garden tales from a Brit abroad
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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
But the moat around the main lawn was without doubt now full of water again, and some areas of grass were also being reseeded.
In 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).
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.
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.
But, 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.