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Archive for March, 2011

Here’s another off-the-beaten-track park to enjoy in this glorious spring sunshine. It’s almost the antithesis of yesterday’s recommendation, which was a small, naturalistic, nineteenth century park in the northwest of Paris. Today’s post is about parc de Sceaux, a vast, geometric, seventeenth century-style landscape, actually just outside the city’s southern perimeter. Laid out in the late 1600s by André Le Nôtre, Sceaux was originally a private garden for Louis XIV’s finance minister.

Jacques Rigaud c1736 engraving

View of the parterres and grand canal at Sceaux c.1736 by Jacques Rigaud. From http://www.collections.chateau-sceaux.fr

The original chateau was destroyed during the French revolution and the gardens given over to agriculture. During the nineteenth century a new chateau was built in the grounds, and the gardens restored on similar lines to the original. In the 1930s new features were added to the gardens, including a cubist cascade, and Sceaux became the property of its département (regional government). The chateau was turned into a museum for the Ile-de-France, and the gardens opened as a public park.

As the aerial view here shows, the layout of the gardens has an unusual double perspective. One long vista of parterres, circular water features and stepped turf terraces runs from the chateau, while a second, perpendicular, axis is formed by Le Nôtre’s tree-lined grand canal and the adjacent octagonal pool.

Aerial view of Sceaux. From http://www.domaine-de-sceaux.fr

Sceaux is glorious at any time of year but particularly so in the spring, when the clipped hedges of horse chestnut are lush with bright green new growth and, around the orangerie (designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart), the box-edged parterres are thickly planted with tulips, forget-me-nots and wallflowers.Sceaux is carefully managed to balance its historic importance with its role as a popular public park. It is also increasingly being maintained on ecological grounds, with more native plants being introduced to improve biodiversity, regular surveys of bats and birds found in the park, and the banning of chemical fertilisers and weedkiller. This week (20-30 March) is la semaine “zéro phyto” when no chemical pesticides will be used at Sceaux or in any of the parks in the area.

Although just outside Paris, the park is easily reachable by train from the city centre. Also worth a visit nearby is the summer rose garden, La Roseraie de l’Haÿ, and the parc de la vallée aux loups, formerly the house and grounds of romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand.

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Here’s a couple of slightly off-the-beaten-track places to enjoy Paris in the springtime.

First, the Square des Batignolles, which was one of twenty-four gardens created in the mid-1800s as part of the modernisation of Paris by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. It is a park à l’anglaise (that is, laid out naturalistically) with undulating lawns and a fine array of old trees, including four of the biggest plane trees in the city. The planting is generally slightly unusual for a public park – walnuts, elms, a twisted willow, purple beech, Turkish hazels, a hardy bitter orange, and a giant sequoia.Ducks among the daffs

With its rustic concrete bridges, grottoes, cascades, false rocks and meandering waterways, the whole thing has a delightful nineteenth century feel. The flower beds are maintained in the same spirit, particularly so in spring, when the city parks department plants out tulips and massed spring bedding.

The park also boasts a rather lovely round glasshouse installed in the 1990s, hundreds of ducks of a variety of breeds, flocks of chaffinches with their distinctive song, and a range of activities for kids, including a carousel, pony and trap rides, and two very popular playgrounds.

In these photos you can see the park as it was planted a couple of years ago. I was there again yesterday (in a major downpour) and the flowerbeds this spring are a mass of yellow tulips among purple bedding.

Square des Batignolles is rather hidden away in the 17th arrondissement, near Porte de Clichy, and not very easy to reach on public transport, so it tends not to be on the typical tourist trail. As an added attraction to visit, all this week until Sunday (3 April) there is a brocante (a vintage market) immediately outside the park in Place du Docteurs Félix-Lobligeois, with a tempting range of furniture, linen, china and jewellery for sale. Also in the neighbourhood, every Saturday morning, is a wonderful organic market, with bio-dynamically grown vegetables and fruit, cheeses, breads, fresh fish, herbs, cut flowers and home-made produce.

Batignolles brocante, Paris I’ll post the second suggestion for a springtime park tomorrow.

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A recent post looked at the vagaries of park signage in Paris. Since then, I have been keeping an eye out for good examples. And last week, on a trip to the US, I found some. The City of Philadelphia has, in my opinion, got it right.

So, what makes these signs work? It is nothing extraordinary or magical. They are simply located in places where people congregate. There is an appealing balance of colourful images and scant text. With eye-catching titles, they tell the reader one or two digestible pieces of information, and they relate clearly and explicitly to their location. That’s it.

And what’s the evidence that they work well? Simply that I have never seen signs so frequently consulted and discussed.

Post script: If you’re interested in signage, you might like to visit my gallery of other wonderful and woeful examples.

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Next week I’m off to Philadelphia for a few days.  I’ll be speaking at a symposium at the UPenn School of Design, called Foreign Trends on American Soil. It promises to be a fascinating look at the many influences on landscape design in the US. My paper will compare Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris with its American interpretation at Mount Auburn in Massachusetts.  And I’m looking forward to attending a related lecture by Blanche Linden at UPenn on preservation problems in historic rural cemeteries, and to visiting the gardens of fellow blogger and shade plant specialist Carolyn Walker.

Sadly I’ll just miss the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is happening this week. Its theme this year is “Springtime in Paris.” Philadelphia is a city with strong historical, political and cultural links to the French capital; it would have been fascinating to see how exhibitors are interpreting the topic.

Instead, I shall console myself with a few photos taken this morning in parc Monceau of, well, springtime in Paris.

corylopsis ?paucifoliaPhotinia leavesForsythiaMagnolia budsCherry blossom

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Landscapelover is delighted to welcome fellow blogger Lula Alvarez (aka Camer@Work) from On Botanical Photography as a guest contributor for this post. We have both been visiting and photographing the green walls—or vertical gardens—of master botanist Patrick Blanc.

Vertical gardens are everywhere these days. Seen as a dramatic statement of green credentials, they are trumpeted as increasing biodiversity, improving air quality, reducing energy consumption (as they provide building insulation), absorbing urban noise, and helping manage storm water runoff. Some analysis is going on (for example, here and here) which seems to confirm many of these claims. Paris is one of several cities that has included vertical gardens in its plans for combatting climate change.

Green walls in the 13 arr

Ideas for improving thermal insulation for Paris tower blocks. Image from http://www.paris.fr

Green walls are created in a number of ways. Most obviously, climbing plants are placed at the foot of a wall and encouraged to grow up. Alternatively, plants start at the top and cascade down. Lawrence Halprin, for instance, used this top-down approach to smother concrete walls at Freeway Park in Seattle.

Lawrence Halprin green wall

Green walls at Freeway Park, 2004

We are lucky in Paris to have Patrick Blanc, one of the leading experts on planted walls, or murs végétals. As a botanist, Blanc realised that plants in the wild frequently do not need soil to grow, but can thrive on cliff faces, rocks and the trunks of other plants. So he devised a novel way of growing plants on walls. No soil at all is involved: his designs consist of a layer of felt stapled to a waterproof PVC sheet, which in turn is attached to a metal frame fitted against the wall. That’s it. The plants are established as seeds or cuttings on the felt, and are automatically watered (and fed) from above. He now installs such vertical gardens all over the world, but the French capital has the greatest number of his creations.

Lula and I have been visiting a number of Blanc’s gardens. Perhaps the best known is the 2005 green wall at the musée du Quai Branly in Paris. It is much photographed, with shots often also including a glimpse of the nearby Eiffel Tower.musee du quai branly Musee du Quai Branly Musee du Quai Branly Similar in style is a building on rue Belliard in Brussels. Installed in 2009 for Stam-Europe (a property investment firm), Blanc’s creation covers a windowed façade on a busy street. But Lula says that, in contrast to the lushness of the Paris example, it has been poorly maintained and some of the plants have died. The building is currently unoccupied, and advertised for sale or rent.

Lula's image of Rue BelliardLula's image of rue Belliard

Similar problems have occurred on the Parliament building in Brussels, where Lula reports that she was not allowed to take photos of Blanc’s 2006 installation because the wall is currently in such a bad condition. Restoration work is apparently underway, but it will not be fit to be photographed again until the summer.

Patrick Blanc walls also appear as small squares on the front of department stores, aiming to catch the eye of the passer-by and to suggest the shop’s eco-friendliness. One example is at BHV Homme, installed in 2007, tucked down a side street in Paris’s 4th arrondissement. It contains some surprising plants, including a few tough little mahonia aquifolium. BHV HommeLula found a similar 2008 Blanc garden on the front of Berlin’s Galeries Lafayette, which is housed in a stunning building designed by Jean Nouvel. The first photograph below is from last summer, and shows that some of the plants had died. But by November 2010, in the second photograph, the wall had been partially replanted and was again thriving. Lula's Galeries Lafayette, Berlin, June 2010Lula's GL Berlin, Nov 2010 Blanc started his career creating vertical gardens inside buildings, only later moving on to external sites, and he still installs interior green walls for some clients. The smallest example I have seen is a free-standing display, created in 2006 inside the Weleda store on Paris’s Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, designed no doubt to promote the store’s green credentials.

Such internal walls are less accessible to the casual passer-by — and also to the writers of this post. Lula managed to snap a photo from the street of the vertical garden inside Club Med premises on Avenue Louise in Brussels, after being told prior permission was needed to photograph inside. Her photograph shows that the long, low wall Blanc created in 2007 still looks lush and healthy.

Lula's Club Med

The Pershing Hall boutique hotel, just off the Champs Elysées, has another internal Blanc wall, installed in 2001. Luckily I was allowed to photograph it last month. It theatrically forms one whole side of the small dining room, and then extends up beyond the glass ceiling into an atrium, around which are arranged the hotel’s bedrooms.

Pershing Hall hotelPershing Hall hotel

Sadly, a series of dramatic green columns, installed by Blanc in 2005 in the stairwells of an underground car park at place des Ternes in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, have recently been abandoned. The water and artificial lights were turned off, and the plants have withered and died in the dry, dark conditions. They remain in place, now husk-like, a silent recrimination. Patrick Blanc columnPatrick Blanc column

The most striking example I have seen of Blanc’s work was at the Caixa Forum post-modern art museum in Madrid. This converted warehouse, with its rusty steel façade, provides a stunning contrast with Blanc’s 2007 creation, installed on the wall of a neighbouring building.

Like all Blanc’s designs, the fifteen thousand plants for Caixa Forum were carefully chosen to suit the local climate, and have been arranged in painterly patterns to echo the contents of the museum.

Both Lula and I visited in February, as the plants were just coming into growth; later in the season, the wall is gorgeously lush, almost shaggy.

Caixa Forum

Lula's image of Caixa ForumCaixa Forum

An even bigger example of Blanc’s work runs along one side of the Passage Delanos, a shortcut between two Paris train stations, Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord. The 1,400m² vertical garden was installed in 2008 as part of the SNCF refurbishment of the area, and it transformed a dark alleyway into an exuberant green space in the city.

In late summer, there are sedums and other plants in flower on the wall, but even in early spring it has ferns, heucheras, grasses and helxine (baby’s tears), in broad swathes of yellow, light and dark green, brown and pinkish purple.Rue d'Alsace

It is hard not to love these lush green creations. But is there a downside? Well, clearly—even from these few examples—like any garden, green walls will deteriorate if not properly maintained.

There are also concerns that vertical gardens may become a way of justifying denser development: some planning departments are already offering more building space to firms prepared to use green practices. It’s known as a “density incentive.” Let’s just hope that these delightful planted walls continue to be additional green space, and don’t become instead a vertical alternative to traditional parks.

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If you’re interested in exploring hidden treasures, curiosities, and esoterica, you may want to join in the second international “Obscura Day.” On April 9th, a host of tours and events are being organised around the world to encourage us to poke around in fascinating by-ways and neglected corners.

Here in the French capital, I am delighted to be joining a tour organised by Adam from the award-winning blog Invisible Paris. He will be introducing us to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, an abandoned Victorian plant nursery in the Bois de Vincennes. Other planned events include a candlelit tour of a shell grotto in Margate, a visit to the catacombs in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, a tour of an underground temple in Turin, and a visit to a mad topiary garden in South Carolina.

If you can’t make any of the events, the Atlas Obscura compendium is worth checking out for curious places to visit at any time of the year. It recommends several in Paris that I do not know, as well as some old favourites, including the abandoned railway La Petite Ceinture and the cemetery at Père Lachaise.

La Petite Ceinture

La Petite Ceinture

Père Lachaise

Père Lachaise cemetery

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March 1st is the feast day of St David, the patron saint of Wales, my homeland.

Narcissus February GoldParis does not have many red dragons (the country’s heraldic emblem) or even, at this time of year, many leeks (the traditional emblem of Wales). But earlier today I saw this sunny little patch of Narcissus ‘February Gold’ by the church of St Philippe du Roule. The daffodil is an alternative Welsh emblem, chosen I think simply because it is so readily in flower on St David’s Day.

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus – Bonne Fête de Saint David – Happy St David’s Day!

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