Scripties / theses

The ecocathedral process
An ongoing utopian tool for reimagining and reconstructing local worlds from socionatural configurations and matristic emotioning
Sanders, Marieke

paper marieke sanders ecocathedral process

Ecokathedraal in Mildam

Paper van studente Marieke Sanders van de Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam.


Artist, art teacher, and cultural philosopher Louis Guillaume Le Roy (1924-2012) starts his 1973 book Natuur uitschakelen, natuur inschakelen with the epigraph “Je suis incapable d’exister dans un univers qui a détruit la nature” by François Mauriac.1 In this book, Le Roy sets out a comprehensive utopian theory which he illustrates through two projects he worked on at the time: his proving ground, the Ecocathedral Mildam (1965-at least until 3018) and the public green project, the Ecocathedral/Le Roy garden Heerenveen (1966-1973/2005-at least until 2105), both located in Friesland, the Netherlands. Le Roy’s theory and projects are not only in line with the first Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth (1972), the Paris Agreement (2015), and the latest IPCC report (2021). Additionally, they coincide with the political philosophy theory from the book Designs for the Pluriverse by anthropologist Arturo Escobar (1952).2 This paper will explore the Ecocathedral process through the concepts of transition activism and relationality, interconnectedness, and radical interdependence by Escobar from their common concern related to the ecological and social crisis and search for a sustainable and ongoing response. It will narrate the Ecocathedral process through ontological design and our deeply entrenched ways of being, knowing, and doing as an ongoing utopian tool for reimagining and reconstructing local worlds from socionatural configurations and matristic emotioning.

Designs for the Plusiverse by Escobar was published in 2018 and received good but critical reviews. One of the reviews mentions that for several years, an unpublished version of the manuscript circulated among anthropologists and design researchers, who forwarded it along to one another like a digital sacred text.4 Another, “if all that sounds utopian, that is partly the point.”5 The book also received criticism for being too credulous, almost too hopeful. One review mentioned the book as provoking but unnecessary complex and wondered if those who would benefit most from the insights, such as designers, would find it unapproachable.6 Combined with the work of Le Roy, it becomes more insightful through his explanation, photographs, drawings and practice. Although much coincides with the Ecocathedral process, there are differences; as work in progress. For example, Escobar writes from Latin American and European feminists and treats patriarchy as the root of all forms of subordination, including racial, colonial, and imperial. He sees a clear responsibility from the Global North. Le Roy does not treat these themes and writes in 1973 from the environmental deterioration that no one goes unpunished; we all contribute in one form or another.7 The same review that mentioned the book was unnecessary complex notes, “How do we explain the destructive behaviours to the environment and one another that existed before the Enlightenment and outside European cultures?”8 Only Le Roy and professor of design Wood, as will be treated further in this paper, mention the developed agricultural areas of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.9 Escobar gives a comprehensive and inspiring overview, also called a “working hypothesis”, based on many other scholars, and this paper treats some of them.10 There are many coincides between their work, although some go deeper into sub-topics, such as professor in design theory Willis and professor of design studies Tonkinwise concerning design. Escobar mentioned by introducing one of his chapters that the sources used are diverse literature for diverse audiences; combined with the Ecocathedral process, they narrate a broader story.
The work initiated by Le Roy is described from different disciplines and angles, from architecture, garden and landscape architecture, and art history, with some authors mainly focusing on the theoretical side. The latter is done, for example, by engineer Rosenheinrich, art historian Mous, and landscape architect, horticulturist and associate professor Raxworthy. Raxworthy treats, among other things, the theory’s definitions, such as thermodynamics, economics, labour and productivity, artefacts and practices, the gaps and microclimate, and growth and spontaneous vegetation.11 Several authors touch the subject of utopia. For example, writer, visual artist and architectural historian Van Gerve asserts that Le Roy had an almost utopian vision of ‘a new’ human.12 Mous and architect and critic Vollaard place the work in the context of the project New Babylon (1956-1974) by Constant (Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys 1920-2005). Vollaard indicates that Le Roy and Constant shared the conviction that human creative potential is unlimited and that these powers can be released in an interactive environment.13 Le Roy called himself an artist and an ‘ecotect’ and noted in one of his publications in the urban planning magazine Plan that some like to portray him as an ‘art teacher’ who is so nicely busy with plants.14 Le Roy received several distinctions for his work: the Zilveren Anjer Award of the Prince Bernhard Foundation (1972), granted the freedom of the city of Heerenveen (1972), honorary member Fédération Européenne des Architectes Paysagistes, and the Oeuvre Award of the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design, and Architecture (2000).
In combination with Le Roy’s publications, three authors narrate the broadest story about the work: van Gerve, architect and teacher Hendriks and reader in landscape history and theory Woudstra. Van Gerve shows how Le Roy’s ideas and practice related to thinking about and dealing with nature in the urban environment at the time. Whereby she treats criticism of the work of ecologists, biologists and landscape architects concerning plant knowledge and the ‘correct’ application of ecological principles. On the latter, Le Roy himself remarks: no one can know all the habitat factors so well that they can predict whether a species will survive in a particular place for the next half-century without humans’ help.15 Hendriks and Woudstra write more biographically, Hendriks about the public green project, the Ecocathedral/Le Roy garden Heerenveen, where he was a master builder, and Woudstra about the life of Le Roy himself, thereby answering questions that other articles raised. Both van Gerve and Woudstra deal with the context of the time and mention 1970, which was declared the European Nature Conservation Year, among others.16 Woudstra deals most extensively with the relevance of the work and is the only author who relates the duration of the work to his writing. In one of his papers, he writes that it might be worth trying “ attempt a preliminary assessment...”