Archive for the ‘Belgium’ Category

Search the internet for Elie Lainé and you’ll readily find that he was a once-celebrated nineteenth century French landscape designer. You’ll learn that he worked on big projects in at least three countries, with illustrious clients (including the Rothschilds and Léopold II, king of the Belgians) and top-notch collaborators such as the architect Hippolyte Destailleur.

Image of the Le Nôtre gardens at Vaux le Vicomte, during the time Elie Laîné was in charge of their restoration; Destailleur restored the château. From an album of photographs dated 1894-1898 in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Yet try to find out more, and Monsieur Lainé seems to slip into the shadows. I was delighted to see some of his plans and letters in the royal archives in Belgium, but no-one has been able to find original papers for any of his designs in England or France. His personal and professional life seem a complete blank. French sources now regularly describe him as méconnu - little known or forgotten.

Versailles sketch by Laîné

Sketch signed & dated in Lainé’s hand. From the royal archives in Brussels.

It is proving fascinating and often frustrating to attempt to piece together his work and life (especially when I am thousands of miles away from most potential sources of information). Many people have been more than kind in providing their time and sharing their knowledge. In particular, one family member (despite speaking no French) used her genealogical expertise to trawl through hundreds of actes d’état civil and track down Lainé’s date and place of birth, and the names of his immediate family.

So what progress have I made? I certainly now have enough information for an article on Elie Lainé, the first one ever, it seems, dedicated to this important designer. The article should appear in a forthcoming edition of Historic Gardens Review, and will give a good sense of many of his projects, with some plans and information from letters he wrote about his designs for the king of Belgium. I can also give at least a glimpse of  his early life in the Loire valley and his time in Paris – and some hints about his character.

But there is so much more to learn about him. I still have no idea where he trained or how he became the landscape designer of choice for many rich clients; I have found no photograph of him; his place and exact date of death remain a mystery.

If anyone reading this has any information on the mysterious Monsieur Lainé, no matter how small, please do get in touch. I suspect that I will continue this research long after the article appears…

garden creation c.1875

New planting to the north of the entrance drive at Waddesdon Manor in England c.1875, to a design by Elie Lainé. From the Rothschild Archive.

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Ask a garden-lover what they know about Mughal gardens and the likelihood is that, pretty soon, they will say something about them being paradise gardens, a foretaste of the celestial Paradise that awaits the faithful. Garden historians will probably add details about the geometrical four-square design, divided by waterways representing the rivers flowing with milk, honey, wine and water described in the Qur’an, and enclosed within walls that protected them from the wilderness beyond.

All these features may well have appeared in Islamic gardens over the centuries, and elements of them are certainly to be found in some gardens created by the Mughal dynasty that ruled India from 1526 to 1858. But research I have just completed illustrates how the designs of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, bore little relation to this traditional view of the gardens that his dynasty produced.

Idealised image of Babur

Idealised portrait of Babur, c1605, from the British Museum.

I will be giving a paper on this topic at a conference in Brussels next week, organised by the European Architectural History Network. My talk will focus on the wider surroundings of Mughal gardens in the brief period between Babur’s conquest of northern India in 1526 and his death four years later. (The talk will also explore similar issues in contemporaneous gardens of Renaissance Europe, but that may be a topic for another blog post, another day!).

Babur, born in modern-day Uzbekistan in 1483, was a direct descendant of both Timur (Tamberlaine) and Genghis Khan. A poet, musician and creator of gardens, Babur was also a great warrior and conqueror, his life full of shifting military alliances and treachery, full-blown battles, skirmishes and sieges throughout much of central Asia. Fortunately for us, his life story is wonderfully captured in his autobiography, known as the Baburnama.

Although a great source of information, the Baburnama is also (through no fault of Babur’s) the cause of much confusion and misunderstanding about early Mughal gardens. Some sixty years after Babur’s death, his grandson (the third Mughal emperor Akbar) commissioned a series of paintings to illustrate the work. These exquisite miniatures, many of them portraying the gardens Babur describes, reflect more the designs of Akbar’s time in the 1590s, than they do the actual early sixteenth century gardens being described in the text. They show us walled, geometrical gardens with flowing waterways dividing the space into four equal squares. They represent how we see Mughal gardens today. Eminent contemporary writers such as Penelope Hobhouse have used the paintings to conclude that Babur’s designs had the “four-part layout, divided by water rills, with a central pool.. typical of early Paradise Gardens.”

Babur at Agra

Babur receiving envoys in his garden at Agra, image from the V&A.

But a close reading of the text tells us something quite different. The Baburnama reveals the first Mughal Emperor’s love of nature, his delight in plants and creatures, and the way he lived most of life in the open, resting in gardens, setting off from gardens, navigating past gardens. These places were central features in the landscape, points of reference for Babur and his fellow military travellers. Gardens were both refuges from attack and vantage points from which to attack. They were places of beauty and of power, where the Emperor would entertain and impress allies and envoys, plan campaigns and celebrate victories.

Babur’s gardens were often created at the site of an interesting natural feature – a spring perhaps, or a river, or a fine view – and then pools, plantings and seats or pavilions would be added. For several of his gardens, Babur’s descriptions focus on the “good air” or the “first-rate view” from the site. It is clear that these places were not separate and enclosed, but designed to enhance nature and to be part of it. Certainly, Babur tells us about the flowers and fruit he planted, the flowing waterways, his great love of regularity and symmetry, but there is no insistence on a four-square pattern or on four rivers. He writes of his great thankfulness to his god for what nature has provided, but not at all of the garden as a symbol of celestial Paradise. Instead these first Mughal gardens were the Emperor’s stamp on the land very much in the here and now, a sign of his love of nature, and also an expression of his control over the territories he conquered.

Today they also serve as a warning to us landscape historians not to get carried away by beautiful images, but to research a range of sources before pronouncing on the style or meaning of a particular site or type of garden.

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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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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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I recently wrote a piece for the Historic Gardens Review on a courtyard garden designed by American master landscape architect Dan Kiley in Brussels.

In 1989 AG Group (a financial company which became part of the troubled Fortis group) began redeveloping a run-down city block on rue du Pont-Neuf, near the Grand-Place. The project was to create the Group’s new HQ within a mix of housing, office and commercial space, designed on a human scale and laid out in a style sympathetic to local architecture. Chosen through competition, a group of European architects took on the project, which gained the enthusiastic support of HRH the Prince of Wales. At the heart of the redevelopment was to be a large, enclosed garden of some 3,000 square metres (three-quarters of an acre). Dan Kiley, internationally known for his work on urban plazas, was commissioned as the landscape architect.

Snowy AG garden 1

He described his design as a ‘corporate cloister’ of three interrelated spaces, each displaying elements of his distinctive style. The first portion was an open plaza, with a simple fountain at its centre, designed as a gathering space. Flowing from that was a smaller, more private area, shaded by a grove of forty-eight honey locusts (gleditsia triacanthos) arranged in a tightly-spaced grid, and underplanted with periwinkle (vinca). Gleditsia was one of Kiley’s favourite trees, used for its structural qualities and delicate foliage. The third and smallest part of the garden featured a wooden pavilion housing a bubbler fountain with, on one side, seating amongst clipped yew hedging and, on the other, a small grove of serviceberry trees (amelanchier canadensis). The end of the garden was marked by an allée of ginkgo biloba, another Kiley favourite, for its urban toughness and ancient history. Kiley thus created a landscape of varied sensory experiences and of contrasts (openness and enclosure, structure and wildness, simplicity and complexity, an abstraction of nature and an extension of the surrounding architecture).

Snowy AG garden 2

The design was subsequently featured in the book Dan Kiley in His Own Words: America’s Master Landscape Architect. Planted eighteen years ago, the garden has matured well and, unlike many of Kiley’s urban courtyards, has been carefully maintained. The yew and periwinkle are regularly clipped, and the honey locusts and ginkgos have recently been heavily pruned, to encourage dense lower branching.

While views of the garden are enjoyed from the surrounding offices and apartments, it has sadly proved too costly in maintenance terms to allow office staff access on a daily basis, and so Kiley’s design intent – to provide the changing, dynamic feeling of a walk in nature or a visit to a large park – has arguably lost some of its relevance for the site.

Snowy AG garden 3

For a while the garden seemed under threat. Its owner Fortis was stricken by the credit crunch. A government-led rescue plan, which included effective nationalisation and subsequent sale of much of the company to the French bank BNP Paribas, was put on hold when a Brussels appeal court froze the controversial sale. The Belgian government resigned over the row. The building that includes Kiley’s design was one of several flagship offices that Fortis had put up for sale in a desperate effort to raise capital.

But, at least for now, Kiley’s garden appears to be safe. Fortis has been rebranded as AG Insurance, apparently successfully, and the building is no longer on the market. The garden is, however, not open to the public and has not featured in the city’s Jardins En Fête open garden scheme since 2008.

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