Thijs de Zeeuw: “I’m an optimist by nature, but of course things don’t go well”

When you come from the subway, you first walk through a fenced area where two big pigs are looking for food: Barry and Rosetta. But they’re not why landscape architect Thijs de Zieu, who specializes in designing zoo animal enclosures, chose VerbroederIJ in Amsterdam-Noord for lunch. Nor does he care about the city beach on the IJ or the social activities organized by the cafe. No, VerbroederIJ, not far from his studio, offers a “beautiful view of the Albemarle chemical plant”. That area, he says, “is actually a very beautiful nature reserve.”

De Zeeuw noticed in June during an evening at the De Balie Center for Dialogue on Relationships between Humans and Other Animals. The reason was the new collection of articles by biologist Tijs Goldschmidt, Wolves on the road to the bridleAnd De Zeeuw always unabashedly chose the animal side of the debate.

I knew his name: I knew he belonged to the North Sea Embassy, ​​which meant he wanted to “enter into dialogue” with eels and other aquatic animals in order to eventually represent them politically. I read in devotion that, as an “opening sentence” for this dialogue, he hung the bunkers in the water at the Amsterdam Museum of Architecture in Arkham, where he was last year Resident Architect used to be. And next fall his “voluntary cage” in a hotel in eastern Amsterdam will be ready: an open cage where the city’s birds can freely enter and exit (but where large groups of pigeons don’t just come to hang). I saw the project that made the news five years ago: the then-completed elephant barn at Artes, on an area of ​​four thousand square metres, in the former car park. He also says at the end of our conversation that he will raise the lions of Artis again.

Now De Zeeuw, 46, with wild hair in various shades of grey, short beard, wide light yellow shirt, and pastel pink jacket, is eagerly searching for a chemical plant. He was at the site last year, he says. “Wild orchids grow there, a hawk has been nesting for a long time, a hawk has sat there, and there is a den for foxes.” He has seen videos of employees where the fox enters the company canteen. “So this steely wilderness that roars and smokes is also a place to rest.”

The site is of course not accessible for free. The plant produces catalysts to make chemical processes at chemical companies and refineries cleaner. Hazardous materials are used. But the city of Amsterdam does not want to build a residential area next to it: Hammerquartier will own more than six and a half thousand new homes, with apartment towers two hundred meters from the factory. These are exactly the kinds of situations that De Zeeuw finds intriguing: an area full of unexpected nature in the city, its time, how people should deal with it, and above all: how it provokes outrage.

He says that in Albemarle they are “kind of proactively concerned” about the planned residential area. Afraid that once people live there, they will keep complaining. “But if you can show that the factory also has something to offer…” De Zeeuw would like to design an urban-type buffer zone that people are allowed to enter. He hopes the manufacturer will find this interesting. This plant site is perhaps the most biodiverse in the entire region. I think it is important to show such an image of nature.” He collects non-pathetic stories about nature on his Instagram account, NatureOptimist. “As a counterbalance: there is usually only an interest in nature when things go wrong.”

roof garden

A bird comes and begs at the table. In vain: We don’t have anything yet. De Zeeuw ordered me falafel salad and ginger beer so I could pay via QR code. And the landscape architects explain, “Everything in a public space is not a building, from the image of the street or the garden to all of Western Europe.” He did his graduation project for the Academy of Architecture at Artes, a rooftop garden of an urban nature that was canceled because a parking garage was planned. “But that’s how I got into Artis, and I’ve been designing animal shelters ever since.” So for elephants and prairie dogs, Japanese cranes, snowy owls, giant tortoises, cassowaries (ratites) and false gharials (a type of crocodile).

Zoos often try to mimic the landscapes in which wildlife lives, he says. A piece of the Congo. This is not necessary for him. “I prefer to think: How can I give such an animal a meaningful life on a small piece of land in a historic city? This generally does not lead to the re-establishment of the rainforests in the Congo. This costs a lot of energy and requires plant species that you do not want to grow here. I am looking for: What is the logical scene here for such an animal?”

His elephant enclosure is based on the “supposed wishes of the elephant”; He sees the animals shepherds. For example, elephants were given a puddle of mud, because in nature they like to roll around in the mud: this was the first thing they did in the new enclosure. He also had 164 concrete slabs made of landscape like layers of soil, in different colors that retain heat to different degrees, and with four rough surfaces so that the elephants could sand themselves coarser or finer. There is water for showering.

He says after the waitress brought ginger ales, falafel salad, and kimchitosti, the dilemma is whether you should make sure the zoo animal lacks none. “Your day is of course very boring when everything is safe and in order.” He realized this when he designed a container for fake grits. The goal was to get them to mate, in the wild there are at most a few thousand. ‘But how do you get a crocodile?’ In a favorable position in a good mood? He searched for “the overlap between my experience and mine.” And I thought, “Seasons! In the summer, there is a more intense sexual experience Up in the air. ”

In nature, false gharials have a dry and rainy season, so De Zeeuw had rain machines made from a “nice thick drop”, designed by a spray specialist. But the crocodiles did not like it, they immediately crawled to a dry spot (and mate, oh no). “But: if you enter just before the storm, you will feel in control of your well-being. By not arranging a place to stay optimally and making changes, you give an animal that experience as well.” He even gave elephants some control over the area outside their enclosures: when one swims, water splashes onto the flooded walkway where people stand watching. He laughs: “I think elephants sometimes make waves that make people scream.”

A hole in the conscience

To my surprise, De Zeeuw occasionally managed to chop off a lettuce leaf alongside a fork, a behavior I had never seen before in a human, and it certainly wasn’t successful. But I forgot to say anything about it, because I suddenly wonder: does he really have pets? “No. With Artis designs, I’ve also noticed that I find it very difficult to trap animals and restrict their freedom. I find it interesting to put myself in the shoes of animals, but to do it for my work I find enough. My girlfriend has a bird, cham pie, does You know that?” A beautiful tropical black-red songbird with a long tail. She sometimes allows him to fly freely in the garden, which De Zeeuw found “very frightening”, because in the winter he would not be able to get here, outside. The beast does not like him (maybe he is jealous), but: “You feel responsible.”

This is how people hold themselves, he says, with a responsibility that extends from zoos and the companion animal industry to the whole politics of nature. “This is where things went wrong with Oostvaardersplassen. We wanted to let the horses go wild, but we are not used to the horse being a wild animal. Watching horses die for not having enough food? Not many people like that.” While: Wild deer suffering from a lack of food are protested only if they have to be shot. “The best venison you can get.” De Zeeuw eats meat, yes, if not from factory farming. “Although I think I will stop at some point, this is still a hole in my conscience.”

Beside our table, an almost adult sparrow is begging for its mother, chirping loudly, its wings trembling and widening. “Find it out for yourself, shit,” De Zeeuw’s voiceover says to the mother, but in the end she still gives the baby some food.

De Zeeuw calls himself a city person, although he clearly means a city nature person. He lived outside Amsterdam for only a short time while he was studying: in Wageningen, for his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. With his father (social geographer) and mother (psychologist), he already looked a lot at birds and other animals and always continued to do so. He counts them too. “In my studio garden, as well as in a little garden in the north where I think: they want to build there one day, and then we should be able to show that twenty species of wild bees live here,” he says. He laughs: “Because I’m an optimist by nature, but of course things don’t go well.”

In part because of his guilt about zoos, he started the online thinking platform Zoo of the Future with friends: “I believe landscape architects also have the skills and responsibility to envision a possible future.” In their imaginary future zoo, they created a meadow with high rocks for griffon vultures, a landscape in which you can hold a beautiful funeral ceremony, after which you can deliver the body of the deceased to the vultures. “Whether you want to see it happen is another matter, but you will be eaten underground as well.”

He already said: He loves it when rubbed. He’ll probably also put some of the grassy patches of grassland in his new Artis lion enclosure, which attracts pigeons and songbirds. Or a pond rich in fish, nice for a heron. “A piece of urban nature with one animal species that can’t get out.” He would like it if such a well-fed lion sometimes thinks of a bird: Hey… insects! Then he raises his mighty paw again.

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