On the tradition of the beautiful road in the Dutch landscape and the appetite for the magnificent highway in the big city
The highways of the Netherlands are used intensively, yet most of us are unable to summon up as much appreciation for them as we can for an attractive square, park or landscape. Highways may well be component parts of our public space, but they are not part of our aesthetic culture. From the history of the landscape we know that the impressionability of the poet and the depiction of the painting were needed to train the gaze. Appreciation follows representation. Is there a schematic organisation of visual perception that could assume the role of yesteryear’s landscape painting in the present day? Here and there voices tenaciously proclaim that no aesthetic principles are applied in the laying of highways in the Netherlands, and that the road is purely the product of the art of engineering and the immanent logic of its technology. In the essay this myth is unmasked and brings an almost forgotten dimension into the limelight: the aesthetic design. Immediately after the Second World War, the engineer K.E. Huizinga explicitly gave shape to an aesthetic theory for the highway. So the design of highways in the Netherlands does indeed boast an aesthetic tradition of no small measure. Therein Huizinga’s ‘spatially expressive approach’, the Dutch heir of the parkway and the Autobahn, has proven to be the leitmotif that courses from the beginnings right through to the present day. The parkway has found its counterpart in terms of landscape in the autonomous motorway. Aesthetic as well as sublime ideals of beauty are, however, carried to the grave by the urban counterpart, the highway in the big city: the Diabolical Highway. Take, for example, the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris, which is a Diabolical Highway without compare. We cast our minds back to Siegfried Giedion. The parkway, his parkway, as the backbone of a new city planning, gives the motorist the uplifting feeling of rust calm and freedom. The Diabolical Highway is, however, anything but that. There is no calm rust and everything is coincidental. They are roads in overly tight spaces, hectic experiences, but also metropolitan experiences. The essay makes a distinction between three types of highway, each of which is elucidated by an example: the parkway, the autonomous motorway and the diabolical highway. Thus in the design of the urban highway lies the greatest challenge, and as yet few principles have been devised for it.