There’s nowhere else in the world like the Wadden Sea.
The world’s largest continuous system of intertidal sand and mud flats, this vital wetland ecosystem — technically part of the North Sea tucked between the European mainland and the Frisian Islands — stretches from the Dutch province of North Holland northward through the river estuaries of Germany before ending in Esbjerg, a seaport in westernmost Denmark. Encompassing nearly 4,000 square miles of salt marshes, sweeping dunes and treasured national parks, the entirety of this vast coastal environment is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage area — obviously a very special place worth protecting.
Situated in the southernmost part of the Wadden Sea on the northern tip of the North Holland peninsula, is the municipality of Den Helder. Home to the Netherlands' primary navy base and serving as a gateway of sorts to the Wadden Sea (Waddenzee in Dutch), Den Helder isn’t short on iconic public landmarks including historic Fort Kijkduin, the impressively tall Lange Jaap lighthouse and one particularly photogenic water tower.
Local urban renewal firm Zeestad, however, believes that Den Helder would benefit from the presence of a newfangled modern landmark — something bold, something flashy, something to better connect locals and visitors alike to the Wadden Sea, which lies somewhat hidden beyond a system of flood defenses that protect the extremely low-lying municipality.
Following an international design competition hosted by Zeestad in partnership with the municipality, a public art installation-cum-seaside viewing platform dubbed SeaSaw was selected as Den Helder’s newest landmark.
Designed by unfailingly attention-grabbing Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, SeaSaw truly is a massive seesaw (or teeter-totter, tilting board or dandle depending on what part of the country you frequented playgrounds as a kid) that slowly dips back and forth, back and forth across a large dike. As MVRDV makes clear, the motion, which no doubt could potentially leave some feeling woozy, "literally represents the dynamics of the sea in its infinite movement" while also enabling the public to "experience both city and sea from a whole new perspective."
Located about 55 miles north of Amsterdam on the Wadden Sea, Den Helder is famed for its beaches and rich maritime history. (Photo: lumperjack/flickr)
Rotterdam-based MVRDV elaborates more on this 172-foot-long reimagining of a classic playground toy:
The design responds to the current lack of a distinguishable symbol for Den Helder. A town with a remarkable flood defence system, a dike running from the dunes to the harbour blocks sea views. Seasaw makes a new connection between land and water by creating a viewing platform on the dike, and by the sea. In this way, a relationship between Den Helder and the sea is formed. This new installation signals the start of renewal and rediscovery of the dike and its surroundings with a new landmark that matches the identity of Den Helder: tough and energetic.
While the firm's mission to establish a more dramatic visual connection between city and sea is made clear as day, the emblematic installation’s technical aspects — specifically what exactly makes the elevated looped walkway gently rock to and fro — aren't fully ironed out yet. But in a statement to Dezeen, an MVRDV spokesperson elaborates on some possibilities.
"The movement is an aspect of the design that is still under development and investigation of feasibility," explains the spokesperson. "The system to create the movement could either be an electrical/mechanic system with plungers, or it could be done by literally shifting weight from one side to the other. As said, this is still in a research phase and it needs to be seen if this feature will be integrated or not."
Along with SeaSaw, MVRDV's winning design incorporates a 5 kilometer (3-mile) network of walking and cycling trails along the dike that will further "activate the seafront."
"… this weaving pathway invites visitors and resident to climb the dike and take a look at the other side," writes the firm. "At the junction of these routes, Seasaw is added in the form of an infinite loop that serves as a viewing platform towards the city and sea."
Renowned for its bird-watching and oyster-slurping opportunities, the Wadden Sea World Heritage area has emerged as the backdrop for a slew of stunning architectural commissions including an upcoming visitors center in the Dutch village of Lauwersoog designed by Danish architect Dorte Mandrup. As Dezeen reports, the design of the stilted structure was similarly influenced by the tides and features a rooftop seal research center dedicated to the conservation of a now-thriving marine mammal that once nearly vanished completely from the Wadden Sea. In the northern stretches of the World Heritage area, Madrup designed another conservation-minded tourism hub that welcomes visitors to the "largest, flattest, wettest National Park in Denmark." That project, Vadehavscentret, was included on the 2018 long list for the Royal Institute of British Architects' prestigious RIBA International Award.
Back in the Netherlands, Den Helder's newest landmark is due to be up and (maybe, hopefully) swaying at some point in 2019.
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