Archive for May, 2011

The Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx was a modern day Renaissance man – painter, jeweller, poet, musician, sculptor, environmentalist, cook, set designer, plant hunter, landscape architect.

Of course, it is those last two activities which draw me to him. He was one of the finest modernist landscape designers, known for the scale and bravura of his designs, and for his championing of native Brazilian flora (which had been previously spurned as brush and scrub in comparison to the supposedly superior plants of Europe). Burle Marx, who died in 1994 aged 84, was also a master at creating fluid spaces that merged with buildings designed by Oscar Neimeyer and other modernist architects.

Avenida Atlantica

Burle Marx's dramatic mosaic paving along Copacabana beach in Rio. Photograph source: Escritório Burle Marx

Currently there is a slightly disappointing exhibition of his work called Roberto Burle Marx, la Permanence de l’Instable at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

One of Burle Marx's sketches for the Copacabana beach paving.

The exhibition is at its best when it shows off Burle Marx’s drawings and plans: there are wonderful colourful diagrams and confident pencil sketches, some sinuous and organic, a little like a Picasso drawing; others are blocky and angular, reminding me of the compositions of Mondrian. You can trace the development of Burle Marx’s style, from early, surprisingly traditional Beaux Arts designs through to the great bravura sweep of the Copacabana and the Aterro do Flamengo. But in grouping his work into themes – early work, monumentality, public places, private residences, etc – the exhibition loses the essential links between individual plans and finished landscapes, which are separately displayed through photographs and videos.

One of my teachers at Harvard was sniffy about Burle Marx’s work, seeing it as rather two dimensional, like a painting laid on the ground, and another scholar has argued that even his sinuous designs paid scant regard to the topographical curves of their sites. But the best of his gardens were wonderfully lush, dramatically modernist creations. It is a shame that some of the best known do not feature in the exhibition.

Burle Marx's own garden

Burle Marx's own garden. Image from the BBC.


Garden of the Edmundo Cavanelas House. Photograph by Jerry Harpur.

Given his championing of exotic vegetation, it is not surprising that most of Burle Marx’s work is found in South America. But the exhibition includes two plans he produced for sites here in Paris. One, a terrace for the Pompidou Centre, was never installed.

Proposal for a terrace at the Pompidou Centre.

The other is a delightful series of six small sunken patios produced in 1963 for the headquarters of UNESCO. They are still there apparently, and recently refurbished – I shall have to go and take a look.

Sketches for the UNESCO patios.

Roberto Burle Marx UNESCO patio

One of the UNESCO patios. Image from http://www.next.liberation.fr

The exhibition runs until 24 July.

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La Folie Titon

Here’s a better example of sustainability in the parks of Paris. I wrote the other day about the park department’s rather ham-fisted attempts to introduce biodiversity in the grand parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement. Today I saw a much better version.
general view of parkIt was in le jardin de la Folie Titon, a neighbourhood park in a fairly gritty part of the 11th arrondissement. Once this was a grand country estate on the outskirts of Paris, owned by Louis XIV’s secretary Évrard Titon du Tillet. It later became a wallpaper factory and, when that was demolished, in 2007 the city created this little (0.5 hectare) park.

pondjardin partagéThere is a splendid 150 square metre pond with a viewing platform, designed to encourage biodiversity, various beds of woody plants with informative but unobtrusive botanical signs, and a jardin partagé – thirteen allotments gardened by (among others) local school children and a group of people in wheelchairs. These features are complemented by an area of lawn with amphitheatre style seating, small playgrounds and a sandpit.

botanical signboardwalk

It’s well-maintained, informative and popular, and seems to me an excellent example of how to create a sustainable and attractive public park.


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It was a year ago that this blog saw the light of day, so I am allowing myself a little self-indulgent contemplation of its first twelve months.

As a parent, I believe that every stranger encountered on the internet is a potential axe murderer. Yet one of the great joys for me in this year of blogging has been the chance to step through the screen, as it were, and get to know people in the flesh whom I have first met in cyberspace: a day in Philadelphia with Carolyn from Carolyn’s Shade Gardens, attending her hellebore seminar and visiting Chanticleer; an April Saturday with Adam of Invisible Paris, on a guided tour of a curious local landscape; a morning in Paris with Jan of Salutations, who had managed – from 3,000 miles away in Massachusetts – to arrange for the two of us to visit the Peace Garden at UNESCO headquarters, when all my local efforts to obtain entry had failed.

hellebore seminar

Carolyn's hellebore seminar

Adam at the jardin d'agronomie

Adam's tour of the Jardin d'Agronomie

UNESCO peace garden

The peace garden, visited with Jan

Over its first year, this blog has flourished in ways I could not have imagined. It started simply as a way of recording personal reactions to places I had visited, an opportunity to write short pieces without footnotes or peer review or the other trappings that accompany my more academic work on landscapes. I expected perhaps a few friends to read it, and the occasional student or Paris visitor to stumble over something via Google. But 12 months later, Landscape Lover has thousands of visitors every month, a wealth of informed and lively comments, lots of subscribers, and links to and from scores of related sites. I have welcomed my first guest blogger, and have been invited to write for other sites.

It’s been surprising to see what has interested visitors. Easily my most popular post is this one: more than a thousand visitors, and yet for some reason not one single comment. The post that was much more popular than expected was this one, and the one that I’m disappointed so few people have found (especially given the wonderful photographs) is here. Most comments appeared for this post, about a photograph of a little walnut. The most popular search term that brings people here is Dan Kiley, which pleases me, given my great love for the work of this American designer. And, for no obvious reason, the links most frequently clicked (after the one to my website) were these two: a plan of parc André Citroën, and a photograph I took last May of a French rose garden.

Parc André Citroën

Plan from viguier.com

Roseraie du Val de Marne

Roseraie de l'Haÿ

With my imminent departure for a very different adventure in India, I am delighted to have found time during my last year in Paris to create this blog, and send a warm anniversary thank you to all my visitors over the last twelve months, and a hope that you will continue to call by.

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Paris is gaining something of a ‘green’ reputation – with its Vélib’ bike-rental scheme, its organic markets, and a profusion of pocket parks and vertical gardens.

For the City parks department, one of the trickiest issues in this move to a more sustainable Paris is the management of the grass in the capital’s public parks. As the title of this post suggests, lawns are traditionally maintained with lavish applications of pesticides and fertilisers, and a fierce regime of cutting, clipping and watering. How can you ensure that – without mowing, without chemicals – park lawns look appealingly sustainable, rather than simply unkempt and abandoned?

At our local park, Monceau, the parks department is trying two approaches. First, it is continuing to mow sections of the grass in great sweeping curves, leaving islands and swathes of longer, more mixed greenery. It’s the approach recommended in a seminal article by Joan Iverson Nassauer, who found that the wholesale reinstatement of native vegetation generates little positive response; people perceive something as beautiful and valuable only if they can see evidence of continuing human intervention. Basically, we need to know that the “weeds” are meant to be there.

'Weeds' under treesFlowering grassSecondly, the parks department is putting up signs to explain what it is doing (regular readers of this blog will know my fascination with signage). Notices at the entrance to the park, for instance, explain that the site is now certified as being “ecologically managed,” preparing visitors perhaps for some non-traditional features. Once inside, other signs among the long grass gently explain that “we are letting native flora grow” or “we’re creating meadows to encourage biodiversity.”

sign about native florasign about meadows

But there is a danger in this approach. Christopher Lloyd (of Great Dixter fame) worried over a decade ago that, in an effort to produce more sustainable sites, authorities might start sponsoring worthy but unattractive gardens, designed to teach people environmental lessons, and with “little informative plaques” explaining why they looked so awful. And I think we are heading that way now at Monceau. Look at these recent examples, where gentle pointers about the advantages of sustainability have given way to stern prohibitions and ugly exclusion zones.

Exclusion zoneAnother exclusion zoneAnd in any event, all this effort at promoting sustainability has only gone so far. The parks department has had the sprinklers running at Monceau every day this week…

Sprinkers at MonceauI’d love to read comments about what you think of the approach at Monceau – and about what your local parks department is doing (or not doing) to introduce more sustainable lawn care practices.

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I have become quietly obsessed with park signage and historical markers. Already I’ve posted a couple of times on particular examples in Paris and Philadelphia, and now people are starting to feed my addiction by sending me images of other interesting specimens. It’s perhaps a bit of a specialist topic for the general visitor to this blog, so I’ve set up a gallery of signs, and invite those with a similar interest in markers and signage to peruse the page. More examples for the display are welcome!

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View of chateauOn Saturday I led a guided tour of the fabulous estate at Vaux le Vicomte, southeast of Paris, which was the first commission for André Le Nôtre. These are possibly my favourite gardens in France. What I tried to convey to the visitors was the extraordinary drama and theatre of the design, with its vast, bold gestures on the land. It is a near-perfect example of a baroque landscape, its ostentatious display combined with a wonderful sense of movement, with that main axis pulling the eye through the grounds to the distant statue of Hercules and on to infinity. Perhaps that much is fairly obvious.View from terraceBut there is a second, less apparent, element to the gardens at Vaux, which I hope my group of visitors also came to appreciate – and that is the playful nature of the design. These are gardens of illusions and surprises. The view from the entrance gate gives no hint of the landscape features contained inside the elaborate fences. Only as the visitor moves along the path towards the chateau does a water-filled moat and impressive large inner courtyard become visible.

Front viewMoatSimilarly, from the south terrace at the rear of the chateau, visitors are led to believe that the view now gives them a complete grasp of the vast gardens with their terraces, parterres and pools near the house and then, fanning away into the distance, grand pathways, lawns, water features, sculptures, and surrounding clipped hedges and trees, all laid out symmetrically before them. But further movement through the gardens reveals that the seeming symmetry is in fact balanced and playful asymmetry; and that the gardens contain major features, including the transverse canal and the thunderous cascades, which are not visible from the initial prospect. As visitors progress through the space, subtle changes in topography mean that features advance then recede, are reflected and mirrored, revealed and then hidden again. Sounds, such as the rushing water of the cascades, are often the first clue that a dramatic new feature is about to be encountered.CascadesCanal and grottoCritics of French baroque gardens argue that they offer only static geometry; but Vaux is designed to be a garden of constant movement and change, intended to surprise and delight its visitors. It certainly did that for us on Saturday.

parterresCascade detail

Foutain and pelagoniums

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La Banque Postale has just opened its new headquarters in a cluster of buildings in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Having taken many years and a great deal of public money to complete, the building project has been the cause of much controversy and debate. But to me the architecture is splendid.

horse chestnut

At its heart is the early 18th century hotel de Choiseul-Praslin, which has been lavishly renovated after standing empty for many years. Over the last few months I have watched the painstaking work that has gone into bringing this building back to life, every detail carefully restored and cleaned and painted and polished. Other later buildings have also been renovated while, on the adjacent plot, a nondescript modern block has been transformed into a strikingly contemporary, green building that reminds me a little of the Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale.  The contrast, between old and new, traditional and modern, is something Paris does very well. Although not without their detractors, the headquarters buildings have generally met with admiration.

overview of project

The site today.

the site previously

The site before the building work started. From Google.

Sadly the landscape has managed to escape similar levels of investment and attention. While the Beinecke library at Yale is off-set by an equally beautiful, austere Noguchi garden, these landmark buildings in Paris have a couple of courtyards that made me wince when I saw them earlier today. Located between two of the older buildings, one courtyard has a fine old horse chestnut, preserved during the building works, and a random selection of half-dead shrubs stuffed into silly, narrow borders.

Narrow bordersThe second courtyard, located right on rue de Sèvres between the old and the new buildings, is worse. Someone decided that checkerboard granite paving topped with large Versailles tubs was the best option here. Unadventurous (but undoubtedly French and potentially suitably dignified), the tubs were installed in a rather random configuration and painted to match the pale green window frames of the hotel; each one was equipped with expensive electrical up-lighters. Then a job lot of large shrubs was bunged in. Habit played no part in their choice: large-leaved, small-leaved, tall, squat, rounded, columnar, in they all went. And there they sit, haphazard, straggly and, with their soil already full of weeds, rather sad.

main courtyard


The project allegedly cost 130m euros. Surely just a tiny little bit more of that could have been spent on the horticulture?

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A modernist fortress

Today I am delighted to be a guest contributor on Lula Alvarez’s blog, On Botanical Photography. We have jointly produced a photo-essay on on the Barbican in London, Lula taking the wonderful photographs of this modernist fortress, with me supplying the accompanying text. For both of us, the Barbican is one of the most fascinating sites in the capital.

Here’s a photo I took last month from the London Eye, showing the three Barbican towers amidst the endearing jumble of architecture that makes up the City of London. For more on the Barbican’s remarkable intertwining of Brutalist architecture and lush landscapes, have a look at Lula’s blog.

Barbican Towers

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RHS gardens, Wisley

Some people are rather sniffy about the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens at Wisley in Surrey: the entry fee and cafés are too expensive, the visitors are all middle-aged and middle class, the displays are too horticultural, the history of the site is not celebrated, the car park is impossible to navigate for the disabled.

All those criticisms have their merits. Yet on a warm day in late April, there are few more pleasant places for keen gardeners to spend some time. The site was first developed as an experimental garden in the 1870s. Today it is almost 100 hectares of display areas, from trained fruit, vegetable plots and alpines, to roses, a wild garden, various water features (including a canal designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe), and extensive trial fields. In summer and autumn, there are perennial gardens to enjoy by top designers Piet Oudolf, Penelope Hobhouse and Tom Stuart-Smith.

daffs and crab appleAcer griseum and daffspearl bush

When we were there just before Easter, every Spring-flowering bulb, tree and perennial seemed to be in full bloom, all planted in big, heartening swathes: white daffodils, crab apples, pink tulips, lilacs, magnolias, pearl bush, epimediums, rhododendrons, a mass of tiny blue grape hyacinth, even the peonies were joining in.

epimediummuscaripeony and epimedium

The Bicentenary Glasshouse, opened in 2007, was full of exquisite displays, including some beautiful orchids, all laid out and labelled in a way that put the similar Grandes Serres at the Jardin des Plantes (about which I posted recently) to shame.

orchids in the glasshouse

Despite the criticisms of Wisley, and despite the controversial changes the RHS is facing under its new Director General, Sue Biggs, it was difficult on that bright Spring day to do anything but enjoy these flower-filled gardens.


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