garden tales from a Brit abroad
The 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.
So, 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.
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.
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.
So, 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.
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.