garden tales from a Brit abroad
The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes is a curious relic of France’s colonial past. Yesterday I joined Adam of Invisible Paris for a guided tour of the garden in springtime, and it struck me that it raises some fascinating issues about landscape conservation.
Created in 1899 to test and redistribute plants from the country’s territories abroad, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was the site of a Colonial Fair in 1907 which used displays of plants and buildings to provide a sense of the French colonies for well-to-do Parisian visitors. Elephants and camels were brought in and, extraordinarily, so were des indigènes – people literally shipped in from the colonies to live in huts and tents in the garden and be gawped at by visitors. Adam showed us some wonderful 1907 photographs of the Fair’s buildings, with elephants careering down a specially created water slide, and the indigènes wrapped in blankets against the Northern European chill, staring stoically at the camera.
The human attractions disappeared after six months (sadly no records remain of their experiences or their ultimate fate) but the buildings and the plants were left in situ after the Fair ended. The site became a hospital during the First World War and home to memorials for colonial soldiers morts pour la France (killed in the service of France).
Some of the buildings were co-opted for other uses, but over the decades that followed most of the site fell into disuse and neglect. Some structures burnt down or were destroyed by weather or time. The exotic plant species gradually died out, to be replaced by volunteer trees and vegetation. The only remaining original plantings are some persimmon, lots of bamboo and a single eucommia ulmoides, or Chinese rubber tree.
Then in 2003 the city of Paris took over the site. It trumpeted its wish to restore the garden and its listed colonial structures, and run it as a model of sustainability. A beautifully illustrated book was published about the garden and its history, the Indochina pavilion was expensively restored, and signs of sustainability – such as a mass of beehives – started to appear on site.
But the management of this garden raises some difficult questions. Without an obvious new use for the buildings, why invest the large sums needed to restore and maintain them? The story of French colonisation is undoubtedly important, but it is an awkward – sometimes shameful – part of the country’s history, and so is it likely to provide a popular visitor attraction? In any event, what value do these buildings have historically, as quickly constructed French interpretations of vernacular architecture in Asia and Africa? The garden may be owned by the city of Paris, but it is located in the leafy suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne; how far should Parisian tax revenue be spent restoring a site away from the city?
But if the city does not restore the garden, then its options are limited. Some might argue that the garden should simply be left to continue to decay and eventually disappear, remembered only through old photographs and stories. Such abandon has a certain romantic appeal, while dilapidated structures and wilderness could be a suitable metaphor for the bygone values and beliefs of colonisation.
At the moment, the city seems to be trying to find a middle way between these two approaches. Its staff are trying to stabilise decaying structures and to keep the garden accessible and safe for visitors, by clearing paths, putting up warning signs and fences, and cordoning off dangerous areas. Save for planting the odd new tree, little is being done to change the existing vegetation. Instead the city argues that it is preserving both the mysterious charm and the biodiversity of the site.
To be honest, it feels to me like an uneasy compromise – essentially trying to conserve the sense of history and neglect, while keeping the space safe and useable. The garden is no longer abandoned, but is being managed to appear as if it is. But I have no easy solutions for what else could be done.