Article by Piet Vollaard, published in Oase nr. 57
the Ecokathedraal by Louis Le Roy (ca. 1970-3000)
Having been out of the limelight for some time, Louis – The Wild Man – Le Roy is back in the news once more.
On the 1st December 2000 he was awarded the oeuvre prize by the Fonds Beeldende Kunst, Vormgeving en Bouwkunst [Art, Design and Architecture Fund], and in the summer of 2000, his Ecokathedraal formed the centre of the Frisian ‘Simmer 2000’ millennium event. Le Roy’s topicality is not really associated with Wild Gardening, a gardening method that was very popular in the seventies and which – to put it briefly – consisted of simply allowing nature to run riot in the garden. This time it is mainly the result of the Ecokathedraal project which was started thirty years ago in the IJntzelaan in Mildam, a small hamlet near Heerenveen. Its significance lies in the ideas behind the project: the importance of the time factor in spatial processes and (related to this) working with complex, dynamic systems. These processes and systems are highly relevant to present discussions in the fields of architecture, urban development and environmental planning.
Anyone expecting to find ‘a beautiful bit of nature’ in the style of contemporary, glossy gardening magazines will find a visit to the Ecokathedraal very disappointing. The first impression one gets on arrival is simply of a neglected piece of woodland plus a dump for the rubble from excavated streets and pavements. A closer inspection however, reveals that there is more. There are paths running through the wilderness, and tucked away between the trees, bushes and plants are stacked structures that have been largely taken over by an encroaching natural vegetation. The deeper one moves into the wilderness, the more one feels like an explorer who has discovered the ruins of an ancient Maya-like culture. Closer to the dump however, the structures are noticeably new. Here culture has not yet been completely obliterated. The visitor is very likely to come across the creator of all this in between the piles of rubble. As long as the weather remains dry and there is no frost, Louis Le Roy rearranges the chaos of stones every day. He sorts, drags, rolls or throws mountains of paving, kerbstones, drains and all the stone rubble that that comes from a street that has been dug up, and stacks them to form structures. If the structure is then left undisturbed for a while, it is taken over by nature, and Le Roy is already arranging a new mountain of rubble further on.
The complex structure of precisely stacked constructions has its own special beauty. Their form is largely determined by the fact that Le Roy does not use cement. Because they are simply held in place by gravity, most constructions have thick, solid walls and are tapered. The structure of the building is also the result of the material used: largely rectangular elements such as bricks and paving. The stacks are important for maintaining the ecological system. Not only do plants take root in the grooves and cracks, but the piles of stone also retain the rainwater for long periods of time, and thus play a role in the water management of the area.
Over the years, Le Roy has become highly skilled in using these elements to create complex patterns. The arranging and rearranging of small found elements into complex structures has almost become second nature to him. On the table in his studio in Mildam is a beautiful, chaotic composition of rusty nails, pebbles, bottles and other ‘rubbish’ that has been discovered amongst the stones. And in his house in Oranjewoud all the window sills and window spaces are filled with equally complex stacks of coloured glasswork that has been picked up at jumble sales. Concepts such as beautiful or ugly do not really apply to the fascinating nature/culture jungle of the Ecokathedraal project. Nor is it the obvious ecological value of the project that makes it so exceptional. Consequently, it is pointless to describe the Ecokathedraal as it is. The Ecokathedraal is not a park, or a spatial system of natural and artificial elements that has been designed in advance. It is a process that has been set in motion and maintained, and the only way to describe it is to talk about what takes place there. The Ecokathedraal is not a design that has been realised; it does not have an ‘ideal state’ or moment when it is fully ‘completed’. As a result of permanent change it is never ‘completed’; indeed, it is not designed ever to be completed. It is a process in time and space. If there is such as thing as Time-Based Architecture, then the Ecokathedraal is one of the few, if not the only, concrete example of this in the Netherlands today.
Because the Ecokathedraal has largely been developed as a process in time and space, one could say that the project is ‘more natural’ than a traditional garden or park. However, it would be wrong to view the project as ‘real’ or ‘wild nature’. As an ecological system, the Ecokathedraal is artificial in that it is devised and maintained by man. Without its creator piling up stones, it would simply not exist. At least not in its present state or without the accident of nature. The Ecokathedraal is a process in which the contributions of both man and nature are kept in balance. Or, to put it differently, where the distinction between culture and nature has disappeared. 2) Nor is the Ecokathedraal a form of ‘naïve architecture’ like the Palais Id éal by the French postman Cheval in Hauterives, which is a project Le Roy admires greatly. Cheval’s perseverance in piling up stones for decades and the use of ‘free creative energy’ are both reminiscent of Le Roy. However, the realisation of the Palais Id éal was Cheval’s goal, whereas the Ecokathedraal is simply a way for Le Roy to test his theory by practical experience.
Louis Guilleaume Le Roy (1924) trained as an artist. The evolution of his work is similar to that of Constant: while Constant made a switch from painting to architecture and urban development with his Nieuw Babylon project, Le Roy, who thought about complex structuring and natural processes, made the same switch at the end of the sixties, to nature. He shares Constant’s belief that man’s creative potential is unlimited, and that these creative powers can be released in an interaction with the environment. Both sought creative freedom and interaction between (playful) man and his environment within dynamic, complex systems that have no fixed form and no beginning or end, either spatially or in a temporal sense. Constant used artificial, spatial structures for this, and Le Roy the natural environment. A significant difference is that Constant considered it necessary to have a ‘labour-free society’; Nieuw Babylon is essentially a utopia. Le Roy developed his theory on the basis of practical experience even before he started writing about it. He did this not just once, but on various occasions, in different locations and under different conditions. Not all of them were equally successfully however, but that is an inherent part of experimentation.
Le Roy’s book, Natuur Uitschakelen – Natuur Inschakelen (Eliminate Nature – Use Nature), was published in 1973.3) The book explains the principles of ‘wild gardening’. In essence it is a comprehensive lesson in ecological principles, in which Le Roy mainly criticises current gardening practices that comprise smoothly mowed lawns, rectangular flowerbeds, neat shrubberies and orderly avenues of trees whose perfect rows are due to constant maintenance. In fact, doing less – less designing – produces a richer and more complex natural system that is able to survive without any form of ‘maintenance’. Over the next few years Le Roy wrote a series of articles in Plan magazine, published monthly, in which he made a more direct link with the larger scale of the different fields of town and country planning.(4) In an article of more than 30 pages entitled Onze spectaculaire samenleving (Our Spectacular Society), he outlined his philosophy by way of a devastating criticism of Emille Aillaud’s ‘La Grande Borne’ in Ville Nouvelle in Paris (1967-71). Despite the many ‘cultural’ tiled tableaux and objects dotted around the suburb, Le Roy viewed the pride of urban planning in the early seventies as a monotonous cultural prairie and a dead city, in which time was eliminated and the participation of the inhabitants was not only undesirable but even prohibited. In his view, a project like this is doomed to failure. Le Roy based his article on Henri Bergson’s L’Evolution Creatrice (5) and on the social criticism of Guy Debord (La Soci ét é du Spectacle) and the Situationistische Internationale. (6) Bergson places man as the active centre of a creative, evolutionary process in which the elements of time and space are fundamental. Time is viewed as the bearer of (the essence of) life. Change and the continuous process of the (re)creation of space are an inherent part of a conscious and active life. If man’s creative potential is ignored, if he is viewed as a passive part of a mechanised system, life becomes impossible. Fifty years later Debord formulated this theory in a manner that was more succinct and more radical. In his criticism of materialistic, image-consuming, ‘spectacle society’, he too expresses the need for releasing creative potential.
In Le Roy’s view three of Bergson’s concepts are important: Land as heritage, Time as Continuum, and Involvement. Life cannot evolve without the free use of physical space. ‘As the owner of by far the largest part of our common heritage – land - the soci ét é du spectacle might agree to minor adjustments being made to certain boundaries, but it immediately becomes defensive when penetrations within ‘its’ domain are clearly involved.(7) Le Roy has seen this theory confirmed in practice on a number of occasions. Time is equally essential. Of course, brief events or ‘spectacles’ can also release creative potential, but in the end these activities must be able to take place in a process, in a time continuum, in order to effect a true ‘evolution creatrice’. Finally, involvement, or the use of ‘free energy’ and of man’s creative potential, is also important.
Le Roy’s first wild garden grew around his house in Oranjewoud. His very next project was on a far larger scale. Around 1970 Le Roy persuaded the local authority in Heerenveen to allow him to do the planning for the central strip of the Kennedylaan. The strip covers an area of one and a half hectares and is one kilometre long and 15 metres wide. With the help of local neighbours, Le Roy transformed this strip, which would normally have been covered with a monoculture of ground cover, into a richly varied wild garden that developed into a real forest over the years. The ingredients were very simple and easily duplicated: take any man-made steppe, dump large quantities of building waste on it, organise a group of interested inhabitants and dig, stack and – especially at the start of the project – haphazardly sow and plant every now and then. Take the view that the project will never be completed, keep on building, continue to pour creative energy into the project and soon nature will join in and so give rise to the development of an increasingly complex system. There is only one thing that is not allowed: there must be no tidying up, and both nature and man must be allowed to do as they please. The Kennedylaan project was a success, despite the fact that after a few years the council thought enough was enough and developments were more or less consolidated, even though Le Roy had intended to work on the project for the next thirty years. Nevertheless, it was frequently published in international magazines, and Le Roy acquired a reputation. From that time on he was (and sometimes still is) approached by various local authorities to set up a similar project. Unlike the experience in Heerenveen however, many of them failed, mainly because people expected to achieve the same spontaneous growth within an even shorter period of time despite the 20 to 30 years that Le Roy needed for the project. Le Roy was given everything he required – land, people, money – but not time. During the seventies Le Roy worked together with Lucien Kroll and students on a project in the Brussels university suburb of Woluw é-Saint Lambert which had been demolished under police surveillance. (8) He was asked to plan public green areas together with the inhabitants of the suburb of Clergy-Pontoise in Paris, and was also dismissed there. German cities such as Bremen, Hamburg, Oldenburg and Kassel all quickly lost their initial enthusiasm. Not because the projects proved impossible to carry out, or too expensive (there is no cheaper form of development), or due to insufficient citizens participation, but simply because the authorities insisted on maintaining control: clean-ups were held to stop everything from reverting to chaos and mess. A project in the suburb of Lewenborg in Groningen was also halted. Here in a central green area and under Le Roy’s supervision, local inhabitants could ‘indulge themselves beyond the official cadastral boundaries of their territory and make a real contribution to the development of the public domain’. The project was a success, and after ten years the development of the area was in full swing. However, because the boundaries between public and private domains had become very vague, which was not in accordance with town council planning, this informal free state was consequently brought to an end. In Le Roy’s view, present political systems will never give a really free hand to ‘creative potential in space and time’.
On his own land, with all the time in the world and his own personal involvement, Le Roy had already started work on the Ecokathedraal. He started off by building his own studio on the bare monoculture of the pastureland, and sowed and planted at random. In time this ‘automatically’ gave rise to a richer green culture. When a prison in Heerenveen was demolished Le Roy arranged for the building waste to be dumped on his land. This drastically disrupted the structure that had developed there. From that time on, stacking and building, Le Roy started to actively participate in the evolutionary process. Indeed, he has now been doing this for 30 years. Truckloads of stone waste material are regularly dumped on his land thus disturbing the structure that has evolved. Le Roy arranges the mass of stone, nature takes over the structures and Le Roy continues to build once again. Le Roy sees links between the chaos theory and the increasing complexity of this natural/man-made process. (9) Indeed, he regularly quotes the ideas of Ilya Prigogine, the Belgian Nobel Prize winner, who associates the development of complex dynamic systems with the time factor. Complexity is important for maintaining dynamic systems. It is not simplicity, but complexity, that is the hallmark of what is true (natural). According to the French philosopher and biologist François Jacob, the more complex the organism, the freer it is. Complex dynamic systems are subject to periodical fluctuations between moments of relative organisation and regularity and intervals of chaos and irregularity. In this process, existing organisations that are temporary and stable are systematically changed into new organisations as a result of disturbances. During the process and in the course of time a new complex dynamic system always returns. The system is stable and yet subject to permanent change. When he decided to work on the Ecokathedraal together with nature and his potential creativity and ‘free energy’, Le Roy – inspired by Prigogine - asked himself ‘What can one person achieve in time and space?’ Since then 1500 truckloads totalling 15,000 tons of material have been used and have all ‘disappeared’ into the chaos structure created on 4 hectares of land. In the meanwhile he has changed his time limit. A foundation has been established to ensure that the process that has been started will continue to the end of the year 3000. The relay of involvement, of feeding ‘free energy’ and the interaction between nature and man will be recorded in detail so that there will finally be an answer to Prigogine’s questions: What can nature do? What can a living organism do? What can man do?
In his writings, Le Roy has always linked his theory to severe criticism of contemporary urban development practice. In its present form, the contemporary city is an inferior (eco)system. On the drawing board the complexity of life is deliberately squeezed out in favour of inferior, monotone systems that leave no room for personal expression. Le Roy has very few illusions left regarding the possibility of getting projects similar to the Ecokathedraal off the ground in the larger cities. Nevertheless, he continues to hammer away at the necessity of injecting the monoculture of the cities with free projects in which time has free rein and in which man can indulge his creative potential. Not much is needed. Le Roy estimates that 1% of urban territory and the participation of 1% of the inhabitants would be more than enough for the time being. However, no designer, in the traditional sense of the word, should be involved. In Le Roy’s view, the systems produced by self-organising systems are superior to those produced by ‘designed’ systems, because they are more complex organisations.
However, present socio-political systems give such free developments in time and space very little chance. It makes one wonder how seriously one should take the modern call for more individual freedom which property developers and governments so readily agree to. For any serious consideration of this freedom would mean giving up land, allowing time to do its work, taking participation seriously and allowing chaos to exist. There is no money to be earned with this freedom. Le Roy’s distrust appears to be well-founded. The existing political system will not allow this freedom without a struggle.
For the time being Weeber’s Wilde Wonen [Weeber’s Wild Living] is a lot tamer than Le Roy’s Wild Gardening, and the promise of ‘a freedom of choice, popular living, consumer architecture’ and so on, is not much more than a new mask for a ‘spectacle society’ that is oriented towards passive consumption. If freedom is the true aim, then it will probably have to be acquired from ‘the bottom up’, by the people themselves.
The question of whether we still want something like this in our present privatised society, or whether there is the same desire for participation, for collective and/or individual expression as thirty years ago, will continue to be hypothetical as long as no possibilities for it are created. Spontaneity, intuition and free expression cannot be planned and calculated in advance. There is only one way and that is to test it by putting it into practice. Give land the time and space, and allow processes to follow their course. The knowledge we gain from the progress of these small-scale complex systems and processes may prove useful for the larger-scale of urban development. Indeed, it is precisely on this scale of planning, which is always dominated by the systematic thinking of technocrats, that the limitations of thinking in systems that are consciously kept simple, the elimination of the time factor and the distrust of self-organising systems, are felt increasingly strongly. But talking about network towns and systems, Departments of Time and 4D urban and rural planning is quite different to actually practising it. There is no real reason for anyone to feel terribly optimistic about the actual implementation of free, time-based urban and rural planning such as this. I do not see the whole planning machinery simply radically changing course. But if the RPD is serious, then it should first pay a visit to Mildam, not to see the flowers and plants or the structures, but to view the processes and systems. It should be noted however, that an afternoon excursion is not enough, and that you must be prepared to spend time on it.