garden tales from a Brit abroad
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.
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).
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.
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.