Archive for November, 2010

Today it is fashionable to grapple with the idea of collective meaning and memory in landscapes. Conferences are held, books written, different styles of garden analysed, all debating how far deliberate messages and associations can be conveyed through designed landscapes. My favourite article on the topic is Marc Treib’s wry “Must Landscapes Mean?” which examines six ways of introducing meaning, but ultimately argues that designers should focus on creating pleasurable places, and just leave associations to accrue naturally over time.

The extremes of the debate are illustrated, at one end, by the work of Scottish gardener and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose careful use of Latin inscriptions, poems and artefacts at Little Sparta recalls the allusions of Renaissance gardens, designed to present deliberate messages and philosophical ideas to erudite visitors.

At the other extreme is deconstructionist architect Bernard Tschumi‘s 1982 design for Parc de la Villette in the northeast of Paris. The 55-hectare space was formerly the site of slaughterhouses and a meat market. It was transformed into Paris’s largest public park as one of President Mitterrand’s grands projets.

Parc de la Villette

The slaughterhouse history of the site had no relevance for Parc de la Villette’s designer Bernard Tschumi. Image from http://www.villette.com

Tschumi’s competition-winning entry for the new landscape was famously a series of deconstructed points, lines and surfaces. Each point was marked by a large red cube that he described as a ‘functional folie,’ intended to be deliberately irrational and challenging to visitors’ expectations. Tschumi thus intended to push the notion of individual response to its controversial extreme. He denied any possibility of inherent meaning or commonly understood symbolism in architecture and argued that his design for Villette ‘means nothing‘ [Tschumi’s emphasis] and could only offer ‘a multiplicity of impressions’ that each visitor would interpret individually.

Tschumi's plan

The original plan for Villette, from Tschumi Architects.

The original plan was breath-taking in its iconoclasm, its refusal to provide any historical references or any suggestion of a traditional park. It sent shock waves throughout the world of landscape architecture. But during detailed design and installation, inevitably, Villette took on many standard park features: large areas of lawn, tree-lined allées, children’s playgrounds.

Today it is widely regarded as a failure. A recent survey suggested that visitors who use the park’s many venues (including concert halls and a cinema) rarely stay to enjoy the outside space. Conversely, those who picnic and play ball on the park’s lawns do not venture into its exhibitions or shows. Villette can be seen as a rag-bag of features and buildings with no common theme or spirit drawing them together into a recognisable place. It (deliberately) lacked many of the standard features of a park; now some of the red follies have been awkwardly converted into cafés and information centres. The US Project for Public Spaces has, perhaps unfairly, condemned Villette as one of the worst parks in the world, a place more interested in tricksy design and philosophical techniques than in human use of the space.

Functional Folie

One of the ‘functional folies’ – now a café.

Others seek to defend its philosophical intent as a deconstructionist proclamation, a return to design zero. Some just argue that, whatever its faults, parc de la Villette is a much-needed and popular place in the city’s busy 19th arrondissement. It was without doubt an extraordinarily brave decision by the State to choose Tschumi’s design for the site, and a refreshing change from the bland, ‘lowest common denominator’, controversy-free plans so often implemented for public parks.

Visitors must make up their own minds about Villette, just as Tschumi intended…

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Gladsome gardens

Today we have seen the first snow of the season in central Paris. Parc Monceau has an icing sugar dusting of white on its grass and still-autumnal trees. Usually the City closes the parks in storms and snow, for safety reasons, but this is light enough to allow us still to wander and enjoy.

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Google image

Image from Google maps

In the 8th arrondissement is a street called rue de la Pépinière, literally the street of the plant nursery. Today it is a busy commercial thoroughfare, with a dedicated Hello Kitty store and a big Starbucks. But that name suggests its previous history.

rue de la pépinièreFor centuries this area to the northeast of Paris was open land outside the city walls. Between 1640 and 1720, a Royal Nursery (la pépinière du roi) was established near the hamlet of Roule, to provide trees, shrubs and flowers for the king’s gardens, which were being laid out by Le Nôtre and others at the Tuileries and Versailles. The grand new nursery was popular with visitors, including English doctor Martin Lister, who came to France in 1698 and wrote in his Journey to Paris that:

I was to see the Pipinerie, or Royal Nursery of Plants, in the Fauxbourgh of St. Honorie; where I met the Master or Controuler of it, Monsieur Morley, one of the Ushers of the Bed-Chamber to the King….

This Ground inclosed with high Walls, is vastly big, as it ought to be, to supply the King’s Gardens; Here are several acres of young pines, Cypresses, Vues, &c. also vast Beds of Stock July-Flowers, of all sorts of Bulbes, as Tulips, Daffadills, Crocus’s, &c. and therefore I could easily believe him, when he told me, he had sent from hence to Marli alone, in four years time, eighteen Millions of Tulips, and other Bulbous Flowers…. He further told me, that the furnishing the Trianon (a peculiar House of Pleasure, with its Parterres at the end of the Gardens at Versailles) with Flower-Pots in season, every 14 days in the Summer, took up no less than 92 000 Pots from hence. Also from hence he could plant and furnish in 14 days time, any new Garden the King should cause to be made….

In this Ground are several Houses to lodge the tender Winter Greens; amongst the rest there is one very large, which I may call the Infirmary of sick Orange-Trees.

As well as acclimatising and tending exotic species, the royal nursery was known for its training of trees and shrubs, including espalier peaches and apricots; it was also the home of one of the first two cedars of Lebanon introduced into France.

Jardin des Plantes 'twin'

One of the first cedars of Lebanon to be grown in France, at the Jardin des Plantes. Its ‘twin’ was planted in the Pépinière du Roi. Image from http://www.paris-pittoresque.com/jardins/2.htm

Rue de la Pépinière ran to the nursery and along its eastern edge as far as Roule. The other nursery borders were formed by rue du Faubourg St Honoré to the north, the Champs Elysées to the south, and the present-day rue du Berri to the west.

The original nursery was closed down in 1720, to make way for a proposed Mint, and the land was subsequently sold to the duc d’Artois (later Charles X) who planned ‘costly fantasies’ on the site, including a grand stable block (les écuries du roi), built  in 1781. The stables were demolished in the 1860s to make way for the hotel de Talhouët-Roy.

Ecuries d'Artois

A 1929 image of the écuries du roi, built on the site of the pépiniere and long-since demolished, by Paul Signac, from Christies.com

The royal gardens still needed vast quantities of plants, and so a new royal nursery (la pépinière du roule) was established further along rue de la Pépinière to the northeast. From the 1760s, the director of the nursery lived in a purpose-built house just across rue de Clichi (the present-day rue de Courcelles), and his team of gardeners made up much of the local population.

The role of the second royal nursery in supplying plants for the king ended with the Revolution and, despite desperate campaigning for its retention by the nursery director, it had disappeared completely by 1826.

The location of both nurseries can be seen on this detail from a wonderful 1761 map by Jean De La Grive, which is available along with many other old maps of Paris here.

1761 map of Paris (detail)

Most of the original rue de la Pépinière is today called rue la Boëtie. Only the little strip from St Augustin to St Lazare retains the original name.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine this busy part of Paris as a vast royal plant nursery, but that street name remains as the clue.

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The title of this post is poet Charles Baudelaire’s description of a graveyard. His own tombstone can be found in the cemetery in Montparnasse

monument and oak tree

cross on metal doorOpened in 1824, Montparnasse was one of three rural burial grounds created for Paris after the closure of the capital’s squalid urban cemeteries, where unmarked, unmourned bodies had lain thirty deep.

Moulin de la CharitéNow part of the busy 14th arrondissement, the site once lay outside the city walls, and for many years had been home to three farms. Its oldest feature is the tower to the west, which was built in the first half of the seventeenth century as a wind-driven flour mill. After the Revolution, the area became known for its popular revelries, and the windmill was converted to a guinguette, a tricky word to translate, but which means a place in the Paris suburbs for eating, dancing and, perhaps above all, drinking local wine on weekends and holidays. Once within the new cemetery, the mill’s blades were removed and it became the home of the warden. Nowadays it is empty.

Today was my first visit to the Montparnasse cemetery, and I found myself comparing it with Père Lachaise, which I know well. Despite its name, Montparnasse does not share the elevated position of its better-known cousin in the 20th. The land is resolutely flat and the cemetery hemmed in by the buildings that surround it, most strikingly the Tour Montparnasse just to its west. It is hidden behind walls and fences, and only reveals itself as a vast burial ground after the visitor has found the main entrance on boulevard Edgar Quinet.

clipped hedge and trees

In style it also shares little with the picturesque layout of Père Lachaise. Montparnasse immediately feels more classically French, with clipped hedges, geometrically arranged graves and long, straight, tree-lined allées. It is also less sumptuous, with simpler monuments and fewer of the elaborate, costly chapels that form much of the character of Père Lachaise.

chrysanthemumsfallen leaves between graves

moss-covered tombMontparnasse today was strikingly flower-filled: everywhere were pots and tubs of fat chrysanthemums, pink cyclamen, heathers, and the last of the summer’s daisies. Combined with the many fallen leaves and patches of green moss grown luscious in the recent rains, they gave the cemetery a perfect sense of autumnal richness, with its promise of cold, barren winter to come. It reminded me of Baudelaire’s Chant d’automne.

Recently I heard a talk by Pascal-Hervé Daniel, who manages all of the Paris cemeteries. He spoke of the problems with theft at Montparnasse and elsewhere. Previously thieves used to take the sculptures and sell them as works of art, but now there is little call for busts of long-dead and oft-forgotten figures. Thieves are instead collecting metal features from the graves and melting them down for sale. It means recovery of the stolen artifacts is now often impossible, and the beautifully worked metal pieces are lost forever.

metal and glass doormetal grill

We learnt from M. Daniel that, from the outset, the graves at Montparnasse were intended to be permanently owned and cared for by the families whose members were interred there: in creating these new rural cemeteries, Napoleon had promised that people would be able to buy large burial plots “ownership of which will be assured, whatever may befall, for time immemorial.” But occasionally families no longer wish to keep up the grave, or there is no representative of the family left, and then the city will begin a long process to reclaim the plot and restore or remove its memorial. I saw one sad example of this today.

abandoned plot?The cemetery is open daily to visitors. As well as Baudelaire, it is home to the tombs of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, May Ray – and 35,000 others.

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Around 350 French landscapes are currently labelled as remarkable, under a scheme run by the ministry of culture.

The idea is to encourage conservation and to increase accessibility to the best landscapes in the country. Valid for five years, the jardin remarquable designation is awarded to well-maintained gardens that offer exemplary design and botanical or historical interest. Gardens of all sizes, styles and ages are eligible, so long as they are open to the public for a minimum number of days each year.

The only jardin remarquable in Paris is the eighteenth century Jardin du Palais Royal, in the first arrondissement near the Louvre. Presumably there are political or cultural reasons why the Jardin des Tuileries, for example, or parc Monceau, or the Jardin du Luxembourg, do not have the award.

Surrounded by elegant arcades, the jardin du Palais Royal features two flower-filled parterres separated by a large circular pool and fountain, bordered by tree-lined allées.

There are two splendid examples of contemporary art to the south of the garden: Pol Bury’s mirrored spherical sculpture in the Gallery d’Orléans and, in the courtyard that had previously been a car park, the infamous striped columns by Daniel Buren officially known as Les Deux Plateaux.

The garden seems to me a surprising choice as the capital’s only jardin remarquable. Although it may be rather tucked away, it is certainly open to the public, and has been since Revolutionary times. Today it provides welcome shade, seating and even a little children’s playground. And, yes, it has an important history, having been created by Cardinal Richelieu, lived in by royalty, provided a flashpoint for the Revolution, and subsequently been a hotbed of vice and a home to both high culture and destructive violence.

It is the standard of maintenance that makes me question the award. The statues are grubby – and the planting, last time I visited, was lamentable. There were some lovely roses, but also unclipped hedges, big patches of bare, unkempt soil and lots of straggly weeds.

In its defence, the palace and its exterior space have been undergoing a major programme of renovation. I plan to go back and see whether it now feels like the worthy holder of its jardin remarquable award.

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“I am sure it is a great mistake always to know enough to go in when it rains. One may keep snug and dry by such knowledge, but one misses a world of loveliness.” (Adeline Knapp)

It was mild and wet in Paris this weekend, with the sort of steady drizzle that encourages you to stay indoors with a book and a mug of tea. But we decided to take the long route to our local market, and went via parc Monceau. It was a splendid diversion. The vast old trees were at the peak of their autumn colour, the park was almost empty, and everything seemed somehow accentuated by the soft rain. Our daughter, who had been understandably reluctant to leave the dry of the apartment, happily collected a range of vibrant leaves, while I tried to capture the colours with my camera, including the burnished bronze of a fine weeping beech and the yellow of a young robinia beside a multi-coloured cherry tree, a purple sweetgum, the tawny softness of the ancient plane trees, and the almost alien yellow of a ginkgo in the deserted playground.


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A definition of mellow

Recently my seven-year-old daughter asked me what “mellow” meant. I rather struggled to define it.

I could have just shown her an English autumn day. For me, it expresses exactly that “ pleasantly soft, sweet, ripe” sense given by my dictionary.

Rather than moving on to quote the much-abused line from Keats, I will simply post some photos of autumn in the Northeast of England last weekend, to make my point.



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