While America Denies Climate Change, The Dutch Are Making Art About It

“The global challenges we’re facing are signs of bad design,” says Daan Roosegaarde. “We’re badly designing planet Earth. We’re saying, let’s design our way out of it.”


The Netherlands is ahead of the game when it comes to adapting to climate change. Rising sea levels due to melting polar ice could threaten major cities from London to Sydney–but the Dutch have been holding back the sea for centuries already. One of their most long-lived, and effective, technologies? Dikes: basically, just walls to hold back water.


“Dikes are as holy in the Netherlands as cows are in India,” says Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde. Take the 20-mile-long Afsluitdijk, a dike protecting much of the country from flooding. Built 85 years ago, a government program is now underway to renovate it–and as part of the project, Roosegaarde’s studio created a trio of public artworks that showcase the structure as an example of a “smart landscape.”

Each of the three projects combines a sustainable technology with considerable aesthetic appeal–a mixture of energy tech with art. Who says pondering the pre-apocalypse can’t be beautiful?


Christo has been draping landscapes in ghostly textures for decades, and the “Tribute in Light” 9/11 memorial proves the emotional power of piercing a black night sky with simple beams of light.

Roosegaarde’s Windvogel does both. It’s a set of kites attached to by glowing fiber optic cable to a ground station. The movement of the kites shakes the cable, which generates energy–enough to supply power to up to 200 Dutch homes, according to Roosegaarde. For everyone else, it makes for a dazzling natural light show while driving down the length of the Afsluitdijk.


Gates of Light

If your public art can’t generate its own power like Windvogel, the next best thing is to use no additional power at all. Gates of Light creates a perfectly “on demand” geometric light display using retro-reflective material embedded with tiny prisms that bounce back the light from passing car headlights with neon-like brilliance. When there’s no traffic on the Afsluitdijk, the enormous renovated floodgates–designed in 1932 by Rem Koolhaas’s grandfather, Dirk Roosenburg–simply fade back into the night.

“This is a harsh environment–anything we might have done with LED lighting would die because of the saltwater and weather,” Roosegaarde tells Co.Design. “So we thought, what light is already there? The ‘waste’ of the headlights is being put to use. It’s like you’re driving through a sci-fi movie.”

In addition to designing a custom retro-reflective material, Roosegaarde’s team worked with the Dutch government to make sure that the reflected light was safe for motorists. “We did hundreds of prototypes in a different location,” he says. “It’s a balance between creating a cinematic effect and making sure it guides people instead of blinding them.” What’s more, the effect doesn’t contribute to urban light pollution: “There’s only light when people are there, which is good for the plants and animals,” he says. Sounds like a win-win, sustainability-wise.

Glowing Nature


Speaking of passive lighting: We’re all familiar with the kind of environmental lamps that illuminate public stairways, or sidewalks in parks or museums. What if we could harness natural bioluminescence to provide this service?

Glowing Nature prototypes this kind of symbiotic arrangement, by installing colonies of bioluminescent blue algae in an interactive exhibit in one of the Afsluitdijk’s bunkers. There, huge colonies of the algae live in polymer containers that visitors can touch and even walk on. The algae emit their otherworldly aqua glow when touched, so “you enter the space in the dark, and the moment your foot touches the floor, they wake up,” says Roosegaarde. “It’s living light. It’s hard to describe the intimate feeling of standing on an organism that’s ancient enough to be our evolutionary ancestor. It’s immersive and it’s humbling.”

Roosegaarde thinks the algae could be part of our future, too. “They are divas–they’re particular about temperature, how we feed them, but, after two and a half years of research, we know what they like, so we can keep them alive for weeks or months.” He envisions colonies of the algae being built into lamp-like containers that are heat- and temperature-controlled for the algae’s benefit, “like a transparent Thermos,” he says. They wouldn’t need food, because they photosynthesize. And any motion triggers them to light up, which could be supplied in an energy-neutral way by footfalls or traffic vibration.

“I don’t think there’s a lack of money or tech in this world–there’s a lack of imagination,” Roosegaarde says of his exhibits. “The global challenges we’re facing are signs of bad design. We’re badly designing planet Earth. We’re saying, let’s design our way out of it.”

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets