Archive for the ‘Parks’ 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.

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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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The start of the World Cup tomorrow has been overshadowed by concerns about the readiness of the infrastructure, and hostility from many Brazilians to their government spending so much money on sport, rather than healthcare or public transport. Even bigger problems lurk for the 2016 Olympics, due to take place in the same country.

The costs and benefits of hosting such events are controversial. Beforehand, governments will claim long-term advantages for their citizens from being host. Afterwards, legacy arrangements are often disappointing. Here in Delhi, the 2010 Commonwealth Games brought mixed benefits, with the wonderful new metro system probably its lasting success. The ruthless eviction of slum-dwellers in places likely to be seen by visitors was a less appealing aspect of Delhi’s role as host. And four years later the stadiums themselves now sit largely unused and falling into disrepair.

So it was interesting earlier this summer to visit the newly reopened site of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in East London, and see how far it had been adapted for the long-term benefit of Londoners. Before it was chosen for the Olympics, the site was an industrial part of the Lower Lea Valley. It was characterful and much-loved, or bleak and noisome, depending on whose view you seek.

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the Guardian

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the The Guardian

There are more photographs here of the area in its pre-Olympic days.

Now named the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site is costing about £300m to convert from its short-term stint as a Games venue into a “new piece of London.”

The new park is  at the centre of a splendid array of public transport links, with rail, tube and bus complemented by cycle paths, pedestrian walkways, coach and car parks. Unsurprisingly then, it was packed when we visited during the Easter holidays. Around 50,000 people were apparently at the park during its opening weekend.

Although it is enormous (about 250 hectares), the park is surprisingly difficult to find from the nearest train/tube station, at Stratford. In fact you have to walk though the adjacent shopping centre (taking an escalator up and “bearing left past the Cow pub,” according to the park’s website). Once at the park, signage is plentiful but some of it is out-of-date and all is in need of some clear “You are Here” stickers to help people navigate their way around.

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Other people are better placed than I am to comment on the planned re-use of the various stadiums and other venues. The park itself has been developed by big names such as Dutch master plantsman Piet Oudolf and US firm James Corner Field Operations (probably best known for their work on New York’s High Line). It is divided into various areas, from the more touristy features of the southern end, including the mad ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, to the meadows and wetlands further north.

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The quality of much of the work is apparent, with beautiful high-end benches and a mass of well-designed pathways and fences.

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The wonderfully inventive playgrounds are a real feature. These have clearly been designed with kids’ wishes foremost – featuring much sand, water, climbing and risk-taking, and very little that is staid or controlled.

The planting is generally excellent, creating distinct characters for various parts of the park. There are swathes of large pine and birch trees (although perhaps too many Betula pendula) with interesting ground cover, large patches of rough meadowland, and beds of fancy grasses and bold perennials.

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Some of the areas are only recently planted and it is too soon to judge how they will fare, while others were suffering from (hopefully) temporary overflows from the kids’ water play.

Olympic Park23Less successful were the central walkways, which were dauntingly wide and very exposed, especially in hot weather.

Olympic Park15I was also sad to see no obvious reference to the area’s previous industrial past. It feels like a brand new place, sprung fully-formed from the earth.

Much more development is planned around the site in the next few years, including office space and apartment blocks. For the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park itself, currently new and rather splendid, the key of course will be whether sufficient funds and expertise are allocated to its future maintenance. It will be fascinating to see how it fares, and if all that legacy work really does produce a new and sustainable piece of London.


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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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Today I am delighted to introduce a guest post on the landscapes of the Faroe Islands, the archipelago that lies roughly midway between Iceland, Norway and Scotland. Its author, Jacqui Compton, was on board Cunard’s Queen Victoria when the ship made her maiden call into Torshavn, the islands’ capital.

After a week in the lush Norwegian fjords, we spent four days in Iceland, where the only indigenous tree is Betula pubescens (northern birch), an unprepossessing, scruffy, low-growing little specimen. Our first sight of the Faroe Islands showed the same dramatic scenery Iceland provided. But nothing to tempt those looking for lush plantings and, with the Faroese willow and juniper offering much the same characteristics as the maligned northern birch, it didn’t bode well.

Sailing between Faroese islands

Sailing between Faroese islands

But the capital Torshavn immediately appeals: the main trade is fishing, hence the two commercial harbours. Both retain a charm and historic appeal, and the new developments blend in well.

Traditional and modern buildings around Torshavn's habour

Traditional and modern buildings around Torshavn’s habour

A short walk takes you to Tinganes, where 19th century classical fishermen’s houses are to be found: wood-built and tarred brown or black with white painted windows under a heavy grass roof. Many now have green painted corrugated iron roofs, not good a substitute for the traditional turf. Most modern homes are more spacious, with larger windows and ordinary roof tiles.

A view of Tinganes from the harbour

A view of Tinganes from the harbour

A walk through the town, glimpsing gardens, commercial properties and government buildings, gives a clue as to the islanders’ love of sculpture and lush planting.

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At the entrance to the park of Vidalundin are two completely different works of art. Personally, I thought the two so distracted from one another, that I would have happily removed George and the Dragon. It seemed so at odds with the park, and the rest of the sculpture inside.

Two busts at the entrance to Vidalundin

Two busts at the entrance to Vidalundin

George and the Dragon

George and the Dragon

We followed a narrow path through the park, alongside a small stream, populated with mallard families. It was very peaceful and, save for a few tourists, empty.

A small lake with mallards and other water fowl.

A small lake with mallards and other water fowl.

Many areas have been left to naturalise: here, upturned tree roots full of insects.

Many areas have been left to naturalise: here, upturned tree roots full of insects.

Although it all appears very naturalistic, the park contains many sculptures, carefully placed by the curator of the Listasavn Føroya, the Faroese Art Museum, which lies at the north of Vidalundin.
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And who wouldn’t want to live here?

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Many thanks to Jacqui for her descriptions and photographs of a land even its own tourist board describes as “a place undiscovered.”

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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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It’s been described as a pagan love goddess, a gesture of environmental stewardship, the largest human figure in the world, an abstraction of the Cheviot hills, a recumbent partner of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and much else.

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Charles Jencks’ Northumberlandia may be all these things. Its vast female form is certainly a rather extraordinary version of land art (the sculpting of earth, rocks and water into designed forms), recently installed near Cramlington in the northeast of England. Jencks is an American designer and theorist, probably best known for his Garden of Cosmic Speculation, in southeast Scotland. The prone female figure of Northumberlandia shares some of the swoops and surprises of that garden, but is altogether rougher and less refined. She forms the centrepiece of a new, privately funded, but very public, park, and is apparently a quarter of a mile long, with 100ft (30m) high breasts, and a body made from 1.5m tons of rock, soil and clay. Like much land art, the plan is apparently to let the form evolve gently with little or no maintenance.

We visited on a cold, blustery July day, a few months after the park was officially opened, and spent perhaps an hour strolling along the many paths that curve and climb around the site. As with other examples of Jencks’ work, it is hard to capture the experience in words. All you are seeing are simple man-made mounds and lakes, and yet the views shift and change as you walk and climb, constantly offering new glimpses and perspectives.

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The most striking image hoves into view as you clamber towards that vast female face, when the adjacent Shotton surface coal mine suddenly becomes visible. Indeed, the mine is the sole reason for Northumberlandia’s existence, as Shotton’s owners created her to mitigate the impact of coal mining on the local community. As you descend, the mine disappears from view but remains in the memory, its steep, quarried cliffs and stockpiles of black coal serving as the industrial version of Northumberlandia’s grassy female form, similarly carved out of the land by big machinery. It reminded me of Robert Smithson (the great American land artist) and his fascination with creating modern art around what he described as “infernal regions – slag heaps, strip mines, and polluted rivers.”

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Our visit felt strange, almost like dreamlike, and made us wish to return, and experience the lady (and her coal mine) in other guises – at dawn, in late afternoon sunshine, in snow, in rain….

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