A Beautiful Mess

In 2010, the City of Amsterdam hosted a design competition and offered up a defunct, polluted shipyard on its industrial north side. The winners would have free use of the Ceuvel waterfront parcel for ten years. Enter the design firm space&matter and a group of environmentally motivated artists who were looking for studio space. Their winning proposal was to build a public park by hand, from recycled materials, using low-cost techniques to clean the contaminated soils. They would bring people together to learn about urban sustainability. Six years later, many of Park Ceuvel's components are complete. Events take place in a dozen discarded houseboats that were floated to the site, hoisted on shore and re-purposed for studio, workshop and classroom space. Plants that draw contaminants from the soil poke up around a connecting boardwalk.

De Ceuvel has none of the tidy charm of central Amsterdam. It feels less like your aunt's sitting room than your handy but eccentric neighbor's back yard, if he also happened to collect rusty barges and the hulls of rowboats. Spare tires, cast-off crates and plastic drums serve as vessels for garden beds. Cafe customers step around wheel barrows and power tools to get to outdoor tables. But messiness is the point.  Everything is made from something that used to be something else and that transformation is made visible. It's not supposed to be finished. Until the ten years is up, it will remain a work in progress.  On the warm spring day I visited Ceuvel, a middle school class had scattered into every corner of the park and were experiencing the place in the messy, hands-on way it was designed.  They explored, swung, floated and played for the better part of two hours, then reluctantly gathered their bikes and headed back to school.