The politics of smooth and striated surfaces: a polderland reflection

Piet Mondriaan Polder landscape with irrigation ditch, 1900-1901 Den Bosch/Amsterdam, art dealer Borzo

“The act of striating space is fundamentally inherent in the birth of agriculture and, therefore, private property. Indeed, agriculture first brings value to the land; this results in parcelization and ownership. […]Architecture embodies the striation, and thus defines the limits of the land. Private property is claimed and wars can begin.”[1]

“God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”[2]

One of the most quintessential Dutch landscapes is the polderlandscape. It is defined by straight, rigid lines where in between patches of cultivable land exists. Small drainage channels follow the striated spaces, as a demarcation of those elements belonging to their own compartment. Occasionally windmills, farms, farm animals, and greenhouses dot the squares. The polderlandscape is one of the extreme and early examples of how the Anthropocene has shaped nature into landscape by striating, or gridding, and in later eras smoothing the striations to expand economical potential. We can mirror this movement through land, along lines and then overriding lines, with the exemplary history[3] of the Ackerdijkse polder in Delft.

The Ackerdijkse polder, like all Dutch polders, was once a submerged terrain owned by the sea and related lagoons (about 5500 BCE). In the case of the subject area, the water behind the sand dunes became of ideal quality for water plants through a coinciding stream of sweet water from the rivers Meuse and Rhine. The tides of the sea created currents that broke through the dunes intermittently and created irregular lines in the landscape, through which the older layers resurfaced, washed away and new sediments were left behind. This formed a process, a back and forth between sea and river, dry and wet natural striating and smoothing. The area during in this time was sporadically inhabited.

Eventually, the natural channels optimized drainage; the water levels sank and changed to (wet) soil layers. The area became accessible for the main inhabitants in 1000 CE and they decided to take their chances and expand their terrain on the initiative of count Dirk I[4]. The count owned not only the area, but also by law “the right to the wilderness”, which only enforced the colonization of the wetlands and forests. The actors of this colonization were themselves mainly subordinates, who had to pay their superior tax in kind from their farms, along labor services. They had to work together to cultivate the lands.[5] This can be paralleled to the current insidious seeping of oppression and colonization through abstract networks of power.

Indeed often, their attempts to cultivate the wilderness were thwarted by storms and the breaking of the sea into the land. Nature had to be tamed in order to make a growing agricultural economy possible, so after the inundation in 1163/1164 they decided to cut off the land from its geological circumstances. Channels were dug, dikes were built, and peat was reclaimed. The land was divided and it became a man-made striated landscape. However, this ironically set up the spiral of the declining ground level through drying and oxidation of the polder, which ‘eats’ up the landscape.

In all of the Netherlands, land, or space, as a commodity accelerated as cities began to surface and grow. Who owned a wind-or watermill had considerable power. Money as a main, yet abstract, economic exchange product appeared. Agricultural produces rose in worth. Land prices and land lease followed; a run on land reclamation started. Individuals invested in the reclamation of lakes and wetlands and obtained vast amounts of income, which they could re-invest in the emerging companies like the VOC[6].


[1] Lambert, “Processes of Smoothing and Striation of Space in Urban Warfare.”
[2] Dutch saying
[3] Stichting Midden-Delfland is Mensenwerk, “Historie En Landschap van de Kerkpolder, Het Zuidelijk Deel van de Lage Abtswoudsche Polder, Het Westelijk Deel van de Zuidpolder van Delfgauw En de Akkerdijksche Polder.”
[4] A younger son of Frankish count Gerulf, who himself loaned the area of Maasland from the German Emperor
[5] Also known as the poldermodel
[6] Werner, “De Gouden Eeuw: Een Financiële Ontdekkingsreis.”

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