Archive for September, 2010

Giverny 1An exhibition of Monet’s work opened this week at the Grand Palais. It is the first retrospective of his paintings for around 30 years in Paris, where he remains resolutely unfashionable.

His gardens at Giverny, in Normandy, are a major tourist destination. We visited last year and found the little town packed with visitors, all coming to view something which, in a way, they had already seen.

His paintings of the bassin de nymphéas (the waterlily pond) are so well-known, so replicated on greetings cards and posters and place-mats, that we are all familiar with them, even those who have never seen any of the 250 or so paintings themselves.

Giverny 2

Emerging from the dark tunnel that links Monet’s house and its charming Clos Normand garden with the later Japanese-style water gardens, visitors feel a growing sense of anticipation on approaching the pond. It is a pre-formed memory; we know what is coming, even though it is new to us.

Giverny 3

The water gardens, with their wooden bridges and weeping willows, are actually a late twentieth century recreation of Monet’s original design, which virtually disappeared through lack of funds and neglect after his death. But, when we see the pond, we still experience a rush of recognition and familiarity. Most of the photographs I took suggested that I was the only one gazing at this famous garden; in truth of course, I was just one of the 400,000 visitors who pour through the site each year, seeking those familiar views.

Giverny 4

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British Ambassador's ResidenceBritish Ambassador's Residence The hôtel de Charost in the 8th arrondissement of Paris was built in the 1720s and was subsequently the home for 11 years of Pauline Borghese, favourite sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who lavishly decorated it in the Empire style.

In 1804 it was bought by the Duke of Wellington and remains today the home of the British Ambassador to France.

The house and its one acre garden were open last Saturday as part of the Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Open Days), and I acted as a guide to the gardens for much of the afternoon. While not historically significant like the house, the gardens are beautifully maintained and in a decidedly English style.

British Ambassador's ResidenceThere are some lovely old trees, and a good mix of perennials, including lots of scented roses. French visitors commented time and time again on the lawn, which is strikingly green and plush. People laid on it, stroked it, took close-up photos of it. It was as if they doubted it was real. They hovered on the edge, not quite believing they were allowed to walk on it (in most Paris parks there are pelouse interdite signs – the French equivalent of “keep off the grass”). I was asked many questions about its maintenance; one visitor even requested the contact details for the gardener, to learn his secrets.

It felt to everyone like a little piece of England transported behind a fine Parisian house.

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Is heritage about things or about people? Last Friday I attended a conference in London, organised by Europa Nostra and ICOMOS UK, which considered this question.

Monuments and memories 1

Called “Monuments and Memories,” the conference was partly about the 2003 UNESCO convention on the intangible cultural heritage – which I now understand aims to protect performing arts, traditional craftsmanship, languages and oral traditions, rituals and festive events, and other living practices important to certain groups and cultures. It’s very much about people, and not very much about things. The list of such intangible heritage that needs to be safeguarded by UNESCO includes the polyphonic singing of Aka pygmies and oxcart traditions in Costa Rica. It is easy to smile at practices which may seem quaint to conventional Western eyes. But no doubt they have great value to the people who practise them, and many are under threat from globalisation and intolerance. We heard a speaker from Museums Galleries Scotland who is managing a ground-breaking project to inventory all such living practices in Scotland, from Shetland knitting to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Monuments and Memories 2In a sometimes rather confusing way, the conference also looked at another form of intangible heritage. This time, speakers used the term to mean the values, memories and associations we give to the tangible heritage (that is, to buildings, landscapes, and archaeological artefacts). It’s about the relationship between things and people. This is an area that much interests me. I have written elsewhere in favour of chronicling people’s responses to landscapes, of capturing what places mean to us and why we value them.

A speaker from English Heritage (EH) argued that for 200 years we may have placed too much emphasis on objects, on preserving historic fabric and maintaining authenticity, when we really need to focus on character and memories and the totality of people’s views. He talked a little about a project that EH has just completed in Lincoln, trying to identify and record the character of the city, and inviting people to submit their views, comments and memories on line. We both agreed that it is hard to find ways of tapping into people’s values and responses, but that shouldn’t stop us continuing to try…

Another speaker talked about John Ruskin’s influential views on heritage, as expressed in his work The Lamp of Memory. He argued that what matters is not the thing itself (the heritage building or historic landscape) but its lifeblood, its metaphor and meaning to people – how we infuse things with our memories of the past and our hopes for the future.

It struck me, as I chose some images to illustrate this post, that I routinely take photographs of historic sites without people in them. I struggled to find any images that show the human delight in heritage which is often the subject of my writing. It makes me wonder whether subconsciously I believe that such places are more attractive, or more authentic, when denuded of visitors…

Monuments and memories 3

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Villa Savoye 1

This weekend is Les Journées du Patrimoine, French Heritage Open Days, and one of the buildings involved is Le Corbusier’s masterpiece the Villa Savoye in Poissy, northeast of Paris.

Villa Savoye 4

We were there last weekend. It is a splendid Modernist building, constructed around 1930 as a weekend home for a wealthy family. By all accounts, it is the last and finest “pure” modern building by Corbusier, exhibiting his five tenets of Modernism which were drummed into me when I studied landscape history at Harvard – the use of “pilotis” or stilts to lift the house into the air; roof gardens; an open plan design; a free-floating façade; and horizontal banded windows to create light airy interiors.

Villa Savoye 8

Villa Savoye 2Lots of things surprised me about the house. First, it is set in a naturalistic landscape which apparently Corbusier was keen to preserve. He imagined the building placed gently on the high point of the plot, without disturbing its setting. Sadly much of the large garden was taken over in the 1960s by the town of Poissy to construct a school (indeed at one point, it was planned to demolish the Villa to make way for the municipal building, but the state stepped in and acquired Corbusier’s masterpiece for the nation). The trees have been allowed to grow up to hide the school, so the original views over the Seine valley are much diminished.

Villa Savoye 6

Second, it was rather badly built and soon began to cause problems for the Savoye family. But Corbusier was more interested in spreading word of his innovative designs that in mundane repair work.

Villa Savoye 3Thirdly, it has two long flower beds full of shrub roses at the front. They seem a surprising, traditional choice for such an iconoclastic building, but are nevertheless original to the design. Something of their striking perpendicular layout and bold, single species planting does perhaps fit quite well with the Villa.

So there it stands, grand and uncompromising, like a great white ocean liner presiding over suburban Poissy. The friends who came with me on the visit mused about Modernism as a ‘dead end’ – the fact that the ideas behind the Villa Savoye never became mainstream. Perhaps the one exception is the stress on outdoor living – that wonderful blurring of the boundaries between inside and out, with the living room opening onto the terrace through vast glass screens, and the internal ramp that leads from the ground floor to the main living areas continuing on the outside up to the roof terrace.Villa Savoye 7

Villa Savoye 5As you enter the site from the road, to your right is a Modernist one-bedroom house, built apparently for the family’s gardener. It is rarely mentioned in the literature about the Villa, and is sadly not yet restored.

This is the only built example of Corbusier’s design for a “maison minimum unifamiliale” (a minimum one-family house).

Tomorrow the Villa Savoye is hosting Les Enfants du Patrimoine, a series of workshops for children. Over the weekend, it will offer a number of themed tours as part of the Heritage Open Day scheme.

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From tomorrow, the chateau of Versailles is hosting an exhibition by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. He describes himself as like the Cheshire Cat, guiding the visitor through the wonderland of Versailles with a cheerful smile and a devilish twinkle in his eye. The juxtaposition between the baroque extravagance of Louis XIV’s palace and the bright plastic and metal Manga-inspired sculptures is indeed eye-popping, and has led to strong objections from some of the cultural elite. But for me it works – more so than the much-criticised Jeff Koons show at Versailles eighteen months ago. Somehow the clash of these two ages, these two cultures, makes us look at both with more care.

Pom and MeMiss KO2Among my favourite moments are the deprecating self-portrait Pom and Me nestled next to the fine bust of the young Sun King; the Japanese waitress, Miss Ko2, tottering on the edge between sexy and grotesque, beckoning us into the obscene extravagance of the Hall of Mirrors.

For more of a garden theme, there are the tendrils of the crazy plastic globe Flower Matango curling up almost to touch a pair of gilded cherubs half-hidden on a ceiling, as well as a vast, snarling Oval Buddha presiding over the Le Nôtre gardens, its colour echoing the dazzlingly bright gilded gates at the front of the chateau.

Flower Matango

Oval Buddha

The Murakami exhibition will be at Versailles until 12th December.

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Lincoln Center 2Damrosch Park at the Lincoln Center was designed in the 1960s by master landscape architect Dan Kiley. Much diminished through neglect and misuse, the park is about to host New York Fashion Week, which is moving from its old home in Bryant Park.

I am a huge fan of Kiley (see my previous posts on his designs in Brussels and Paris) and was lucky enough to discuss his work at the Lincoln Center with him, and to review his files on the project (since sadly destroyed in a fire).

Lincoln Center 3

Early plan of Lincoln Center, showing Webel’s design for the park (left). Image from Lincoln Center Inc.

He was commissioned in 1959 to design a courtyard to the north of the Metropolitan Opera House. The firm of Darling, Innocenti and Webel was to design Damrosch Park, to the south. As the early plan reproduced here shows, Richard Webel worked up plans for a traditional park with a lawn and some trees. But Center President John D. Rockefeller and his team of architects were so enthusiastic about Kiley’s design for the North Court that, as Kiley later explained, Webel “was directed to incorporate precepts of my plan to assure site continuity.” The final design for Damrosch Park bears Kiley’s unique imprint. The resulting relationship between the two plazas brought a sense of spatial continuity and cohesion to the whole site. Damrosch Park had the same distinctive quartets of plane trees, set in planters with an understorey of azaleas. They enclosed a seating area that was surrounded by a bosque of forty or so purple-leafed maple trees. The bandshell at the far end of the Park was also framed by plane trees, with a perimeter planting of Sargent crab apples.

As built model of Lincoln Center

A model of Lincoln Center, with Damrosch Park to the left. Image from http://www.rowan.edu

In 1990, the Center infamously ripped out all the plane trees in the North Court and replaced them with forlorn little ornamental pears. Soon the Center started to remove trees from Damrosch Park as well. One complete row of plane trees was taken out, apparently because the shade they cast was causing moss to grow on the side of the Metropolitan Opera House. All the crab apples disappeared too, possibly because they were obstructing the guy wires for the Big Apple Circus that pitches its tent in the Park for several months each winter. The crab apples were replaced with small ornamental plantings of geraniums and dwarf conifers, as well as what one observer called “inexcusable installations of amateurish lava rock landscaping.” Eight or so of the purple leafed maples also disappeared, at least one having been damaged by circus vehicles. Other plane trees were removed when they became infected with cankerstain. Staff at the Center, unaware of who had designed both plazas, argued that the plane trees had been “bunched too closely together” and might all need to be replaced with single specimens of zelkova or sophora trees.

Lincoln Center 1It looked as if none of the original plantings in Damrosch Park would be left. But interventions by landscape architects Robert Stern and Ken Smith saved at least some of Kiley’s design. In 1996 the Center replaced all the purple leafed maples that had been removed (although ironically, Kiley noted in his project files: “If I had known, I would have suggested the Schwedler maple – the purple leaf ‘bugs’ me.”). Kiley was invited to advise Lincoln Center staff on how to maintain and restore the remaining plane trees, which were apparently also showing signs of disease. He told me he was dismayed at the suggestion that the problems arose because the trees were placed too closely together, arguing that trees will thrive in denser plantings and with less soil in the wild. He also expressed surprise that no-one at the Center had previously contacted him for advice when the trees began to struggle, when he was as expert as anyone in the country on urban tree planting. The Center subsequently restored all the missing plane trees, retaining the tight spacing of four in each planting box. For many years, ironically, they provided the best illustration on the site of Kiley’s original plans for the landscape, even though he had not originally been commissioned to design Damrosch Park at all.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The plans to rework Kiley’s North Court (now largely implemented). Image from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

The North Court has sadly now been dismantled as part of the massive, one billion dollar redevelopment of the Lincoln Center led by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Lead architect Liz Diller told me recently that she has tried to retain something of the “spirit” of Kiley’s design, with a geometric planting of plane trees, but to me the plaza now feels more like a corridor than a gathering space, and is overwhelmed by a new fancy-dancy sloping roofed restaurant.

Plans for Damrosch Park under the redevelopment are not yet clear, but many of the plane trees have recently been cut down, and the arrival of Fashion Week suggests that the Center management is more interested in holding high-profile outdoor events at the Park than in conserving what remains of Kiley’s work.

Fashion Week

The park last month, the plane tree planters now empty. Image from ny.racked.com

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canal view

bateau a cornetLast weekend we visited the hortillonnages in Amiens, over 300 hectares of marshland which has for centuries been managed as small garden plots surrounded by canals. There are no roads or paths: the plots are accessible only by flat-bottomed boats called bateaux à cornet.

It is amazing to visit. Within a few hundred metres of the centre of Amiens, with its splendid Gothic cathedral, the hortillonnages are like another world. The only noise is the gentle splash of the electric boat through the water and the occasional sounds of the many species of wildfowl that live there.

Many of the plots these days are planted as flower gardens but there are also a good number of vegetable plots, the produce apparently much prized as a result of the rich peaty soil in which it grows. Owners have to work hard on their plots, maintaining the muddy banks, frequently watering their plants, and occasionally fending off the rats which find the location much to their liking. One plot has a sign merci de ne pas prendre le chat [please don't take the cat], presumably as it is needed to catch rodents!


fishingA Friends group, l’Association de Sauvegarde des Hortillonnages, was set up in 1975 to fight the proposed construction of a by-pass through the site. It now helps preserve and promote the hortillonnages, and runs 45-minute boat tours from April to October, which both reveal and support this unique place.

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I recently wrote a piece for the Historic Gardens Review on a courtyard garden designed by American master landscape architect Dan Kiley in Brussels.

In 1989 AG Group (a financial company which became part of the troubled Fortis group) began redeveloping a run-down city block on rue du Pont-Neuf, near the Grand-Place. The project was to create the Group’s new HQ within a mix of housing, office and commercial space, designed on a human scale and laid out in a style sympathetic to local architecture. Chosen through competition, a group of European architects took on the project, which gained the enthusiastic support of HRH the Prince of Wales. At the heart of the redevelopment was to be a large, enclosed garden of some 3,000 square metres (three-quarters of an acre). Dan Kiley, internationally known for his work on urban plazas, was commissioned as the landscape architect.

Snowy AG garden 1

He described his design as a ‘corporate cloister’ of three interrelated spaces, each displaying elements of his distinctive style. The first portion was an open plaza, with a simple fountain at its centre, designed as a gathering space. Flowing from that was a smaller, more private area, shaded by a grove of forty-eight honey locusts (gleditsia triacanthos) arranged in a tightly-spaced grid, and underplanted with periwinkle (vinca). Gleditsia was one of Kiley’s favourite trees, used for its structural qualities and delicate foliage. The third and smallest part of the garden featured a wooden pavilion housing a bubbler fountain with, on one side, seating amongst clipped yew hedging and, on the other, a small grove of serviceberry trees (amelanchier canadensis). The end of the garden was marked by an allée of ginkgo biloba, another Kiley favourite, for its urban toughness and ancient history. Kiley thus created a landscape of varied sensory experiences and of contrasts (openness and enclosure, structure and wildness, simplicity and complexity, an abstraction of nature and an extension of the surrounding architecture).

Snowy AG garden 2

The design was subsequently featured in the book Dan Kiley in His Own Words: America’s Master Landscape Architect. Planted eighteen years ago, the garden has matured well and, unlike many of Kiley’s urban courtyards, has been carefully maintained. The yew and periwinkle are regularly clipped, and the honey locusts and ginkgos have recently been heavily pruned, to encourage dense lower branching.

While views of the garden are enjoyed from the surrounding offices and apartments, it has sadly proved too costly in maintenance terms to allow office staff access on a daily basis, and so Kiley’s design intent – to provide the changing, dynamic feeling of a walk in nature or a visit to a large park – has arguably lost some of its relevance for the site.

Snowy AG garden 3

For a while the garden seemed under threat. Its owner Fortis was stricken by the credit crunch. A government-led rescue plan, which included effective nationalisation and subsequent sale of much of the company to the French bank BNP Paribas, was put on hold when a Brussels appeal court froze the controversial sale. The Belgian government resigned over the row. The building that includes Kiley’s design was one of several flagship offices that Fortis had put up for sale in a desperate effort to raise capital.

But, at least for now, Kiley’s garden appears to be safe. Fortis has been rebranded as AG Insurance, apparently successfully, and the building is no longer on the market. The garden is, however, not open to the public and has not featured in the city’s Jardins En Fête open garden scheme since 2008.

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