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Sweet & Salt

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

sweetandsalt

The lead story in today’s NYT arts section is a piece by NYT architecture critic Michael Kimmelman on contemporary flood control planning in the Netherlands. In the background, drone-like, is the question of how post-Sandy New York City should protect itself against flooding in a future of severe storms, sea surges, and rising sea levels.

It has been to the Netherlands, not surprisingly, that some American officials, planners, engineers, architects and others have been looking lately. New York is not Rotterdam (or Venice or New Orleans, for that matter); it’s not mostly below or barely above sea level. But it’s not adapted to what seems likely to be increasingly frequent extreme storm surges, either, and the Netherlands has successfully held back the sea for centuries and thrived. After the North Sea flooded in 1953, devastating the southwest of this country and killing 1,835 people in a single night, Dutch officials devised an ingenious network of dams, sluices and barriers called the Deltaworks.

Water management here depends on hard science and meticulous study. Americans throw around phrases like once-in-a-century storm. The Dutch, with a knowledge of water, tides and floods honed by painful experience, can calculate to the centimeter — and the Dutch government legislates accordingly — exactly how high or low to position hundreds of dikes along rivers and other waterways to anticipate storms they estimate will occur once every 25 years, or every 1,000 years, or every 10,000.

And now the evidence is leading them to undertake what may seem, at first blush, a counterintuitive approach, a kind of about-face: The Dutch are starting to let the water in. They are contriving to live with nature, rather than fight (what will inevitably be, they have come to realize) a losing battle.

Why? The reality of rising seas and rivers leaves no choice. Sea barriers sufficed half a century ago; but they’re disruptive to the ecology and are built only so high, while the waters keep rising. American officials who now tout sea gates as the one-stop-shopping solution to protect Lower Manhattan should take notice. In lieu of flood control the new philosophy in the Netherlands is controlled flooding.

In passing, Kimmelman writes,

I enlisted Tracy Metz to help me find useful lessons for New York in the Dutch example. An architecture critic based in Amsterdam, she is the co-author, with Maartje van den Heuvel, an art historian, of “Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch,” which should be required reading these days. Ms. Metz called in some Dutch officials and architects, and she took me to see the Maeslantkering, the giant sea gate guarding Rotterdam, the last of the Deltaworks, as big and spectacular as a pair of Eiffel towers, on their sides, which slide closed.

Ever dutiful, I immediately looked up my new required reading assignment, learning from the book description that

water management runs in the blood of the Dutch: draining the Netherlands and keeping it dry is a process they started centuries ago and continue to this day. In Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch, author Tracy Metz and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel demonstrate, in text and images, how the Netherlands negotiates its evolving relationship with water–and what the rest of the world can learn from them as our sea levels rise, our rivers swell and storms and droughts multiply. From New Orleans and Hamburg to Vietnam and China, the world is facing landscapes in drastic metamorphosis. And from the dikes and dams of the past to the new solutions of Dutch design practice for the future, the Netherlands’ history with water offers a much-needed perspective on life in our new waterworld.

Additional searching revealed that the book was the accompaniment to an exhibition at Rotterdam’s Kunsthal last year:

With a hundred and twenty artworks, the Kunsthal Rotterdam illustrates the affinity that the people of the Netherlands have with water. Top historical pieces by Old Masters such as Willem Maris and Salomon van Ruysdael are exhibited alongside remarkable works by modern artists including Theo van Doesburg and Edgar Fernhout, and contemporary artists such as Marijke van Warmerdam and Daniëlle Kwaaitaal. This varied selection of artworks provides an insight into the essential role that art plays in our perception of water. Visitors to Sweet & Salt can ‘experience’ the Dutch waterland in all its diversity, be they young or old, novice or expert.

[snip]

The exhibition, together with a book of the same name, clearly illustrates how safety and flood management are increasingly making way for water maintenance and the theme of living in harmony with water. Sweet & Salt invites the general public, planners and policymakers to take a fresh look at the way in which water and landscapes are portrayed in art, to gain inspiration with regard to the management, maintenance and continually changing structure of the Dutch waterland.

And from a book review by James Russell:

You can open Sweet & Salt to a photo of torrential water ripping through the streets of a medieval town or a golden-hued painting of a peaceful ice-covered pond just after the chilly sun has set. Is this a history, a guidebook, a cautionary tale of climate change, a dike-designer’s handbook, or an art book? In the hands of Tracy Metz, a long-time contributor to Architectural Record, and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel, it is all of the above.

Sweet & Salt is an intensely heavily visual consideration of the history, culture, and engineering of water that engages our senses and our emotions—not just our intellect—with its ravishing (and beautifully printed) photography, cartography, and art. We’re awed and enraptured by water—when we’re not fighting it off.

You will not find any hand-wringing in this volume. Sweet & Salt is a profoundly humanistic consideration of the culture of water, with, along the way, many ideas by designers about how to deal with water’s myriad challenges. Architects, planners, and landscape designers will never think of a riverbank, levee, or seashore the same way again.

The not-so-underlying theme is of the Dutch as canaries in the global-warming coal mine. Much of Holland’s most productive land is below sea level, so the Dutch are acutely aware of subtle changes in the rivers, seas, and weather that get lost in the climactic background noise in America. After all, the nation has built its culture, government, social arrangements, and urban planning around water for hundreds of years.

I’m convinced. I’ve ordered the book. Amazon says it should ship in 1 to 3 months, leaving me less than confident that it’s actually available. I hope so. And I wish I could have seen the Kunsthal show.

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