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Archive for the ‘Paris’ Category

Three years ago I wrote rather disparagingly about the jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre, in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. It is a new, self-proclaimed sustainable park, and I wondered quite what visitors were meant to do there, other than admire how desperately sustainable it all was.

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A second visit this summer has made me somewhat change my views. The park is still undeniably scruffy, with unremarkable native plants sprawling and straggling over the paths. Clumps of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica subsp. dioica) lurked right by at least one set of steps.

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But there is now a clearer contrast between the mown grass and the meadow areas, which make it clear that the park is meant to look like this, rather than (as a commenter on my initial review remarked) as if the city had stopped maintaining it four years ago. The plants generally had grown in and looked more settled, and thickets of guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) offered bright red clusters of fruit to enliven the otherwise overwhelmingly green palette.

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Plus water was now duly flowing and gurgling as intended in the many rills and channels around the site (my first visit was during a drought).

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And, most importantly, people were now present, doing … well, what people normally do in neighbourhood parks: sitting on benches chatting, pushing babies in buggies, people-watching (from the rather snazzy curved bridge over the site), even a group of kids playing a version of Pooh Sticks with leaves in the water channels.

Grands Moulins12 Grands Moulins10Grands Moulins 6 Grands Moulins04

Maybe it was just that my expectations were lowered by that first visit, but overall I rather warmed to the jardins des Grands Moulins.

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It may be the only time that historic garden conservation has been compared to a flaky French pastry. But use of the term mille-feuille was not the only unusual thing about the 1990 plans by Bernard Lassus for the Jardin des Tuileries, that magnificent processional space between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde in the middle of Paris.

Originally created as riverside pleasure grounds for a palace, the gardens have over their 450-year history been the playground for monarchs and emperors, the site of many important events in French history, and a reflection of changing fashions and trends in landscape design.

In the 1980s, with the implementation of French President Mitterrand’s grand projets, the gardens became part of an extended axis through the city. A controversial glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard created a new focal point at their eastern edge; beyond the western edge, the axis that had continued up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe was extended to the vast new Arche de la Défense in the city’s business district. At this time, the French government decided to renew the gardens themselves, and invited nine firms to put forward proposals.

The competition

The shadow of Le Nôtre’s work in the Tuileries clearly loomed over the nine designers, and encouraged rather cautious, reverential proposals. Most of them aimed to conserve as much as possible of the existing gardens, and focused on preservation work such as repairing statues and restoring planting.

The proposal from Bernard Lassus stood out. An experimental artist and theorist, Lassus was known for his pioneering ideas on landscape design. He had already won two competitions to create public gardens that celebrated the history of their settings in novel ways and, in 1984, had proposed a remarkable—some said unbuildable—plan for a vertical garden at the new Parc de la Villette in Paris.

His proposal for the Jardin des Tuileries was thoughtful, subtle and utterly radical. With his fascination for spatial depth as a metaphor for the passing of time, Lassus was inspired by the way that the new Louvre pyramid had gone underground, slicing its way through the archaeology of the ancient site, to create a new, subterranean entrance to the museum. In doing so, it had revealed the densely packed history stored there. Lassus proposed the same approach for the gardens, cutting away the historic layers to create a mythic archaeology that exposed the main design periods for the Tuileries. Still rectilinear, the site would become deep, using its strata or layers to reveal and reinvent the garden’s history, maintaining and celebrating its many memories and associations.

Views of the Lassus plans for the Tuileries. From http://www.bernard-lassus.com

Views of the Lassus plans for the Tuileries. From http://www.bernard-lassus.com

Details of the Lassus plan

Five layers of the Lassus plan.

Five layers of the Lassus plan.

The proposal split the garden horizontally into areas and vertically into strata, representing the five main eras in the history of the gardens. The oldest, and lowest, layer would correspond to the walled garden created from the 1560s by Catherine de’ Medici, widow of Henry II, which was a place of variety and surprise. Designed in an Italian style, this garden had been divided into regular compartments, with parterres, a maze, groups of fruit trees, lawns and vineyards. This is shown as dark grey on the Lassus plan, and would be reconstructed and, where necessary, reinvented 80 centimetres below the current surface of the gardens.

One of the so-called Valois Tapestries, depicting a ball held by Catherine de' Medici at the Tuileries Palace, Paris, in 1573. Image from wikipedia.

The jardin des Tuileries in 1573, during a ball held by Catherine de’ Medici. From one of the so-called Valois Tapestries; image from wikipedia.

Visitors could then step up to the next layer (the dark red area on the plan). This would be a box parterre and large fountain, dating from around the turn of the seventeenth century, and said to be designed by Claude Mollet, gardener to Henry IV and one of a great dynasty of French gardeners.

Up another level, the middle stratum (lighter red) was to be the celebrated work of André Le Nôtre who, from 1664, redesigned the gardens in a monumental style. They contained the grand central axis for which the gardens are now perhaps best known, marked by fountains and large ponds at either end.

Les Jardins des Tuileries, as laid out by Le Nôtre c.1670, drawing by Israel Silvestre. Image from Gardens of Illusion by F. Hamilton Hazelhurst.

Les Jardins des Tuileries, as laid out by Le Nôtre, c.1670, drawing by Israel Silvestre. Image from Gardens of Illusion by F. Hamilton Hazelhurst.

The hexagonal pond and monumental curved walkways created by Le Nôtre at the western end of the gardens.

The hexagonal pond and monumental curved walkways created by Le Nôtre at the western end of the gardens.

The fourth layer in Lassus’ proposal (shown in yellow on the plan) consisted of the nineteenth-century additions to the gardens, including the twin pavilions at the western edge, and the jardin réservé (private garden), with its water features, flower beds and statues, created for the restored monarch Louis-Philippe, and subsequently enlarged and much enjoyed by Emperor Napoleon III.

The Orangerie, one of a pair of classically styled pavillions added to the gardens by Napoleon III in the mid- nineteenth century.

The Orangerie, one of a pair of classically styled pavilions added to the gardens by Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century.

Finally, Lassus proposed a new, fifth stratum of contemporary design. Just as the Louvre pyramid and the Arche de la Défense created a new axial geometry for the city, Lassus wanted the gardens to include a distinctive contribution of our own time. So, at a level some 170 centimetres above the current surface, he proposed a modern jardin d’eau or water garden (shown as pale blue on the plan). The new reflecting pools and cascades would appear to bring the Seine, running along the southern edge, into the gardens, as well as making a link with the existing pools and the new fountains in the Louvre courtyard.

Different surfaces would mark the different periods in the gardens’ history: for the Medicis garden there would be terracotta and grass; for Le Nôtre, compacted sand; for the nineteenth century layers, gravel. These changes underfoot would set up a rhythm for visitors to help them discover what was being revealed. This would be further supported by glass engravings showing the full garden plans of each period, and stone inscriptions marking the site of important events.

Thus, the Lassus proposal was for a layered landscape, with a mix of styles and histories on show; a veritable mille-feuille. Rather than giving one age precedence over another, his approach recognised the multiple significance of the Tuileries; they were, as he described them, “the sum of the thickness of places and events” and provided the opportunity to create “a space exploring time.” Freeing the gardens from what might be seen as the too imposing precedent of Le Nôtre also allowed new opportunities for people’s interaction with the landscape, which might include travelling shows and temporary works by modern-day artists.

Competition results

The Lassus proposal was not successful in the competition. Instead, the French Government picked the team of Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier, who essentially spruced up the existing gardens, with modern watering systems, restored garden features and new perennial plantings.

Mixed perennial beds today on the site of the nineteenth century jardin réservé.

Mixed perennial beds today on the site of the nineteenth century jardin réservé.

Belgian designer Jacques Wirtz was invited to rework the Jardins du Carrousel at the far eastern end of the Tuileries (which had not formed part of the Lassus plans), with a design of radiating yew hedges, today widely viewed as a failure.

There are those who might criticise Lassus’ proposals as a Disney-esque version of the gardens, deliberately (and wrongly) giving the impression that each stratum continued under the subsequent layers, and arguably creating a false sense of history by combining features that never existed together historically.

Yet his plans would have been a bold and thought-provoking way of treating these gardens. Landscape historian John Dixon-Hunt has argued that the Louvre pyramid forced us to see the historic space around it differently, and required an equally challenging garden to complete the design: something as demanding, as deep, as exciting. But, in the end, France’s courage seems to have run out with the pyramid, and the iconoclastic Lassus proposals for the Jardins des Tuileries will remain forever unrealised.

A version of this article originally appeared in Gardens and People, as part of a series I wrote on ‘Gardens That Were Never Built.’

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Google has just produced a ‘heatmap‘ of the places people most like to visit. It’s a fascinating if not entirely reliable snapshot of the world’s most popular sites, based on the number of images posted on the photo-sharing website Panoramio.

Google sightsmap

Screenshot of Google Sightsmap from http://www.sightsmap.com/

The most popular place in the most popular city is perhaps surprisingly the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Nearby, Olmsted’s great Bethesda Terrace, the heart of Central Park, does pretty creditably as New York’s 5th most photographed site.

The most photographed place in Paris? Depressingly, it seems to be the super-touristy red windmill of the Moulin Rouge (original home of the can-can), followed by the nearby marble confectionery of the Sacré Coeur basilica. The great Paris parks (the Tuileries, the jardin du Luxembourg) limp in at number 52 and 31 respectively. More encouragingly, the palace of Versailles is more photographed than Disneyland Paris (although not by much).

Of course such a map raises all sorts of issues. How far are the users of Panoramio representative of the public more widely? What makes us take a photo of one place but not another? Does posting a photograph of a site necessarily mean it’s somewhere we liked visiting? I can’t believe, for instance, that the tourist bedlam of Piccadilly Circus is really visitors’ favourite memory of London, even if it is the place more of them photograph than any other.

Despite these questions, the Google Sightsmap is an interesting new perspective on how we see and value the world, and well worth a look. I am cheered to see Google putting some of its mass of data to use in novel ways – I’ve written previously about its Ngram viewer, which plots how words and phrases trend over time, and which continues to be refined – and I look forward to more such developments.

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I am delighted to have joined the rosta of writers at ThinkinGardens, a British website eager to encourage serious, stimulating and critical writing about designed landscapes.

My first piece is Worthy but Wasted? on the challenges of sustainable parks (and from which I’ve taken the title of this brief post). It has already attracted lots of interesting comments. Please do go over and have a look.

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Paris post-script

My visit to Paris this summer revealed some odd goings-on at the venerable parc Monceau, in the heart of the city. Originally created in the 18th century as a flamboyant private garden, Monceau is now a majestic swathe of ancient trees, lush grass and stone follies.

The city of Paris (or at least one of its gardeners) has been introducing some rather novel elements among the traditional shrub borders and flower beds.

First, an earthern volcano complete with red and yellow annual flowers representing lava, and a water jet or two occasionally bursting out of the nearby perennial plantings.

Monceau 7 Monceau 1Then, alongside the main path, the earth opening up as if in some Halloween horror film, with elaborate catilevered sections of turf and more lava effect.

Monceau 5 Monceau 6And by the rotunda at the main entrance, another installation, with square tunnels carefully chiselled out of a large log. I am afraid the symbolism of this one escaped me.

Monceau 3 Monceau 4I just didn’t know what to make of these new features. A friend thought them interesting and different, and was puzzled by my disapproval. Maybe she was right. Perhaps they were contemporary artworks designed to challenge the rather staid representations of nature all around them, or deliberate modern references to Monceau’s creation in the 1770s as a “land of illusions“?

At least they were more thought-provoking than the terrible, scrappy planting in place in the Tuileries, Le Nôtre’s great processional gardens along the Seine. Here’s an example, with the Louvre in the background, the whole sorry mess set off perfectly by that officious little sign telling people they are not welcome.

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Parc André Citroën in the southwest of Paris was created just twenty years ago, on the site of an old car factory. The only park in the capital with frontage on the river Seine, it is famous for its bold modern design and confident use of water and sculpted plants. Locals picnic en masse on the central lawn at weekends and hundreds of kids cool down in its 120 dancing water jets. Well-maintained small gardens and a popular tethered balloon add to its appeal.

Despite its appeal, much of the park has long needed better maintenance. Three years ago I wrote this post about its dilapidated condition and expressed a hope that, at last, the problems were being addressed. Sadly a return visit this July suggested that my optimism was misplaced.

As I reported at the time for Historic Gardens Review, the park’s central water features remain in a deplorable state. The shallow moat that surrounds the main lawn, which was empty for so long, has now been refilled with water, but contains an astonishing amount of blanket weed and algae.

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Almost all the other water features remain empty and cordoned off, including the 250m long elevated canal to the west, the waterfalls at the river end of the park, and the series of six rills and cascades that join the individual gardens to the main lawn.

Citroen 03 Citroen 05 Citroen 09 Citroen 10The mayor’s office in Paris reported to me that the six rills were actively under repair (to prevent serious leaks) but would not be drawn on any of the other problems. I suspect that, with its mass of elaborate water features, the park may simply be too expensive to conserve in its original state.

Better news seems to be emerging from the much trumpeted €3.9m planned extension to the park. Plans announced early in 2012 included innovative play areas, refreshment stalls, the park’s first toilets, and substantial new plantings of clipped hawthorn and hornbeam, plus a mass of Judas trees. The extension was due to open this summer. The space was still a building site when I visited – fenced off, weeds establishing themselves on the piles of earth, with no obvious work underway and no explanation of the reasons for the delay.

Citroen 12 Citroen 13But one of the main contractors, COTEG, has just wryly reported that the extension is likely to be finished by the end of next month because the park is now part of “a political context that demands deadlines” – with the municipal elections taking place in March 2014, the local mayor presumably wants parc André Citroën as a showcase of urban developments in his arrondissement. C’est un mal pour un bien…

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Field Trip

Posts from landscapelover now feature on Google’s new app Field Trip.

This seems to me a nifty concept that allows information about local places to pop up on your phone when you are nearby. Content includes cafés, bars, shops, buildings, heritage sites and, of course, interesting landscapes.

Reviews suggest Field Trip is an app with lots of potential, although rather patchy coverage so far. So I was pleased to be invited by Google to be one of the first ‘content providers’ for France, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. It is intriguing to think that in the not-too-distant future people may stroll around a landscape while reading my post on the subject through Google Glass

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As regular readers will know, I am a great fan of the work of the US designer Dan Kiley. His spare, modern parks and gardens arguably made him the finest and most influential landscape architect of twentieth century America.

So I’m delighted to be contributing to two events this autumn that celebrate his work.

A 1970 photograph of Kiley's modernist North Court, from www.lincolncenter.org

A 1970 photograph of Kiley’s modernist North Court, from http://www.lincolncenter.org

In October I will be speaking at an ICOMOS conference in Chandigarh called “Filling the Gaps: World Heritage and the 20th Century.” At a session dedicated to historic urban landscapes of the 20th century, I will analyse the treatment of Kiley’s seminal 1960s design for the North Court at Lincoln Center in New York City, which was sadly neglected and then effectively dismantled.

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Some of the magnificent groves of plane trees laid out by Kiley at La Défense

In the US, The Cultural Landscape Foundation is organising a major retrospective of Kiley’s work. Having offered to contribute, I was surprised to find how many articles I had written and how many photographs I had taken of Kiley designs. They are now all available to the Foundation as it finalises its plans for a Landslide compendium and a travelling exhibition of photographs that will display some of his most important commissions, including his work at La Défense.

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The water feature at the end of Kiley’s esplanade through La Défense

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Or éco-pâturage à Paris, in the more elegant French description.

eco pasture3I really want this to work. As a pilot scheme, the Paris parks department has installed four sheep in the grounds of its city archives in the 19th arrondissement.

As the sign shown here explains, they are to provide a more ecological way of maintaining the lawns, munching though the grass, and thus ending the need for fossil-fuel-driven mowers and chemical weedkillers. The result should be an environment richer in flora and fauna, all naturally fertilised, providing a reminder of nature and a wildlife corridor in the middle of the city.

Provided with water, shelter and an unobtrusive electric fence (solar-powered of course) to keep them safe, the tough little sheep have been chosen because the breed offers no value to the meat or dairy farmer, and was otherwise at risk of dying out.

It is a scheme that has received a good deal of positive media coverage. As our American friends might say, what’s not to like?

Except, sadly, on my visit to the archives last month, it looked as if the experiment was not working. Although they appeared to be munching as required, the sheep were almost hidden by grass that must have been a metre high. They were rather disconsolately gathered in one corner near the building, and gave me the impression that it was just all too much for them. The only short grass was a small strip on the public side of the electric fence, which was presumably being mown in a less environmentally-friendly way.

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No doubt the city took advice on how many sheep would be needed for an area this size. And maybe there is a required pattern of feast and famine, and I witnessed the very start of a period of feasting. So I am still hoping we may yet see more tough little brown sheep nibbling their way across the green spaces of Paris. It just seems not to be as straightforward as you might hope.

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The splendid website ThinkinGardens hosted a discussion a while ago on sculpture in the garden. One commenter argued that a garden setting can enhance a sculpture, but that she had never seen sculpture enhance a garden. Instead  “as you drop a sculpture into a garden setting, it takes centre stage shouting ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ … The garden becomes a backdrop.”

It’s an interesting notion, and I decided to test it by an entirely unscientific trawl through my photo archives, looking for images of sculptures in gardens. These are not sculptures designed and installed at the same time as the garden, where you might expect a thoughtful balance between the two; they are pieces added subsequently, most of them as temporary exhibitions in established gardens.

First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 16-day display The Gates in New York’s Central Park in 2005 (OK, it’s not a garden, but it’s a good match in other ways). I was lucky enough to discuss the project with its creators shortly before installation (see photo of the duo with their plans). They intended the 7,500 saffron-coloured structures weaving through the park to encourage people to look at this iconic landscape in a new way. Sadly it seemed to me not really to work. The boxy shape of the gates did offer an interesting mirror of the rectangular skyscrapers around the park, but the thousands of structures somehow seemed like they had just been plonked in the park, shouting “Look at me!” without adding any new perspectives.The GatesThe Gates 2 The Gates 3Here’s a more successful example from summer 2011: woven willow and chestnut structures by the American Patrick Dougherty at the chateau of Trévarez in Brittany, northwest France. Some of Dougherty’s works do undoubtedly overwhelm their surroundings, but at Trévarez it seemed to me the organic structures helped you look afresh at the garden.The shape of this temporary shelter offered a sinuous modern version of the adjacent stone building, and the windows framed surprising and pleasing views of the sumptuous planting.

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Trevarez 3

Trevarez 1

Another set of willow structures, this time by Tom Hare, was installed at Kew Gardens as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. They represent seeds – some of them more interesting than this one of a devil’s claw – and they have a nice sinuous quality. But for me they don’t really enhance our appreciation of the surrounding garden, especially with that rather naff little barrier to keep the sculpture decidedly separate from its setting.

Kew1Another temporary display in a botanical garden, with another intrusive barrier, is this 2012 example of dancing figures by Zadok Ben-David, in Singapore. The figures are smaller than you might think, much smaller than actual size, and seem somehow fiddly, and disengaged from their surroundings by that distracting chain barrier.

Singapore Botanical Garden3 Singapore Botanical Garden2 Singapore Botanical Garden1Here’s another figurative set of sculptures, but I think these work much more cohesively in their surroundings. These are some fine Rodin figures, installed as a temporary display in the square outside the CaixaForum art gallery in Madrid. The building is a striking mix of oxidised cast iron and brick, set off by a large Patrick Blanc vertical garden to one side. The traditional figures provided a lovely counterpoint to their contemporary setting and make us admire both the building and the green wall all the more.

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CaixaForum2

A very simple example next, from Le Nôtre’s vast gardens at Sceaux, south of Paris. The sculpture by René Letourneur is not temporary, but it is a late addition – being installed around 1950 in this seventeenth century landscape. Called L’Aurore (dawn), it is positioned carefully to catch the morning light in a shady corner, and makes us notice and admire a quiet space that otherwise would get lost among the grandeur and dazzle of the rest of Sceaux.

Sceaux1Here’s a very different use of sculpture in a Le Nôtre garden, this one by Takashi Murakami at Versailles in 2010. I wrote at the time how much I loved the juxtaposition between the obscene extravagance of the Sun King’s palace and the mad plastic manga creations displayed incongruously in its midst. The snarling Oval Buddha in the gardens offered wonderful visual links with the gilded fountains and gates of Le Nôtre’s great design, and a thought-provoking contrast with its many baroque statues. Not many places could stand up to that vast gleaming sculpture, but it makes us admire Versailles anew that these gardens definitely could.

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Versailles 3  Versailles1Versailles 4Le Notre gardens

Here’s my final example: it’s a temporary exhibition in a traditional display space, not a garden at all. But for me it illustrates perfectly how even the most enormous, preposterous installation that shrieks “Look at me!” can still profoundly enhance its surroundings. This is Anish Kapoor’s bonkers Leviathan sculpture that filled the Grand Palais in Paris for five weeks in 2011. It was a vast purple rubber cathedral swelling up into the belle époque exhibition hall, making the visitor gasp at its size and audacity. But it did not overwhelm the setting; instead its mad shape and size drew equal attention to the beautiful ironwork and glass of this most majestic of spaces.

Monumenta3 Monumenta2 Monumenta1These are personal choices and views of course. I’d be interested to know what others think.

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