This is a Commended Project from the 2019 International Award for Public Art
Willebroek Park, in the Belgian town of Willebroek near Antwerp, was the site of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II—a camp that has been carefully restored as a warning about the depths to which organized inhumanity can sink. But since 2015, the park has also been the site of a profoundly life-affirming work of public art focusing particularly on nonhuman life.
Biodiversity Tower, created by artist-biologist-activist Angelo Vermeulen in partnership with the Willebroek municipality and a local composters group, demonstrates biological processes without a single electronic element.
Inside a metal framework traversed by steps, designed in cooperation with architect Kris Mys, there are terraces, a wind turbine and a water pump, a drip irrigation system, a plethora of plants, and “insect hotel” elements, including plant materials that bugs feed on. A bright red tube conveys the heat generated by composting biomass, delivered in trolleys at the bottom of the tower, upward into the greenery. At the same time, a wind turbine drives a pump that lifts water to a reservoir on top, and a system of bright blue tubes delivers it downward to the growing things. The tower is modular and designed for growth in more ways than one: additional structural elements can be added as plant and insect life expand.
For Vermeulen, this self-sufficient biodiversity machine is also a symbol of human cooperation and learning. Major contributions to its concept, design, and execution were made by volunteers, including the Willebroek Master Composters organization. These local people were particularly important in selecting the edibles that would attract local insects to the “hotel.” Other volunteers designed and built the vertical-axis wind turbine from scratch.
A circle of concrete seating elements surrounds the tower, and the stairsteps that spiral around it allow park visitors—and particularly kids—to get a closer look at the life cycles the artwork supports. The structure has become a favorite meeting place for people in the surrounding lower-income community, many of whom are immigrants. In this way, too, the Biodiversity Tower stands for life in a time of resurgent xenophobia all too reminiscent of the run-up to the years in which the nearby Willebroek camp was built.