Archive for the ‘Paris Promenades’ Category

If you’re interested in exploring hidden treasures, curiosities, and esoterica, you may want to join in the second international “Obscura Day.” On April 9th, a host of tours and events are being organised around the world to encourage us to poke around in fascinating by-ways and neglected corners.

Here in the French capital, I am delighted to be joining a tour organised by Adam from the award-winning blog Invisible Paris. He will be introducing us to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, an abandoned Victorian plant nursery in the Bois de Vincennes. Other planned events include a candlelit tour of a shell grotto in Margate, a visit to the catacombs in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, a tour of an underground temple in Turin, and a visit to a mad topiary garden in South Carolina.

If you can’t make any of the events, the Atlas Obscura compendium is worth checking out for curious places to visit at any time of the year. It recommends several in Paris that I do not know, as well as some old favourites, including the abandoned railway La Petite Ceinture and the cemetery at Père Lachaise.

La Petite Ceinture

La Petite Ceinture

Père Lachaise

Père Lachaise cemetery

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“I am sure it is a great mistake always to know enough to go in when it rains. One may keep snug and dry by such knowledge, but one misses a world of loveliness.” (Adeline Knapp)

It was mild and wet in Paris this weekend, with the sort of steady drizzle that encourages you to stay indoors with a book and a mug of tea. But we decided to take the long route to our local market, and went via parc Monceau. It was a splendid diversion. The vast old trees were at the peak of their autumn colour, the park was almost empty, and everything seemed somehow accentuated by the soft rain. Our daughter, who had been understandably reluctant to leave the dry of the apartment, happily collected a range of vibrant leaves, while I tried to capture the colours with my camera, including the burnished bronze of a fine weeping beech and the yellow of a young robinia beside a multi-coloured cherry tree, a purple sweetgum, the tawny softness of the ancient plane trees, and the almost alien yellow of a ginkgo in the deserted playground.


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Parc André Citroën in the 15th arrondissement is one of my favourite Paris parks. Opened in 1992, it was designed by landscape architects Gilles Clément and Alain Provost, with architects Patrick Berger, Jean-Paul Viguier and Jean-François Jodry, members of the two winning teams from a Europe-wide competition to find the best park design for this brownfield site, which was once a car factory.

The teams produced a bold modern design, with a diagonal path famously sweeping across the awkward 14 hectare site. Small thematic gardens bordered the main lawn area. Given the proximity of the Seine (which runs along the western edge of the park), there was water everywhere, from the moat around the edge of the main lawn, and a vast, raised canal and waterfall on the southern side, to a series of cascades in the theme gardens, and 120 water jets between the two enormous greenhouses.

Parc André Citroën

Plan from viguier.com

Not everybody liked it: the American lobby group the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) placed André Citroën in its Hall of Shame, designated as one of the worst parks in the world. Apparently it needs more picnic tables (which is perhaps a rather American complaint) and less fussiness in the layout of the themed gardens. If you visit the PPS website, you’ll see that all the user comments disagree with this rather harsh assessment. André Citroën certainly seems to me the most successful of the three significant new parks installed in Paris during the 1990s, the results of a mixture of urban renewal and political posturing (the other two were the much-hyped Villette in the 19th, now widely regarded as a failure, and the rather pedestrian parc de Bercy in the 12th). Alan Tate’s book Great City Parks has, for me, a much fairer and more positive response to André Citroën.

But even those who do like it recognise that the park was eye-wateringly expensive to install (costs have been estimated at 388m francs, about 59m euros). It also demands unusually high levels of maintenance. And that has, at least until recently, been the park’s undoing. Lack of funds meant that it gradually deteriorated, with most of the fountains not working, and the canal and moat completely empty, with butyl liners exposed and in places ripped, apparently by vandals. Repair work was promised in June 2008, but the summer came and went without any activity. Although still much used by families for picnics and swimsuited games in the water jets, for the past couple of years the park has felt abandoned, almost derelict.

Parc André Citroën

Photo of empty moat from March 2010 by marta_cuinust on Panoramio

I have seen occasional reports of new plans to repair the water features and to extend the park; and discussions about creating a 3 km-long green promenade along an old railway line to link André Citroën with the nearby parc Georges Brassens. But, as so often in France, it is difficult to find much information on what was actually happening either in the press or on line. So yesterday I visited the park to see for myself.

Barriers around flower bedEntering the park from the metro at Balard, through the White Garden, first impressions were troubling.

Some of the flowers beds were surrounded by metal barriers, and both the little playgrounds were sealed off. All the play equipment was taped up with signs that bizarrely proclaimed “Attention: Peinture Fraîche” [careful: wet paint], although it was clear that nothing had been painted and that the tape had been in place for some while.


In the main part of the park, however, routine maintenance work was clearly taking place: trees and shrubs had been recently clipped, a workman was busy blowing leaves off the paths, while another was lifting and cleaning out drainage grills. The water jets were fully functional, dancing in the bright Autumn sunlight.

Water jetssignAnd it appeared to be good news for the rest of the water features. Signs proclaimed that the engineering firm Segex / A. D. Pompes was carrying out the first phase of a programme of repairs. Slightly worryingly, the signs said that the work should have been completed by August, yet there were still barriers and temporary fencing everywhere, and I saw no evidence of work being done.

BarricadesBut the moat around the main lawn was without doubt now full of water again, and some areas of grass were also being reseeded.

Repaired moatIn the themed gardens, progress was more mixed. Generally the little gardens seemed to be well maintained and looked attractive. Routine maintenance was certainly happening: beds were being dug over and winter plantings made (here, some recently-planted pansies in the blue garden).

Pansies, just planted

Blue garden closed off

silver garden

But some of the gardens were closed to the public, their entrances blocked with barriers for no obvious reason.

All the water cascades were resolutely empty and fenced off, with weeds starting to colonise the spaces. Let’s hope that the repair of these will be phase two of the renovation.

The delightful, preposterously expensive, glasshouses linked to each garden were also “momentanément fermées” [temporarily closed] to the public for an unspecified technical reason, but the plants within seemed well cared for.

Closed glasshouse

One horrid addition since my last visit, on the boundary between the main lawn and the themed gardens, was a vast rectangular structure, which serves as a ticket booth and exhibition space for the tethered balloon that has long provided rides from the park.

It was startlingly white, standing out alarmingly from a distance, even with all the lurid orange fencing and green barriers currently stretching across the lawn.

Ballon Air de ParisBut, even though there remains much to be done, there is clearly now major renovation work underway at this splendid late twentieth century park.

I’m looking forward to revisiting in the Spring and seeing how far it has progressed.

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Tomorrow, October 2nd, is Nuit Blanche in Paris, a city-wide contemporary arts festival that takes place over the course of a single night. Installations, performances and videos will spring up around the city, often outdoors, from Saturday evening, and all will be gone by early Sunday morning. Organised by the mayor’s office, the entire event is free to the public.

For me, the most memorable installation was in 2007, when the artists collective Compagnie Carabosse lit the Jardin des Tuileries in an event they called Nuit ardente aux Tuileries (literally, a burning night…).

As you can see from my photographs, this was far from a traditional candlelit display: two thousand fat wax tapers and torches swung crazily in the air and hunkered together on the ground to turn Le Nôtre’s gardens into an unsettling, hallucinogenic world of red and black, flame and darkness.       

It was magical, although us Brits couldn’t help muttering about health and safety laws – I am not sure the Mayor of London would be persuaded of the merits of suspending a massive ball of flame over St James’s Park from a crane, or allowing kids to dance round pots of burning wax…

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Jardin Atlantique 1The City of Paris has just completed a customer satisfaction survey, which showed that 98% of visitors to the city’s parks were happy with their experience. The top reason given was ease of access. Ironically, I read these results on a noticeboard in the Jardin Atlantique, which must be the hardest park in the city to find.

Designed in 1994, it sits atop the station at Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Even knowing that, it took me fifteen minutes from first glimpsing the park while at street-level to actually stepping foot in it. There are signs, but they point to two elegant lifts in a neighbouring street, both of which were out-of-order. In their absence, the easiest access is probably from the station itself: there is a stairway from the second level, near the waiting room, but it is far from clearly marked.

Jardin Atlantique 3jardin Atlantic 2So, is it worth the hunt? Its location certainly makes it impressive: few other railway stations have fully-fledged 3.4 hectare parks laid out on their roofs. The design process – needing to take account of weight limits, plant access, root runs and the provision of daylight and ventilation for the platforms below – must have been the stuff of nightmares. There are lots of features, from a large sun deck, central promenade, themed garden areas with water features, and oversized weather instruments used as sculpture, through to a children’s playground, tennis courts and ping-pong tables.

The trees are mature and provide some welcome shade, and many are labelled. Some of the planting is lovely.

Jardin Atlantique 4

At lunchtime, it’s packed with office workers enjoying their baguettes in the fresh air. It is splendid just to think that the city could be bothered to create and maintain a green space in such an improbable location; and there is a pleasing reminder of the station below, as the train announcements are clearly audible from most areas of the park.

Jardin Atlantique 8

It could yet provide a model for one of the big ideas of le Grand Pari(s) – the debate over the future development of the metropolis – which is to create linear parks over the main train lines that enter Paris.

Jardin Atlantique 5So, it’s a splendid notion, but my sense at the Jardin Atlantique was that there was simply too much going on. As the station takes passengers to France’s Atlantic coast, its designers (architects François Brun and Christine Schnitzler, with landscape architect Michel Pena) introduced all sorts of seaside motifs, from pine trees and wafting grasses to rather too many wave patterns. It’s all a bit busy. Plus, the park has lots of big, odd structures, some of them now roped or barricaded off for undefined safety reasons.

Jardin Atlantique 7Jardin Atlantique 6

I guess in the current economic climate, and with such a complicated design, maintenance is simply proving too expensive.

It reminds me of a team project I once did as a design student, when we all chose our favourite parts of our own designs and stuck them together into a profoundly unsatisfying whole.

Somehow the Jardin Atlantique feels the same, overall rather less than the sum of its many parts.

It’s a great idea, but in practice maybe not quite worth the hunt.

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I have just written an article for Gardens and People on the extraordinary 1990 proposals by Bernard Lassus to reinvent the Jardin des Tuileries. They were an entry in a state-run competition and, sadly, a less adventurous plan by Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier was chosen for implementation. My article is part of a series on Gardens That Were Never Built.

So, last Sunday I spent an hour walking through the Tuileries, taking photographs for the article. It struck me how poorly they are currently being maintained. Many of the ancient horse chestnuts and plane trees are unpruned and sprawling.
Unclipped treesbox bedThe box bed near the Jeu de Paume was unclipped and full of bindweed and large thistles.

Oddly planted with a mass of variegated perennials and grasses, the two exedras are similarly infested with weeds and look sad and neglected. Some of the trees planted as part of the Benech / Cribier plan are struggling to survive. Much of the gardeners’ attention seems to go on the narrow little flower beds, with their high maintenance mix of annuals and tender perennials, all planted at a rather domestic scale.flower bed The Tuileries is of course still a magnificent processional space. But it would be sad if it is allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that another major overhaul is needed so soon after the 1990 concours that produced the remarkable Lassus proposals.

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Bois de Boulogne - le lac inférior

Bois de Boulogne flower bedThe Bois de Boulogne, once an ancient oak forest, was for centuries a royal hunting ground. In the 1850s, it became the first of many public parks created by the Emperor Napoleon III. His team of engineers, designers and horticulturalists produced what they saw as an English-style landscape, with sinuous paths, rock features, clumps of trees, and moving water. Originally Napoleon had wanted an artificial river, inspired by the Serpentine that he had seen in London’s Hyde Park, but a miscalculation by his landscape architect meant that the planned river had to be converted into the two adjoining lakes that remain today as a central feature of the park.

Located just to the west of Paris, and a short bus or metro journey from the city centre, the lakes retain something of their mid-nineteenth century feel.

There are small island flower beds, planted with colourful annuals; a ferry which takes just a couple of minutes to transport people from the pelouse de la Muette across to a genuine Swiss chalet – now a restaurant – on one of the islands in the lake; and a fine iron bridge providing access between the two islands.

Bois de BoulogneThere is also the Kiosque de l’Empereur, designed by Gabriel Davioud in 1857, on the southerly tip of the second island.

It is a charming little pavilion, created for the Emperor’s personal use. In early photographs the pavilion can be seen standing in open ground, but today it is largely hidden by volunteer trees and brushwood. Partly restored by the city of Paris, it was sadly closed to the public when we visited yesterday.

Row boats are available for hire at the northern edge of the lake, and are a lovely way to explore this park of which Napoleon III remained so fond.

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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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Paris cemetery

Today, the cemetery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris is best known as the final resting place for such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. But it is an iconic place for another reason, as I am discovering in my research for a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania next Spring.

Père Lachaise was the first metropolitan garden cemetery, laid out to the east of Paris in 1804. It marked a dramatic shift in burial practices, and rapidly became the model for a wave of similar style rural cemeteries throughout Europe and North America. Immensely popular with visitors and even tourists, its fame was such that citizens of Philadelphia and New York spoke of creating their own Père Lachaise without needing to explain its style or location.

Before Père Lachaise, burials had taken place in squalid and overcrowded churchyards in the middle of cities: the tenth century Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, for instance, received over two million corpses and became home to vast trenches of rotting bodies; it was a feared, hostile wilderness. By the mid-eighteenth century, increasing prosperity, individuality, and family affection led to a desire to be able to mourn and commemorate loved ones; while growing health concerns about putrefaction and vapours from urban burial plots led some to imagine a return to classical-style burial in picturesque landscapes.

Mount Louis at time of R. P. Lachaise

The Jesuit estate that was to become Père Lachaise, from François Marie Marchant de Beaumont’s guide to the cemetery, published in 1828.

Across Europe and North America, people began to argue for change, but it was Napoleon who finally made it happen. City burial grounds were closed and three sites were obtained to create new garden cemeteries just outside Paris. The first was Père Lachaise. Formerly a neglected Jesuit country seat with views over the city, the new cemetery combined elements of the existing classical French garden—axes, straight lines and allées of horse chestnut trees—with new sinuous paths, carriage roads and plantings inspired by fashionable English landscapes such as Stowe and Stourhead. In stark contrast with the horror of urban burial plots, Père Lachaise was imagined as an Edenic, idealised landscape, its curving pathways designed for sweetly melancholic promenades. For the first time, people could buy a burial plot in perpetuity, and engage in a more secular form of burial that celebrated the French ‘cult of ancestors’ over the old order of Catholicism and veneration of the monarchy.

Père Lachaise tomb by Pugin

the tomb of Héloïse and Abélard, as drawn by Augustus Pugin, c 1828.

To help market Père Lachaise to hesitant Parisians, famous figures such as Molière and La Fontaine were reinterred at the new cemetery. Even the purported remains of legendary lovers Pierre Abélard and Héloïse were transferred there. Its resulting popularity meant that Père Lachaise soon became crowded with commemorative monuments and family mausoleums filling the fenced private plots. In comparison with its many imitators, it was perceived as grand, dark and mysterious, with a mass of exquisite, expensive monuments, but perhaps as a less romantic and naturalistic landscape than many later examples of garden cemeteries.

It is easy today to overlook the significance of Père Lachaise as the early nineteenth embodiment of dramatic shifts in views on public health, familial sentiment, nature, and death itself. In its day it was a new style of burial ground that was ‘celebrated throughout the world.’

Cemetery today

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secret ParisPromenade PereireCreated in 1989, this linear park runs along the middle of boulevard Pereire in the 17th arrondissement. It may not be on a par with the great parks of Paris, or merit a special visit, but it is green and pretty, and beautifully maintained by the city. This shrubby bed (right) is typical of the planting, with white hydrangea, variegated pieris, silver-leafed pear, heathers and purple heuchera.

promenade PereireThere are also archways covered with honeysuckle and passion flowers, banks of roses, Judas trees and lilac-flowered paulownias, benches for sitting, areas of lawn where you can picnic, a children’s playground, and a number of bronze sculptures by Boris Lejeune.

La Promenade Pereire is typical of the mayor’s wish to squeeze in green space wherever possible in this densely-packed city and, for anyone who finds themselves in the area, it is a very pleasant place to spend a little time.

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