Archive for June, 2011

The city of Paris has admirable policies on biodiversity, climate change and other ‘green’ issues. Previously I’ve blogged about how these policies are playing out in the capital’s public parks – arguably in a rather clumsy way at the grand parc Monceau, and more successfully at a pleasant new neighbourhood park in the 11th arrondissement.

But here is an example of a full-on sustainable park, recently completed in an area of the 13th arrondissement that is undergoing major, innovative urban renewal. Underpinning the development work is an environmental charter that covers “water, waste, ground and sub-ground, energy, noise, journeys, urban landscape and governance.”

view of park in front of old flour mills

view from bridge

The park itself, known by the rather awkward name les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre, was designed by landscape architects Ah Ah to showcase “la conquête végétale” [the triumph of plant life], with vegetation spilling over paths, seeding between paving stones, spreading into ponds and clambering up walls. It has two distinct areas: a series of terraced meadows on one side, and a mosaic of different habitats on the other, from pond and bog to meadow and forest under storey.

Rainwater is collected from neighbouring rooftops and channelled down pipes and along open gullies or rills in the park, through the various ponds and marsh areas, and then down to a vast underground storage tank, from where it is used for irrigation.

the water tanks at Grands Moulins

Sketch of the water distribution system at les Grands Moulins, from an exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine

pedestrian bridge

We visited a couple of weeks ago, after six weeks of unusually hot, dry weather. I found it difficult to form a clear opinion of the park: on the one hand, it has admirable ambitions as a sustainable landscape, demonstrates the green credentials of the city far more than policy documents and statements ever can, and is for all of us an example for the future.

There were some lovely design touches, like the curving boardwalk engraved with messages about the park’s sustainable features, and the sinuous pedestrian bridge that invites you up to view the park from above.

sign on pathway

On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine what you are meant to DO in this park, apart from admire how sustainable it all is. My eight-year-old proclaimed it ‘boring’ and I could sort of see what she meant. The water channels were dry and the pond area murky and slightly smelly. The only other child present during our visit was poking round rather disconsolately with a stick. You couldn’t really sit on the grass, and the planting was all environmentally-sound species like clover and prairie-style grasses, with little that was sensually arresting. Despite its claims of encouraging biodiversity, the park’s the only obvious wildlife was some fat feral pigeons waddling round, and we can see those pretty much anywhere.

pond area

planting and signageMaybe the shortcoming was mine, but  les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé  Pierre somehow felt almost like the Emperor’s New Clothes…

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Some landscape designs look great on paper but don’t somehow work out on the ground. Here’s an example from the heart of Paris.

The jardin du Carrousel is a 7-hectare park between the courtyard of the musée du Louvre and the wonderful processional sweep of the jardin des Tuileries.

It was redesigned in the 1990s, following a competition won by Belgian landscape firm Jacques Wirtz. The winning design looked good in theory (and from an aerial viewpoint), with its series of radial lines stretching elegantly out from the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, first as stone lines in sand and then as yew hedges in grass. Statues by Aristide Maillol, which had been in the park since the 1960s, were placed playfully among the new hedges. The effect was like the rays of the sun, or stretching fingers, providing widening paths that encouraged visitors to promenade throughout the park. The radial design also echoed I. M. Pei’s glittering new pyramid in the Louvre courtyard, spreading the same triangular shape out horizontally on the park surface.

But on the ground, the park does not work well at all. From most angles it is difficult to perceive the radial design. The grubby stone lines are interrupted by litter bins, food stands and seemingly unrelated horse chestnut trees.

Stone linesThe grass is often threadbare and frequently re-turfed, with stone walkways being inserted where it is has simply proved unsustainable. The yew hedges look squat, lumpy and randomly arranged, and are often more of a barrier than an invitation.

Setec TPI

Sketch showing the major subterranean development below the garden. Image from setec tpi.

To make things worse, the yew has never properly established. Planted on what is essentially a platform over parking and an underground shopping mall, the 20,000 shrubs suffered from poor growth and needle drop. After the 2003 canicule (heatwave), extensive renovation of the planting was undertaken.

But, eight years later, the hedges are an ugly patchwork of shapes and colours: grey gaps where plants have died away completely, ugly splashes of dead brown branches, sombre patches of mature yew, weirdly unpruned green sprouts, yellow tips on some bushes, bright blue growth on others.Maillol statue

yew hedgeDying yewFrance has many examples of contemporary designs inserted triumphantly into historic places. This isn’t one of them. Somebody needs to be brave enough to say let’s stop patching and hoping things will improve, and admit this design simply doesn’t work.

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Feeling at home

Where do I most feel at home in Paris? That was the question put to me by photographer Chloe Lodge, as part of her portrait series on foreign women making new lives for themselves in the French capital.

It didn’t take me long to suggest parc Monceau, the splendid 8-hectare public park that’s just a few minutes walk from our apartment. What is it about Monceau? Well, most obviously, it is our nearest green space, and our daughter goes to school in a building right next to the park, and plays there every day.

Carmontelle image of Monceau

Designer Carmontelle handing the keys for the pleasure grounds at Monceau to the Duc de Chartres, c.1775. Image from the Musée Carnavalet.

But Monceau for me has a magic beyond its mere proximity. As a landscape historian, I find its past pleasingly extraordinary. Much of its history is still apparent, if you know where and how to look: the vestiges of the mad 18th century pleasure grounds with their Disneyesque attractions and rumours of the owner’s debauched behaviour; the 19th century features installed when the site became a public park under Napoleon III; the reminder of the terrible end to the 1871 Commune.

Every path and feature and tree is familiar to me, from the gilded entry gates designed by Gabriel Davioud in the 1850s… Davioud gates…and the traditional pony rides offered for kids on Wednesday afternoons and weekends…

Pony rides

…to the frenzy of picnickers and sunbathers on the lawns when all of Paris tumbles out of doors during the long summer months. summer

I love Monceau slumbering under light snow in the winter, its gates locked whenever bad weather threatens; its fresh bright colours in Spring’s lengthening days; its soft autumnal hues as the ancient trees mellow to brown and gold.


Several of Chloe’s subjects chose public parks as places where they felt most comfortable in the city: the gardens of the Palais Royal, parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the Tuileries, the jardin du Luxembourg. It’s clear that, for many of us as foreigners here, the parks of Paris quickly become proxy gardens, refuges, symbols of the city, and welcoming friends.

Certainly for me in Paris, parc Monceau is where I feel most at home.

Chloe Lodge image

Landscape Lover in parc Monceau. Image © Chloe Lodge

I’d welcome comments from anyone who finds him or herself in a foreign place: have you discovered somewhere there that feels to you like home?

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Today I’m delighted to be a guest contributor on the splendid American blog Gardening Gone Wild. My post describes two beautiful places in Paris, and ponders on their common designation as “Japanese gardens.” Do go and have a look.

Jardin Albert Kahn

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Last weekend was the national garden festival Rendez-Vous aux Jardins. To be honest, it was a bit of a damp squib in Paris, with only 10 sites taking part, most of them public parks where it was pretty much business as usual.

The one treat in the capital was the opening of the private gardens at the early eighteenth century hôtel de Matignon in the seventh arrondissement. These days, Matignon is the home of the French prime minister. The 3ha (7½ acre) grounds, said to be the largest private gardens in the city, are usually only available to the current incumbent, François Fillon, his Welsh wife, and their official guests.

Matignon 1734

The gardens at Matignon from the 1734 Michel-Etienne Turgot map of Paris. From http://plan.turgot.free.fr

The gardens were originally laid out in the 1720s by Claude Desgots (the great-nephew and heir of André Le Nôtre) as a series of parterres and potagers, with a central axis marked by a double allée of pleached limes (Tillia) and a boundary screen of large trees and shrubs.

Plane treeThe gardens entered a second phase in the nineteenth century, when the southern end became a place for romantic promenades à l’anglaise among exotic flowering trees, including magnolias and Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum).

In 1905 came their third incarnation, when the property’s then owner, the ambassador of Austria, brought in noted designer Achille Duchêne to renovate the gardens and turn them into a place suitable for entertaining. While preserving many of the old trees, Duchêne created a large tapis vert, a green carpet, near the house, edged by six small bosquets (groves of trees and hedges), with smaller open spaces under the trees to the side.

View of house

Today the grounds are presented as a garden of two halves: the winding walk among trees, still described as English in style, and the more open space for entertaining near the house.

During my visit last Saturday, in 30℃ heat, the overwhelming sense was of greenness – dazzling greenness. Literally acres of the gardens consist of lush, bowling green lawn, surrounded by some magnificent ancient trees.

Purple beech

To me the most impressive feature was the pleached lime allée, with its careful planting and clipping to create a false sense of perspective.

AlléeLess interesting were the rather gaudy annuals and tender perennials neatly bedded out in narrow strips around the house and alongside the clipped hedges of the bosquets.

House and flowerbedWe learnt that much of the gardens are maintained organically, with nematodes and other natural parasites used to control pests, and all the weeds removed from the gravel paths by hand. The lawns, on the other hand, are clearly treated to keep them so fine and completely weed-free, and are regularly and copiously watered (we had had no rain for about a month on the day I took these photographs).

Traditionally prime ministers plant a specimen tree in the gardens on their arrival at Matignon. One French visitor was speculating on the meaning of Lionel Jospin’s 1997 choice of Ulmus ‘Wanoux.’ To me, more curious was the planting beyond the allée of a frothy cream Chinese dogwood (Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’) by the dependable, statesmanlike current prime minister.

Cornus behind lime allée

Matignon is not, for me, a great garden. It seems too tentative, too unsure of its own character: is it French or English, conventional or organic, geometric or asymmetrical, a flower garden or an arboretum, a place with three historical periods or two geographical halves?

But it was still a treat to be allowed inside its usually closed portals.

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The tour Montparnasse is the only skyscraper in Paris. Whatever its architectural merit, its viewing terrace gives wonderful views over the capital. From above, you get a different sense of the scale of the cityscape – the green expanse of the parks and cemeteries, the proximity and juxtaposition of landmarks, the great scars of the railway lines.

In the foreground are views of the jardin Atlantique, a late twentieth century park, placed dramatically on top of the Montparnasse railway station.

jardin AtlantiqueAlso adjacent is the 19th century Montparnasse cemetery, which seems surprisingly large viewed from above.

Montparnasse cemeterySlightly more distant, in the 6th arrondissement, is the lush, 17th century jardin du Luxembourg, with the iconic cemetery Père Lachaise (the city’s biggest green space), located in the 20th arrondissement, visible beyond.

jardin du LuxembourgTo the west is the 101 metre high, golden dome of Les Invalides with its grand esplanade leading to the Seine.

InvalidesAnd, of course, arguably the original ‘skyscraper’ in Paris, here’s la tour Eiffel straddling the half-mile long processional space of the Champs de Mars with, as backdrop, the business district at la Défense.

Tour EiffelOften, it’s the little details of the city that catch my eye – a cluster of plants, a sign, the face on a sculpture – so it’s good to be reminded of the large scale and drama of this splendid place.

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