We’d been traveling along earthen enclosures all day before we found ourselves poised for the Houtribdijk. The Netherlands of course owes its existence to the variously sized, aged, and constructed dikes that stretch across her landscape but this one seemed altogether different from the very start.
The first dikes constructed in Holland came over two thousand years ago in the form of terpen, large mounds in the marshlands with small farms set on top. These platform mounds were slowly connected into small towns and eventually stretched into dikes. While the first terpen were constructions designed to lift the Frisian and Dutch out of the peatlands, true dikes—low embankments to push the North Sea away from the newly forming agricultural land— came into being by about the 9th Century in North Holland. Since then, the Dutch have devised increasingly sophisticated methods to reclaim land. Materials have evolved from seaweed and mud to wood pylons to imported rocks to the current fashion of covering sand and till cores with dense clay upon which grass is planted.
Our Cities on Water class had been touring North Holland since eight in the morning in a rented bus. With faces and camera lenses pressed against the windows, we were treated to an in depth analysis of what we were seeing by the very knowledgeable Jan Wouter Bruggenkamp. Jan Wouter has been a landscape architect in the Netherlands since the 1970s and has seen trees he planted grow to full height and then harvested. He expressed concern that they aren’t being replaced. Mr. Bruggenkamp delivered first-hand accounts of the history and design decisions that have created this place and encouraged us to be inspired by the engineering problems we encounter and the climate change we will experience.
Most of the earthen dikes that we’d seen today were graceful grass-covered mounds three to five meters tall. They stretch for kilometers across the landscape. Roads are built alongside them and bike paths run along their top grades. People walking on them are dramatic silhouetted figures against the moody atmosphere. The older ones are biomorphic and curvaceous while the newer ones are straight lines that dissect the landscape, separating polders from lakes. Often, when one crosses a dike, they observe a noticeable difference between the two sides. The older polder is lower than the newer and the soil is often dense clay as opposed to peat.
We had stopped for a short time in Enkhuizen, a town dating back to 1355 and one of the primary harbor cities in the Dutch hey-day of East Indies trading. We were on our way to Lelystad, a city five meters below sea level founded less than forty years ago. The way to get there: The Houtribdijk. Built between 1963 and 1975, this 27 kilometer long dike separates the Markermeer to the west from the Ijsselmeer. Entering as we did—high up in a bus, from the south—we had full view of the expanse of sea that would soon surround us. More than just a functional dike and highway, this strip was designed with the intention of providing that much-sought-after authentic Dutch experience: Unobstructed views, the horizon rising up all around, the monochromatic grey sky and silhouetted cityscape, the swirling wind. And the water.
The speed limit on this stretch is 100km an hour and, as a major connecting route, it sees nearly 10,000 vehicles a day. After driving for a few minutes, we stopped at a designated pullout and clamored from the bus. The wind form the sea whipped our clothes about us as the wind from passing autos and trucks pushed us into a tight formation as we gathered around Jan Wouter and his map. He picked out small features on the horizon and associated them with large cities on the map as he drew a wide circle around the vast bodies of water and gestured with long arcs to the edge of the sea.
The design of the Houtribdijk takes the motorist up into the sky so that the lakes are fully visible all around as they blend somewhere in the distance with the grey sky. The dike is curved rather than a straight shot across the water which brings features on the approach into and out of view. For us, traveling northerly, a large powerplant could be seen to the left of the dike while a TV antenna marked Lelystad on the right. As the road continued, it dropped onto the east slope of the dike itself so that a grass mound was all that was visible to our left while the Ijsselmeer absorbed our attention. At the same time, our elevation dropped to nearly sea level and the horizon lifted somewhere out there. The further we drove, the deeper into the water we went and the more obscured our vision became. Now our focus was brought to the foreground and we noted rock “rips” about thirty meters out. These serpentine strips run parallel to the dike and provide habitat for nesting cormorants and geese. The road follows the curve of the dike and identifiable features on the approaching banks appear and disappear. Traffic hurls by, the green mound is a blur, the grey-green water is eternal.
Eventually, we arrived on the other side. The subtle grade changes, the gradual turns, the texture of the experience had all been designed as more than a conduit but as an actual experience. The dike serves both an aesthetic and an existential purpose: The Houtribdijk gives people a true sense of the vastness of the sea and the domination of the Dutch over the water.