Archive for the ‘Ile de France’ Category

As you might expect, the British Library has an extraordinary wealth of archive material, including much that is essential study for the serious landscape historian. Its strap line, with some justification, is “The World’s Knowledge.” Yet it is far from my favourite repository, partly for its dreadful website, and partly for what might charitably be called its rather high-end charges for image reproduction and permission to publish.

But it has just done something to gladden the heart of every researcher. It has published a Flickr photostream of over a million images from some of the books in its collection. Examples include this lovely 1881 drawing of the gardens at Versailles, entitled “Plan des Bosquets à l’Epoque actuelle” [contemporary plan of the groves] from page 529 of Le Château de Versailles. Histoire et Description by Louis Dussieux.

11143880845_c44f5db04d_kAll the images are in the public domain (the books are from the nineteenth century or earlier) but for most of them this is the first time they have been available online at such high resolution – or indeed at all. Many are of good enough quality for print publication, a rare occurrence for images on the internet. And the British Library makes clear that the images are available for anyone to “use, remix and repurpose” as they see fit. There is no charge; the Library would just appreciate an attribution.

The purpose of releasing them – and there are delightful hints that many more are to follow – is to explore ways of navigating, finding and displaying these currently rather hidden images. At the moment, finding them is hard, even now they are on Flickr. Only the books’ titles and authors are tagged in the photostream. So search for “Taj Mahal” for instance, and there are no results. But search for “India” and – among hundreds of other images – are ones like this, from Our Life and Travels in India by William Wakefield, which shows how very different were the gardens around the tomb in the 1870s:

and this even more detailed one from the following decade, which appeared in Sir Edwin Arnold’s “India Revisited … Reprinted, with additions … from the “Daily Telegraph:””


Searching in this way, by broad geographical sweep or topical area, produces all sorts of splendid surprises. So among the many India images, I found this one from the 1860s of Chandni Chowk, the main street through Old Delhi, labelled interestingly “Main Native Street” and utterly different from the chaotic thoroughfare of today:

and this one of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens from a Pictorial tour round India; with remarks on India past and present, alleged and true causes of Indian poverty, supposed or real, twelve means available for promoting the wealth of the country, etc. by John Murdoch, p47, published in Madras in 1890, seemingly available nowhere else on the web, and certainly new to me:


But searching (as researchers tend to do) for a specific subject is frustrating. None of the visible text in the images is indexed, so even clear image titles (such as “Humayun’s Tomb” above) are not found in searches – you simply have to wade through books with possibly relevant titles and know what you are looking for. And even more frustratingly, the details of the source volume do not seem to be stored with the image: so if you download a picture without keeping a proper note of its source at the time (as I did with the Chandni Chowk image above) it can be all but impossible to find it again afterwards, or know where it came from.

All to be played for, then. The British Library is planning a “crowdsourcing application” in early 2014 better to identify and describe these million images. It is an exciting, potentially hugely important project for researchers, and the Library is to be applauded for embarking upon it.

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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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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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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.

Obscura DayObscura DayCreated 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.

Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale

The entrance to the 1907 Colonial Fair. Image from http://www.expositions-universelles.fr

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).

Madagascar war memorialCambodian war memorial

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.

Obscura DayObscura dayObscura Day

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.

Indochina pavilion

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.

With thanks to Adam for a fascinating tour of this little-known garden, and for allowing us to to ponder on the many issues it raises.

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Here’s another off-the-beaten-track park to enjoy in this glorious spring sunshine. It’s almost the antithesis of yesterday’s recommendation, which was a small, naturalistic, nineteenth century park in the northwest of Paris. Today’s post is about parc de Sceaux, a vast, geometric, seventeenth century-style landscape, actually just outside the city’s southern perimeter. Laid out in the late 1600s by André Le Nôtre, Sceaux was originally a private garden for Louis XIV’s finance minister.

Jacques Rigaud c1736 engraving

View of the parterres and grand canal at Sceaux c.1736 by Jacques Rigaud. From http://www.collections.chateau-sceaux.fr

The original chateau was destroyed during the French revolution and the gardens given over to agriculture. During the nineteenth century a new chateau was built in the grounds, and the gardens restored on similar lines to the original. In the 1930s new features were added to the gardens, including a cubist cascade, and Sceaux became the property of its département (regional government). The chateau was turned into a museum for the Ile-de-France, and the gardens opened as a public park.

As the aerial view here shows, the layout of the gardens has an unusual double perspective. One long vista of parterres, circular water features and stepped turf terraces runs from the chateau, while a second, perpendicular, axis is formed by Le Nôtre’s tree-lined grand canal and the adjacent octagonal pool.

Aerial view of Sceaux. From http://www.domaine-de-sceaux.fr

Sceaux is glorious at any time of year but particularly so in the spring, when the clipped hedges of horse chestnut are lush with bright green new growth and, around the orangerie (designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart), the box-edged parterres are thickly planted with tulips, forget-me-nots and wallflowers.Sceaux is carefully managed to balance its historic importance with its role as a popular public park. It is also increasingly being maintained on ecological grounds, with more native plants being introduced to improve biodiversity, regular surveys of bats and birds found in the park, and the banning of chemical fertilisers and weedkiller. This week (20-30 March) is la semaine “zéro phyto” when no chemical pesticides will be used at Sceaux or in any of the parks in the area.

Although just outside Paris, the park is easily reachable by train from the city centre. Also worth a visit nearby is the summer rose garden, La Roseraie de l’Haÿ, and the parc de la vallée aux loups, formerly the house and grounds of romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand.

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A recent post praised the January drabness of two Paris gardens. It seemed to strike something of a chord, so today I offer another place where winter is at her unassuming best.

The musée Albert Kahn is a trove of early films and photographs from around the world. Named after the wealthy French banker who commissioned the images, the museum sits on the edge of four hectares of gardens in Boulogne-Billancourt, just to the southwest of Paris. It is easily reachable from the city centre by metro or bus.

Of the museum’s distinct garden areas, the most visited is the contemporary Japanese garden. In late Spring (when I shall write more), it is dazzlingly luscious, bursting with greenery and vibrant flower colour. Later, in summer, the adjacent classical French garden is lovely, with its trained roses and fruit trees.

spruce and beechBut, in winter, it is the woodland that beckons. Inspired by forests in the Vosges, where Kahn grew up, this tiny (third of a hectare) space is a mixture of spruce, hornbeam, oak, beech and hazel. It is all mossy softness and quiet in the low January sun. While the museum’s website may trumpet the area as a mass of daffodils and foxgloves in the Spring, now everywhere is drab green and brown. The little forest is resting and waiting.


As a careful abstraction of nature, it is less dishevelled than the other two gardens I praised. There is little evidence here of decay or abandon. But in its dappled stillness, this small woodland is still a fine place to visit in mid-winter.

wooded slope

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When Louis XIV decided in 1678 that he wanted a potager (kitchen garden) near his palace in Versailles, where he could bring visitors to admire the abundant produce, the site chosen was unpromising marshland, known as l’étang puant, or the stinking pond. Five years of work and perhaps a million francs later, the plot had been drained and new fertile soil brought in by means of an ingenious machine from the nearby Satory hills.

Potager du Roi 9

Master architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart constructed imposing walls and terraces on the site. Then royal gardener Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie laid out the potager in a classically geometric pattern, with a grand circular fountain surrounded by 16 square vegetable beds. Arranged around this central area were 29 separate fruit tree gardens. A gilded gate provided access directly from the palace gardens.

Potager du Roi 2The royal gardeners experimented with new varieties of fruit and vegetables, and the latest flavours were much discussed at court. In 1696, Mme de Sévigné was to write that “the craze for peas shows no sign of abating; the impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again; for the last four days these have been our princes’ only topics of conversation.”Potager du Roi 8

Presided over by the eighteenth century Saint Louis cathedral, the garden is today part of the National School of Landscape Architecture, and remains recognisably the potager created for the Sun King.

Potager du Roi 1Last weekend was a celebration of the Saveurs du Potager (“Flavours of the Kitchen Garden”), with guided tours, tasting games for children, stalls selling fruit and vegetables from the gardens and artisanal produce, and displays of traditional juice pressing and bee-keeping.

Potager du Roi 3

Potager du Roi 4The gardens are lovely, with some 5000 trained pear and apple trees providing beautiful divisions between the various sections.

There were late summer perennials in full flower, a fun maze made of sweetcorn and sunflowers for the kids, and much evidence of a respect for wildlife, from this lovely insect house to a sign explaining that a path was closed off because of the presence of a solitary bee colony.

Potager du Roi 5

Be warned that the potager is not primped and perfect like the one at Villandry: there is evidence of work-in-progress by the students who today get to practise in the plots; some of the areas were uncultivated or rather untidy; while fat geese honked and charged around rather appealingly in one space at the back. But it was still a good place to visit on a warm October day, and a chance to mark the end of summer harvests and the arrival of chill autumn.

Potager du Roi 6

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Villa Savoye 1

This weekend is Les Journées du Patrimoine, French Heritage Open Days, and one of the buildings involved is Le Corbusier’s masterpiece the Villa Savoye in Poissy, northeast of Paris.

Villa Savoye 4

We were there last weekend. It is a splendid Modernist building, constructed around 1930 as a weekend home for a wealthy family. By all accounts, it is the last and finest “pure” modern building by Corbusier, exhibiting his five tenets of Modernism which were drummed into me when I studied landscape history at Harvard – the use of “pilotis” or stilts to lift the house into the air; roof gardens; an open plan design; a free-floating façade; and horizontal banded windows to create light airy interiors.

Villa Savoye 8

Villa Savoye 2Lots of things surprised me about the house. First, it is set in a naturalistic landscape which apparently Corbusier was keen to preserve. He imagined the building placed gently on the high point of the plot, without disturbing its setting. Sadly much of the large garden was taken over in the 1960s by the town of Poissy to construct a school (indeed at one point, it was planned to demolish the Villa to make way for the municipal building, but the state stepped in and acquired Corbusier’s masterpiece for the nation). The trees have been allowed to grow up to hide the school, so the original views over the Seine valley are much diminished.

Villa Savoye 6

Second, it was rather badly built and soon began to cause problems for the Savoye family. But Corbusier was more interested in spreading word of his innovative designs that in mundane repair work.

Villa Savoye 3Thirdly, it has two long flower beds full of shrub roses at the front. They seem a surprising, traditional choice for such an iconoclastic building, but are nevertheless original to the design. Something of their striking perpendicular layout and bold, single species planting does perhaps fit quite well with the Villa.

So there it stands, grand and uncompromising, like a great white ocean liner presiding over suburban Poissy. The friends who came with me on the visit mused about Modernism as a ‘dead end’ – the fact that the ideas behind the Villa Savoye never became mainstream. Perhaps the one exception is the stress on outdoor living – that wonderful blurring of the boundaries between inside and out, with the living room opening onto the terrace through vast glass screens, and the internal ramp that leads from the ground floor to the main living areas continuing on the outside up to the roof terrace.Villa Savoye 7

Villa Savoye 5As you enter the site from the road, to your right is a Modernist one-bedroom house, built apparently for the family’s gardener. It is rarely mentioned in the literature about the Villa, and is sadly not yet restored.

This is the only built example of Corbusier’s design for a “maison minimum unifamiliale” (a minimum one-family house).

Tomorrow the Villa Savoye is hosting Les Enfants du Patrimoine, a series of workshops for children. Over the weekend, it will offer a number of themed tours as part of the Heritage Open Day scheme.

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From tomorrow, the chateau of Versailles is hosting an exhibition by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. He describes himself as like the Cheshire Cat, guiding the visitor through the wonderland of Versailles with a cheerful smile and a devilish twinkle in his eye. The juxtaposition between the baroque extravagance of Louis XIV’s palace and the bright plastic and metal Manga-inspired sculptures is indeed eye-popping, and has led to strong objections from some of the cultural elite. But for me it works – more so than the much-criticised Jeff Koons show at Versailles eighteen months ago. Somehow the clash of these two ages, these two cultures, makes us look at both with more care.

Pom and MeMiss KO2Among my favourite moments are the deprecating self-portrait Pom and Me nestled next to the fine bust of the young Sun King; the Japanese waitress, Miss Ko2, tottering on the edge between sexy and grotesque, beckoning us into the obscene extravagance of the Hall of Mirrors.

For more of a garden theme, there are the tendrils of the crazy plastic globe Flower Matango curling up almost to touch a pair of gilded cherubs half-hidden on a ceiling, as well as a vast, snarling Oval Buddha presiding over the Le Nôtre gardens, its colour echoing the dazzlingly bright gilded gates at the front of the chateau.

Flower Matango

Oval Buddha

The Murakami exhibition will be at Versailles until 12th December.

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La DéfenseThis week I went to see Dan Kiley‘s landcape design at La Défense, the business district to the west of Paris.

Kiley is one of my favourite landscape architects. I spent a morning with him in his Vermont home not long before he died, to learn more about his work at the Lincoln Center in New York (now sadly dismantled).

In 1978 he was commissioned to design the vast pedestrian concourse at La Défense, which runs above the vehicular circulation and railway line. It extended the city’s historic axis from the Louvre along the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, bringing it across the Seine to the Grande Arche de la Défense. (Kiley used the term la Dalle Centrale – the main platform – to describe the half-mile long concourse, although today it is usually known as l’Esplanade du Général de Gaulle.)

Dan Kiley designHis work at La Défense is always included in lists of Kiley’s projects, but the design has actually been little discussed or celebrated. The only description I have been able to find of any substance about the project is from Kiley’s own book, The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect, which gives a great sense of his design intentions and includes some photographs from the 1990s. For him the project was “a progressive mix of art, nature and commerce as urban infrastructure.”

La DéfenseMy visit earlier this week started from the metro station Esplanade de la Défense, where the promenade begins beside a large pool decorated with jolly metal poles (a 1988 installation by Takis), and wonderful views over Neuilly and down the Avenue de la Grande Armée to the Arc de Triomphe.

This view of the city persists throughout Kiley’s promenade.

La Défense

I strolled west towards the Grande Arche. The central walkway was exposed and deserted in the 30ºC heat but on either side are characteristic long, linear groves of pollarded trees, providing leafy, dappled shade. The trees are nearly all London planes (platanus x acerifolia), which Kiley loved for their form and beautiful patterned bark. The specimens here are well-maintained: regularly and expertly pollarded, and clearly replaced as necessary. The extensive use of a single species draws the disparate architecture together to form a unified space, just as Kiley intended, while the choice of London plane trees is a deliberate link with the same trees on many Parisian promenades, including the Champs Elysées. Other elements are kept simple as well, such as the single design of wooden bench found throughout the esplanade, and the limited palette of paving materials.

La DéfenseLa Défense

The cotoneaster ground cover beneath the trees is thriving and beautiful; elsewhere ivy and vinca are struggling a little.

The gentle slope up towards the Grande Arche is marked by simple, vast terraces and low flights of steps, now with ugly temporary ramps; apparently in the near future there will be permanent (and no doubt less visually intrusive) disabled access.

As I walked along, the concourse felt majestic, green, and completely right in scale. Perhaps, perversely, that is why Kiley’s work at La Défense features nowhere in the online history of the site, or in the lists of its many works of art: somehow the promenade feels an intrinsic part of the site, something so appropriate that no-one thinks of it as designed and installed.La Défense

At the end of the promenade, the modern fountains by kinetic artist Yaacov Agam are splendid, with their orchestrated jets and tiled surface suggesting constant movement. Kiley was a great fan of the work, calling it “a brilliant centerpiece,” and himself proposed the waterfall at its western edge that links the roads below with the pedestrian esplanade. During my visit, scores of people were dabbling their feet in the cool water; some children were swimming. Beyond Agam’s work is the open, treeless parvis that leads to the Arche, a stark contrast with the leafy, shaded space that Kiley created.

I have not seen ‘as built’ plans for Kiley’s work at La Défense, but it feels to me like a site that has been generally well conserved. There are, however, two additions which jar:

Shelomo SelingerThe first is the 1982 installation in the place basse, part way along the esplanade, of Shelomo Selinger’s sculpture “La Danse,” a series of sculpted planting boxes in pinkish concrete. Whatever their artistic merit, these seem to me too small and detailed for this vast corporate space. Until recently little globular holm oaks (quercus ilex) and groundcover ivy filled the boxes, but this Spring they were replaced with individual specimens of pink-flowered crape myrtle (lagerstroemia indica), a tree which ironically Kiley himself used, but in a more intimate space.

The second unfortunate change is the insertion in the early 1990s of small flowering cherries (prunus ‘Accolade’) among the London planes. They are largely masked by the plane trees at this time of year; but in winter their low, twiggy form must detract from the sculpted architectural shapes of the leafless plane trees. In Spring, as the cherries flower, the contrast (to my eyes at least) is odd and inappropriate. It is — as landscape architect Ken Smith noted about the introduction of forlorn little ornamental pears into Kiley’s previously architectural Lincoln Center courtyard — the triumph of a “post-modern aesthetic”: the desire for flowers rather than form in a landscape.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the esplanade at La Défense felt pleasingly like a mature and well-managed Kiley design. It was a joy to be there.

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