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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Good in theory

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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15 comments on “Good in theory

  1. carolyn mullet
    June 21, 2011

    Very interesting post. We designers need to be able to make that leap from the plan to ground. It’s not always easy but it’s always necessary. Thanks for your bold take on what doesn’t work.

    • landscapelover
      June 21, 2011

      Carolyn, thanks for stopping by. If I had been one of the judges, I would probably have plumped for this design on paper – it appears to be such a sleek, smart solution, and from a company with such a great reputation. So it’s interesting to think about why it doesn’t work in practice.

  2. Garden Walk Garden Talk
    June 22, 2011

    The key is how and where they were planted. Over parking garages usually does not leave sufficient soil in which to grow (due to weight and structural consideration), compounded by heat and often wind in open areas. It almost means little to the design conceived as the main problem in that regards. I can readily see from the plan that it would not read at viewer level.

    • landscapelover
      June 22, 2011

      Yes, I agree – even if the yew was thriving, this would still not work well as a park.
      As you say, growing plants on a platform above parking is always going to be challenging, although there are examples where it can work well (think of Dan Kiley’s dalle at La Défense). But here, after more than a decade of deterioration and frequent replanting, it must be time to admit defeat!

  3. Very interesting post. I enjoyed learning about the thought process involved in the design and then the actuality. It seems like the yew part would be nice if it could be rejuvenated.

    • landscapelover
      June 22, 2011

      Carolyn, thanks for the comment.
      The Wirtz firm has done some fabulous stuff with sculpted hedges (we saw their wonderfully organic hanging garden at Marqueyssac in the Périgord last year) but, even if they were healthy, the hedges at the jardin du Carrousel are oddly clumpy and feel somehow pointless. As currently maintained, they are also rather high (too high to see over) and so walking among them feels slightly unnerving.

  4. sequoiagardens
    June 22, 2011

    When I was first shown Paris by my Paris friends this was brand new. They loved it, I didn’t. Although then it was new (=low) and my complaint was that it was too ‘readable’, lacking subtlety. They in turn were horrified at my total (and unexpected) enchantment with Pei’s pyramid.

    • landscapelover
      June 22, 2011

      Hi Jack – I’m with you on the pyramid! Interesting that you found the garden design too obvious when it was new. Over the years, it’s developed from too readable to virtually incomprehensible…

  5. maggie
    June 22, 2011

    Designing in plan view can be very appealing, particularly if a design is formal, or controlled, or graphic. But plan view is useful as an organizing tool, not an experiential one, and design, scale, or subtlety effective in a controlled residential setting won’t automatically work in a public park.
    The addition of required or desired public components such as garbage cans or refreshments or shade trees can easily dilute or obscure an imposed design. And limited or haphazard maintenance or poor installation finish the job.
    Thanks for your investigative reporting and for posing questions about the intent and result of a public landscape.

    • landscapelover
      June 22, 2011

      Maggie, thanks for the comment.
      It’s interesting that people’s responses here suggest that what we have is a seemingly attractive design on paper that actually looked too obvious at first on the ground, and lacked a real sense of the space and the way people move through a landscape – and then got utterly befuddled as a result of poor maintenance and the necessary trappings of a public park.

  6. Cathy
    June 23, 2011

    Very thought provoking post… and I have the same question you do: If it doesn’t work, is something going to be done to make it more visitor friendly? It’s such an important landmark.

    Honestly, if I were designing it I would have incorporated circular beds that mirrored the ones across the way, made fewer “rays” and made them walks with flower beds in between, with the sculpture set in the beds. Maybe that’s why I’m not a designer LOL — no sense of imagination. ;) May the powers that be look at this again and decide to revisit the landscaping design!

    • landscapelover
      June 23, 2011

      Cathy, thanks for stopping by. The competition won by this design produced some other fascinating proposals – I wonder if perhaps there may be a better solution among those. One or two suggested that the area should be laid out in a way to commemorate the Tuileries palace which stood for centuries on the site (it was burned down in the 1870s) – the idea was to trace the footprint of the building in plants or stone as a way of helping people appreciate the history of the landscape. There are even people who want to rebuild the palace, but that’s a whole other story!

  7. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    July 4, 2011

    I like the final part of the post, when you urge to take responsibilities in design beautiful green and natural spaces. Cities need nature with aesthetics!

  8. Prestige One Landscaping
    January 23, 2012

    Great Post — I agree the design does not work.

  9. Pingback: Historic restoration as mille-feuille | Landscape Lover's Blog

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This entry was posted on June 21, 2011 by in Belgium, Gardens, Modern design, Paris, Parks and tagged , , , , .

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