Archive for October, 2010

This year, the Paris FIAC (a contemporary art fair) includes 28 installations in the Jardins des Tuileries.

Jean Prouvé

One of my favourites is the Ferembal House, displayed on the Terrasse des Feuillants. It was originally designed by Jean Prouvé, the French engineer and designer who created Modern furniture and prefabricated housing before and after the Second World War. Although not as well known as Le Corbusier or Charlotte Perriand, with whom he worked, Prouvé is regarded as a major influence on contemporary designers.

Jean Prouvé

Jean ProuvéThe Ferembal structure was created in 1948 as the upper story of an office block for a Nancy can factory. Dismantled in 1983, the pieces were kept by a discerning local, and acquired in the late 1990s by gallery-owner Patrick Seguin. He worked with Prouvé experts and leading French architect Jean Nouvel to recreate and reinvent the structure. It is now a single-story building with a new base, floor and external staircase added by Nouvel.

On display in the Tuileries, the House has that wonderful simplicity and strength that characterise the best Modern buildings. With its surfaces planked neatly in dark wood, it reminded me a little of the plainness of Shaker design, while the five striking steel portal frames recall the building’s industrial past, and its creator’s interest in mass production.

Jean Prouvé

One of the joys of its temporary home in the Tuileries is the splendid juxtaposition between the building’s sombre interior and the view through its horizontal banded windows of the garden’s many plane trees in their glorious Autumn colours.

Jean Prouvé

P.S. I was walking past the Tuileries today (9 December) and took photos of the house being dismantled. Not sure whether its departure was hastened by yesterday’s snowstorm (there were certainly workmen disconsolately removing slush from the roof), but it was all being packed into stout crates neatly stamped “FEREMBAL.” I wonder where it is headed now?

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Parc André Citroën in the 15th arrondissement is one of my favourite Paris parks. Opened in 1992, it was designed by landscape architects Gilles Clément and Alain Provost, with architects Patrick Berger, Jean-Paul Viguier and Jean-François Jodry, members of the two winning teams from a Europe-wide competition to find the best park design for this brownfield site, which was once a car factory.

The teams produced a bold modern design, with a diagonal path famously sweeping across the awkward 14 hectare site. Small thematic gardens bordered the main lawn area. Given the proximity of the Seine (which runs along the western edge of the park), there was water everywhere, from the moat around the edge of the main lawn, and a vast, raised canal and waterfall on the southern side, to a series of cascades in the theme gardens, and 120 water jets between the two enormous greenhouses.

Parc André Citroën

Plan from viguier.com

Not everybody liked it: the American lobby group the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) placed André Citroën in its Hall of Shame, designated as one of the worst parks in the world. Apparently it needs more picnic tables (which is perhaps a rather American complaint) and less fussiness in the layout of the themed gardens. If you visit the PPS website, you’ll see that all the user comments disagree with this rather harsh assessment. André Citroën certainly seems to me the most successful of the three significant new parks installed in Paris during the 1990s, the results of a mixture of urban renewal and political posturing (the other two were the much-hyped Villette in the 19th, now widely regarded as a failure, and the rather pedestrian parc de Bercy in the 12th). Alan Tate’s book Great City Parks has, for me, a much fairer and more positive response to André Citroën.

But even those who do like it recognise that the park was eye-wateringly expensive to install (costs have been estimated at 388m francs, about 59m euros). It also demands unusually high levels of maintenance. And that has, at least until recently, been the park’s undoing. Lack of funds meant that it gradually deteriorated, with most of the fountains not working, and the canal and moat completely empty, with butyl liners exposed and in places ripped, apparently by vandals. Repair work was promised in June 2008, but the summer came and went without any activity. Although still much used by families for picnics and swimsuited games in the water jets, for the past couple of years the park has felt abandoned, almost derelict.

Parc André Citroën

Photo of empty moat from March 2010 by marta_cuinust on Panoramio

I have seen occasional reports of new plans to repair the water features and to extend the park; and discussions about creating a 3 km-long green promenade along an old railway line to link André Citroën with the nearby parc Georges Brassens. But, as so often in France, it is difficult to find much information on what was actually happening either in the press or on line. So yesterday I visited the park to see for myself.

Barriers around flower bedEntering the park from the metro at Balard, through the White Garden, first impressions were troubling.

Some of the flowers beds were surrounded by metal barriers, and both the little playgrounds were sealed off. All the play equipment was taped up with signs that bizarrely proclaimed “Attention: Peinture Fraîche” [careful: wet paint], although it was clear that nothing had been painted and that the tape had been in place for some while.


In the main part of the park, however, routine maintenance work was clearly taking place: trees and shrubs had been recently clipped, a workman was busy blowing leaves off the paths, while another was lifting and cleaning out drainage grills. The water jets were fully functional, dancing in the bright Autumn sunlight.

Water jetssignAnd it appeared to be good news for the rest of the water features. Signs proclaimed that the engineering firm Segex / A. D. Pompes was carrying out the first phase of a programme of repairs. Slightly worryingly, the signs said that the work should have been completed by August, yet there were still barriers and temporary fencing everywhere, and I saw no evidence of work being done.

BarricadesBut the moat around the main lawn was without doubt now full of water again, and some areas of grass were also being reseeded.

Repaired moatIn the themed gardens, progress was more mixed. Generally the little gardens seemed to be well maintained and looked attractive. Routine maintenance was certainly happening: beds were being dug over and winter plantings made (here, some recently-planted pansies in the blue garden).

Pansies, just planted

Blue garden closed off

silver garden

But some of the gardens were closed to the public, their entrances blocked with barriers for no obvious reason.

All the water cascades were resolutely empty and fenced off, with weeds starting to colonise the spaces. Let’s hope that the repair of these will be phase two of the renovation.

The delightful, preposterously expensive, glasshouses linked to each garden were also “momentanément fermées” [temporarily closed] to the public for an unspecified technical reason, but the plants within seemed well cared for.

Closed glasshouse

One horrid addition since my last visit, on the boundary between the main lawn and the themed gardens, was a vast rectangular structure, which serves as a ticket booth and exhibition space for the tethered balloon that has long provided rides from the park.

It was startlingly white, standing out alarmingly from a distance, even with all the lurid orange fencing and green barriers currently stretching across the lawn.

Ballon Air de ParisBut, even though there remains much to be done, there is clearly now major renovation work underway at this splendid late twentieth century park.

I’m looking forward to revisiting in the Spring and seeing how far it has progressed.

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carpinus betulus?We have enjoyed a glorious Indian summer in Paris, lingering well into October, with temperatures in the 20s and bright sunny skies almost every morning.

But the trees know. Shorter days and cooler nights have signalled the changing seasons to them.

Here is one beautiful example from last weekend, in our local parc Monceau. I think this tree in its full autumn livery is a young hornbeam (carpinus betulus), but could be wrong.

liquidambarAnd in the parc de Bercy in the 12th arrondissement (where we picnicked last Saturday in summer dresses), a view from the mount at the eastern edge of the park shows – amongst a mass of still-green summer – the distinctive dark red autumnal leaves of a young sweetgum (liquidambar).

We are ready for more.

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Recently I wrote an article for Gardens and People on Bernard Lassus and his extraordinary (and never-realised) proposals for the Jardins des Tuileries. I struggle to describe the range and depth of Lassus’s design interests, from suburban cottage gardens and motorway landscapes to historic restoration, reinvented housing estates and contemporary parks. Now in his eighties, Lassus is lecturing in Paris later this month, although sadly I shall be elsewhere.


But most weeks I walk through one of his designs, at Rond Point on the Champs-Elysées. Deceptively simple, Lassus’s idea was to construct raised banks of flower beds on the six separate sections of the traffic circle. This allowed motorists to grasp the geometric form of the junction from inside the circle, while also creating a private space for pedestrians on the outside, in the shade of the horse chestnut trees, between the rear of the banks and the surrounding buildings.

He proposed the design in 1981 (almost 30 years ago) and it is still maintained by the City of Paris. At the moment it is planted attractively with grasses and autumnal chrysanthemums on the inner slope, with pansies for the pedestrians on the outside.


It is a pleasure to experience Lassus, with his grand schemes and challenging philosophies, somehow encapsulated in this simple reshaping of the terrain at a busy traffic junction.



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Despite living in the middle of Paris, I usually take little interest in the couture shows, or in fashion more generally. (My post on New York Fashion Week only talked about the trees that had been destroyed to make way for the tents.) But when I read that Chanel this week had created a garden for its catwalk show inside the Beaux-Arts splendour of the Grand Palais, I tracked down a picture.

Grand Palais

Photo by Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

I have nothing clever to say about it. Some papers report that it was based on the garden in the black and white French film “Last Year at Marienbad” (although the models lack the distinctive dark shadows of the film). Others have lazily described it as inspired by Versailles. For me, it’s just nice to see an abstraction of a classical garden making the news.

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When Louis XIV decided in 1678 that he wanted a potager (kitchen garden) near his palace in Versailles, where he could bring visitors to admire the abundant produce, the site chosen was unpromising marshland, known as l’étang puant, or the stinking pond. Five years of work and perhaps a million francs later, the plot had been drained and new fertile soil brought in by means of an ingenious machine from the nearby Satory hills.

Potager du Roi 9

Master architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart constructed imposing walls and terraces on the site. Then royal gardener Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie laid out the potager in a classically geometric pattern, with a grand circular fountain surrounded by 16 square vegetable beds. Arranged around this central area were 29 separate fruit tree gardens. A gilded gate provided access directly from the palace gardens.

Potager du Roi 2The royal gardeners experimented with new varieties of fruit and vegetables, and the latest flavours were much discussed at court. In 1696, Mme de Sévigné was to write that “the craze for peas shows no sign of abating; the impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again; for the last four days these have been our princes’ only topics of conversation.”Potager du Roi 8

Presided over by the eighteenth century Saint Louis cathedral, the garden is today part of the National School of Landscape Architecture, and remains recognisably the potager created for the Sun King.

Potager du Roi 1Last weekend was a celebration of the Saveurs du Potager (“Flavours of the Kitchen Garden”), with guided tours, tasting games for children, stalls selling fruit and vegetables from the gardens and artisanal produce, and displays of traditional juice pressing and bee-keeping.

Potager du Roi 3

Potager du Roi 4The gardens are lovely, with some 5000 trained pear and apple trees providing beautiful divisions between the various sections.

There were late summer perennials in full flower, a fun maze made of sweetcorn and sunflowers for the kids, and much evidence of a respect for wildlife, from this lovely insect house to a sign explaining that a path was closed off because of the presence of a solitary bee colony.

Potager du Roi 5

Be warned that the potager is not primped and perfect like the one at Villandry: there is evidence of work-in-progress by the students who today get to practise in the plots; some of the areas were uncultivated or rather untidy; while fat geese honked and charged around rather appealingly in one space at the back. But it was still a good place to visit on a warm October day, and a chance to mark the end of summer harvests and the arrival of chill autumn.

Potager du Roi 6

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Tomorrow, October 2nd, is Nuit Blanche in Paris, a city-wide contemporary arts festival that takes place over the course of a single night. Installations, performances and videos will spring up around the city, often outdoors, from Saturday evening, and all will be gone by early Sunday morning. Organised by the mayor’s office, the entire event is free to the public.

For me, the most memorable installation was in 2007, when the artists collective Compagnie Carabosse lit the Jardin des Tuileries in an event they called Nuit ardente aux Tuileries (literally, a burning night…).

As you can see from my photographs, this was far from a traditional candlelit display: two thousand fat wax tapers and torches swung crazily in the air and hunkered together on the ground to turn Le Nôtre’s gardens into an unsettling, hallucinogenic world of red and black, flame and darkness.       

It was magical, although us Brits couldn’t help muttering about health and safety laws – I am not sure the Mayor of London would be persuaded of the merits of suspending a massive ball of flame over St James’s Park from a crane, or allowing kids to dance round pots of burning wax…

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Jardin Atlantique 1The City of Paris has just completed a customer satisfaction survey, which showed that 98% of visitors to the city’s parks were happy with their experience. The top reason given was ease of access. Ironically, I read these results on a noticeboard in the Jardin Atlantique, which must be the hardest park in the city to find.

Designed in 1994, it sits atop the station at Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Even knowing that, it took me fifteen minutes from first glimpsing the park while at street-level to actually stepping foot in it. There are signs, but they point to two elegant lifts in a neighbouring street, both of which were out-of-order. In their absence, the easiest access is probably from the station itself: there is a stairway from the second level, near the waiting room, but it is far from clearly marked.

Jardin Atlantique 3jardin Atlantic 2So, is it worth the hunt? Its location certainly makes it impressive: few other railway stations have fully-fledged 3.4 hectare parks laid out on their roofs. The design process – needing to take account of weight limits, plant access, root runs and the provision of daylight and ventilation for the platforms below – must have been the stuff of nightmares. There are lots of features, from a large sun deck, central promenade, themed garden areas with water features, and oversized weather instruments used as sculpture, through to a children’s playground, tennis courts and ping-pong tables.

The trees are mature and provide some welcome shade, and many are labelled. Some of the planting is lovely.

Jardin Atlantique 4

At lunchtime, it’s packed with office workers enjoying their baguettes in the fresh air. It is splendid just to think that the city could be bothered to create and maintain a green space in such an improbable location; and there is a pleasing reminder of the station below, as the train announcements are clearly audible from most areas of the park.

Jardin Atlantique 8

It could yet provide a model for one of the big ideas of le Grand Pari(s) – the debate over the future development of the metropolis – which is to create linear parks over the main train lines that enter Paris.

Jardin Atlantique 5So, it’s a splendid notion, but my sense at the Jardin Atlantique was that there was simply too much going on. As the station takes passengers to France’s Atlantic coast, its designers (architects François Brun and Christine Schnitzler, with landscape architect Michel Pena) introduced all sorts of seaside motifs, from pine trees and wafting grasses to rather too many wave patterns. It’s all a bit busy. Plus, the park has lots of big, odd structures, some of them now roped or barricaded off for undefined safety reasons.

Jardin Atlantique 7Jardin Atlantique 6

I guess in the current economic climate, and with such a complicated design, maintenance is simply proving too expensive.

It reminds me of a team project I once did as a design student, when we all chose our favourite parts of our own designs and stuck them together into a profoundly unsatisfying whole.

Somehow the Jardin Atlantique feels the same, overall rather less than the sum of its many parts.

It’s a great idea, but in practice maybe not quite worth the hunt.

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