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Archive for July, 2010

I have just written an article for Gardens and People on the extraordinary 1990 proposals by Bernard Lassus to reinvent the Jardin des Tuileries. They were an entry in a state-run competition and, sadly, a less adventurous plan by Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier was chosen for implementation. My article is part of a series on Gardens That Were Never Built.

So, last Sunday I spent an hour walking through the Tuileries, taking photographs for the article. It struck me how poorly they are currently being maintained. Many of the ancient horse chestnuts and plane trees are unpruned and sprawling.
Unclipped treesbox bedThe box bed near the Jeu de Paume was unclipped and full of bindweed and large thistles.

Oddly planted with a mass of variegated perennials and grasses, the two exedras are similarly infested with weeds and look sad and neglected. Some of the trees planted as part of the Benech / Cribier plan are struggling to survive. Much of the gardeners’ attention seems to go on the narrow little flower beds, with their high maintenance mix of annuals and tender perennials, all planted at a rather domestic scale.flower bed The Tuileries is of course still a magnificent processional space. But it would be sad if it is allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that another major overhaul is needed so soon after the 1990 concours that produced the remarkable Lassus proposals.

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Hotel Biron planting 1

The gardens of the Hotel Biron are currently a sea of creamy hydrangeas and soft green foliage.

A few weeks ago I posted on the lush roses and paeonies that filled the grounds in June. It appeared to be the peak of the summer.

But now everywhere is a mass of lacecaps and mopheads, all planted in generous drifts.

Hotel Biron planting 2

Hotel Biron planting 3This seems to me thoughtful, confident design, planting for leaf form and colour, and using big swathes of a limited range of species.

Shown in these four photos, taken last weekend, are the oak-leafed hydrangea, H. quercifolia “Snowflake”, and the popular H.aborescens “Annabelle”, with a lilacky splash of H. macrophylla “Blue Wave.”

These are not fancy or fashionable plants, but the whole thing feels tranquil and unflustered, just right for the heat of midsummer.

Hotel Biron planting 4

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Bois de Boulogne - le lac inférior

Bois de Boulogne flower bedThe Bois de Boulogne, once an ancient oak forest, was for centuries a royal hunting ground. In the 1850s, it became the first of many public parks created by the Emperor Napoleon III. His team of engineers, designers and horticulturalists produced what they saw as an English-style landscape, with sinuous paths, rock features, clumps of trees, and moving water. Originally Napoleon had wanted an artificial river, inspired by the Serpentine that he had seen in London’s Hyde Park, but a miscalculation by his landscape architect meant that the planned river had to be converted into the two adjoining lakes that remain today as a central feature of the park.

Located just to the west of Paris, and a short bus or metro journey from the city centre, the lakes retain something of their mid-nineteenth century feel.

There are small island flower beds, planted with colourful annuals; a ferry which takes just a couple of minutes to transport people from the pelouse de la Muette across to a genuine Swiss chalet – now a restaurant – on one of the islands in the lake; and a fine iron bridge providing access between the two islands.

Bois de BoulogneThere is also the Kiosque de l’Empereur, designed by Gabriel Davioud in 1857, on the southerly tip of the second island.

It is a charming little pavilion, created for the Emperor’s personal use. In early photographs the pavilion can be seen standing in open ground, but today it is largely hidden by volunteer trees and brushwood. Partly restored by the city of Paris, it was sadly closed to the public when we visited yesterday.

Row boats are available for hire at the northern edge of the lake, and are a lovely way to explore this park of which Napoleon III remained so fond.

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Shivani, bd HaussmannOne of the pleasurable things about living in Paris is the fleuristes – the many flower shops with their beautiful displays of plants and cut flowers. This one is Shivani on boulevard Haussmann in the 8th arrondissement. It currently has displays of hydrangeas, tree ferns, lavender, philodendron and orchids, all carefully set out on the pavement each morning.

Once you have chosen, the sales assistant will ask if it is a gift (c’est pour offrir?) and will then spend several minutes trimming, arranging and wrapping your purchase, all at no extra cost.

OK, so it’s bit of a cliché to post on charming Parisian flower shops, but it doesn’t stop me smiling every time I go past Shivani.

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La DéfenseThis week I went to see Dan Kiley‘s landcape design at La Défense, the business district to the west of Paris.

Kiley is one of my favourite landscape architects. I spent a morning with him in his Vermont home not long before he died, to learn more about his work at the Lincoln Center in New York (now sadly dismantled).

In 1978 he was commissioned to design the vast pedestrian concourse at La Défense, which runs above the vehicular circulation and railway line. It extended the city’s historic axis from the Louvre along the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, bringing it across the Seine to the Grande Arche de la Défense. (Kiley used the term la Dalle Centrale – the main platform – to describe the half-mile long concourse, although today it is usually known as l’Esplanade du Général de Gaulle.)

Dan Kiley designHis work at La Défense is always included in lists of Kiley’s projects, but the design has actually been little discussed or celebrated. The only description I have been able to find of any substance about the project is from Kiley’s own book, The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect, which gives a great sense of his design intentions and includes some photographs from the 1990s. For him the project was “a progressive mix of art, nature and commerce as urban infrastructure.”

La DéfenseMy visit earlier this week started from the metro station Esplanade de la Défense, where the promenade begins beside a large pool decorated with jolly metal poles (a 1988 installation by Takis), and wonderful views over Neuilly and down the Avenue de la Grande Armée to the Arc de Triomphe.

This view of the city persists throughout Kiley’s promenade.

La Défense

I strolled west towards the Grande Arche. The central walkway was exposed and deserted in the 30ºC heat but on either side are characteristic long, linear groves of pollarded trees, providing leafy, dappled shade. The trees are nearly all London planes (platanus x acerifolia), which Kiley loved for their form and beautiful patterned bark. The specimens here are well-maintained: regularly and expertly pollarded, and clearly replaced as necessary. The extensive use of a single species draws the disparate architecture together to form a unified space, just as Kiley intended, while the choice of London plane trees is a deliberate link with the same trees on many Parisian promenades, including the Champs Elysées. Other elements are kept simple as well, such as the single design of wooden bench found throughout the esplanade, and the limited palette of paving materials.

La DéfenseLa Défense

The cotoneaster ground cover beneath the trees is thriving and beautiful; elsewhere ivy and vinca are struggling a little.

The gentle slope up towards the Grande Arche is marked by simple, vast terraces and low flights of steps, now with ugly temporary ramps; apparently in the near future there will be permanent (and no doubt less visually intrusive) disabled access.

As I walked along, the concourse felt majestic, green, and completely right in scale. Perhaps, perversely, that is why Kiley’s work at La Défense features nowhere in the online history of the site, or in the lists of its many works of art: somehow the promenade feels an intrinsic part of the site, something so appropriate that no-one thinks of it as designed and installed.La Défense

At the end of the promenade, the modern fountains by kinetic artist Yaacov Agam are splendid, with their orchestrated jets and tiled surface suggesting constant movement. Kiley was a great fan of the work, calling it “a brilliant centerpiece,” and himself proposed the waterfall at its western edge that links the roads below with the pedestrian esplanade. During my visit, scores of people were dabbling their feet in the cool water; some children were swimming. Beyond Agam’s work is the open, treeless parvis that leads to the Arche, a stark contrast with the leafy, shaded space that Kiley created.

I have not seen ‘as built’ plans for Kiley’s work at La Défense, but it feels to me like a site that has been generally well conserved. There are, however, two additions which jar:

Shelomo SelingerThe first is the 1982 installation in the place basse, part way along the esplanade, of Shelomo Selinger’s sculpture “La Danse,” a series of sculpted planting boxes in pinkish concrete. Whatever their artistic merit, these seem to me too small and detailed for this vast corporate space. Until recently little globular holm oaks (quercus ilex) and groundcover ivy filled the boxes, but this Spring they were replaced with individual specimens of pink-flowered crape myrtle (lagerstroemia indica), a tree which ironically Kiley himself used, but in a more intimate space.

The second unfortunate change is the insertion in the early 1990s of small flowering cherries (prunus ‘Accolade’) among the London planes. They are largely masked by the plane trees at this time of year; but in winter their low, twiggy form must detract from the sculpted architectural shapes of the leafless plane trees. In Spring, as the cherries flower, the contrast (to my eyes at least) is odd and inappropriate. It is — as landscape architect Ken Smith noted about the introduction of forlorn little ornamental pears into Kiley’s previously architectural Lincoln Center courtyard — the triumph of a “post-modern aesthetic”: the desire for flowers rather than form in a landscape.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the esplanade at La Défense felt pleasingly like a mature and well-managed Kiley design. It was a joy to be there.

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