Roy’s ideas affected his model of community participation.

I call the expansion of the idea viral because it is not directly transmitted, that is, everyone is not just copying what Le Roy did, or how he did it. Each is continuing the idea by mutating it to suit his or her own agenda (though there seem few women involved). Interestingly the idea itself is like telepathy. You either get it straight away, in its entirety, or you don’t. I got it as soon as I opened the tall thin book of Culture/Nature/Fusion, as soon as I saw his glass, before I had ever even read a word. Its interesting to me that one of my own personal connections to this work of Le Roy’s is that I understand it from my practice as a gardener, and from one particular garden that I designed and built with my then business partner Robert Parkinson in Darling Point, in Sydney for Gleebooks owner Roger Mackell. I understood Le Roys idea about time because I had had the chance to work on that garden for 10 plus years and also to return and make amendments. In the Darling point garden we planted tress one year at a uniform density and then returned later to make a path, responding to what the plants had done since we were last there.
This aspect of responding to what has happened since your last visit is very important. The idea of the Ecocathedral building is about the labor of building something, learning through practice. Most people working on the projects have done some kind of apprenticeship with someone, worked in the Eco-cathedral themselves, doing the work. From the experience of this work process emerges a kind of logic that is then applicable for ecological concepts more broadly. A program seems to be in place where most people who work on the project do so for one morning a week. Participating in this building process, and also working with others is something I am interested in to understand the system. Louis is absolutely definite that the project is about working and phenomena, not drawings or representations or theories (that said he did give me a drawing today). He says its about the time that passes while building the damn thing. One learns through experience and iteration over time, returning again and again. In ways that I am not sure I fully understand yet Louis’ work is about human labour and energy expenditure. It’s about how much comes from what labour you put in, proportionately, from nature. His contention is that he gets huge returns from his labour. The forces are economic: a certain amount of expenditure and a greater return than expenditure is achieved. As important as the original work then is the process of return because without it one cannot measure that has been produced, and how effective the last lot of work has been. One gets the sense that there is some Zen aspect to this process because the solitary aspect of the labour is about timing, about spacing, about thinking. Or this is my expectation.. better start building. I arrive tomorrow and we will take it from there, though there have been some hassles, I am sure it will all be fine.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

how i found out about the ecocathdral, a bit about what it is and what I am going to be doing there

I discovered Louis Le Roy and his master work, the Ecocathedral, on the way to the dentist five years ago.
There was nothing particularly portentous about the day except general tooth anxiety. I was driving across Melbourne from Kew to Malvern and had an hour to kill, and I remembered that some art-friends had told me that there was a great bookshop in High Street Malvern called, unsurprisingly "The Arts Bookshop". It turned out to be a great shop and browsing through the art monographs I saw this tall thin volume called "Culture-Nature-Fusion". It was published in both Dutch and English, and had large photographs of what appeared to be a ruin, with an old bloke building it. Oddly, before I even read the text, I knew what he was doing: he was manipulating nature through the use of culture. I bought the book, went to the dentist and, not long after, started my PhD using Le Roy as one of my case-studies. He, and his projects or rather his idea is now the main focus of my PhD and my research generally. His approach may well save the planet, if we take the idea of sustainability seriously. He is a nice though arrogant man, and he knows how good an idea it is.
The Ecocathedral is located on a former agricultural paddock in Mildam, in the Netherlands. It is in Friesland, in the Northern Netherlands, near the city of Heerenveen(Yes, this is where the famous Frisian cow comes from). He commenced working on the project in 1981, when it was an empty paddock that he purchased. Now it is a seemingly natural (well, it is completely natural) forest with an assortment of seemingly useless stacks of rubble that range from beautifully crafted and architecturally interesting to endless piles of building waste. The whole lot is built by hand with no mechanisation. All the material is recycled, dumped by local demolition contractors. Though it is a project of physical labour, it is also extremely theoretical. Theoretically it is an experiment in time, specificity and novelty. It is about people doing culture and nature doing nature.
To research this project I will be building a new section of the Ecocathedral, commencing over the European summer of 2007 when I will do approximately 3 weeks of construction (when I told Louis I wanted to build a bit of it over three months he said building it was definitely the best way to learn about it, but that he would prefer that I came for three week blocks over multiple seasons, since the project was about time passing). I am being supported by the Time Foundation (or the Stichting Tijn) a local organisation that pursues Louis ideas and will continue his legacy, as well, of course, by the Queensland University of Technology where I work as a Senior Lecturer in Landscape Architecture. This BLOG will introduce the Ecocathedral and document what I do and am thinking over the following 5 weeks, so stay tuned!