Archive for the ‘Parks’ Category

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.

La Défense

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.

La Défense

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.”

Northumberlandia 12Northumberlandia 07

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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One of the best and most beautiful expressions of Mughal culture is its gardens. Sadly, few examples survive, but among the finest are the terraced gardens in the Kashmir valley. On a visit earlier this month I saw how these exquisite sites are being restored to something approaching their seventeenth-century glory.

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Dr Jan Haenraets, an expert on the restoration of historic landscapes, is advising on the work in Kashmir and I am delighted that he has agreed to be interviewed here.

Jan, what makes the Mughal gardens of Kashmir so important?
First, they are just exceptionally beautiful. They also provide irreplaceable physical evidence that helps us understand Mughal – and Mughal garden – history. People think of the great garden tombs such as the Taj Mahal when they think of Mughal garden history, but in Kashmir the gardens were created just as gardens, not to accompany a tomb. The mountainous topography also produced a specific type of design – the terraced garden.

It feels as if Kashmir was the ultimate gardening playground of the Mughal Emperors; indeed it is said that, during the height of Mughal glory in the mid-17th century of Shah Jahan’s rule, the Kashmiri city of Srinagar boasted around 700 gardens.

They also represent a pinnacle in the long gardening tradition of Kashmir, although the horticultural influence from Kashmir on the Mughal tradition still needs much research.

When I think of the Kashmir gardens, places like Kyoto, Japan and Suzhou, China, come to my mind. Both places are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, with dense numbers of gardens playing a key role in these UNESCO listings. The Mughal gardens heritage of Kashmir is, in my opinion, of no lesser significance. For me, they are one of the peaks of Islamic garden art.

How did you get involved in the project to restore them?
I had been aware of some ongoing conservation planning for the Mughal gardens in Kashmir since 2004, when the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of INTACH [the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage] started their first management planning surveys. In 2010 I had the chance to help for some months on additional research and management recommendations. The INTACH J&K team wanted some expert advice to help with more detail, especially in relation to the horticultural and soft landscape aspects, as their expertise was mainly architectural conservation.

What state were the gardens in when you first got involved?
The gardens were managed and open to public, with many people visiting, mainly locals and Indian tourists. 2010 was a turbulent summer in Kashmir, with almost three months of strikes, daytime curfews and protests in the valley, meaning that places were closed down most of the season. Although by 2010 INTACH J&K had already started some architectural conservation works, they stopped when unrest occurred.

At Achabal Bagh the central water channel and pools had been repaired, with work ongoing on the main baradari [pavilion] and the side channels. In Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh work had started on the water features and, although it was not complete, they were working. The main work in these two gardens was on some of the buildings, including the hammam in Shalimar Bagh and the baradari in the Zenana at Nishat Bagh.

What has now been achieved?
INTACH J&K continues step by step to restore architectural features. The Department of Floriculture maintains the gardens, and aims to keep the key six gardens presentable.

One success was that we managed to get the key gardens [Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Achabal Bagh, Chashma Shahi, Pari Mahal and Verinag] as a serial nomination onto the Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage. Now we are developing a project that hopefully can result in a holistic conservation approach. It feels like now the gardens have largely been stabilized, with architectural features being partly restored, but with the real challenges only starting.

What remains to be done?
The main focus now must shift towards the wider gardens and landscapes. The management so far has focused on the central channel areas only, and so the wider landscape features are frequently damaged and much at risk. Most visitors only see the central parts of the gardens for a short time, and enjoy that. But mostly they do not realize the layout and importance of the wider gardens and landscape. For instance the Shalimar canal between the garden and Dal Lake is of key significance, but is in a dire state. The surrounding cultural landscape and the lake are also at risk.

The Department of Floriculture needs to be more skilled at managing heritage gardens, rather than presenting them in a typical urban park style. Plus, maintenance needs to be better, to tackle the wear and tear in the gardens from visitor pressure, with for instance lawns compacted and central parts in a poor state, and the less-known gardens generally need more maintenance. Horticulture and planting schemes need to improve in the gardens: for instance there used to be many orchards on the terraced side wings of the gardens, but little remains of these plantings.

We basically need now to develop actions such as archaeology, conservation propagation, interpretation, conservation skills training, restoration planting schemes, legal protection, a Kashmir Mughal gardens database and buffer zone protection.

Which is your favourite of the six gardens? and why?
All the main gardens have something very special. I believe that for instance Shalimar Bagh should be seen as a ‘cultural landscape’ – different periods of history have created historical layers in the garden with distinct markings, and its wider setting and features are amazing.

If I must highlight one garden, then maybe I’d say Nishat Bagh because its terraces are so extensive. Most visitors only see the central axis, but the ‘side wings’ in Nishat are incredible. I don’t feel that anyone truly recognizes the sophistication of these terraces, and how ingenious the making of them must have been in Mughal times.

Remember that there used to be over 700 Mughal gardens in Kashmir; today we speak often about the six main ones that are open to the public. Just to illustrate, I’ll mention a seventh, and that is Jharoka Bagh at Manasbal Lake. It also is struggling conservation-wise, but still worth a visit. Its location on a hillside next to the lake makes beautiful use of the genius loci.

What has been the biggest challenge in the project?
Convincing the management authorities of the need to have a conservation management approach and stop the ongoing damaging developments. Awareness remains low and it is hard to see people put much time into the safeguarding of the project while damage continues to occur.

And what is the greatest joy?
Doing so much work on the historical survey, sometimes the greatest joy lies in finding that one new previously unknown photograph, to experience how we slowly start to understand the gardens. For instance, when I gave a talk in London about the gardens, someone had brought to the lecture unseen early 20th century photographs that his mother had made of the gardens. That often is what keeps the motivation alive.

In the gardens there is also always joy to experience. For instance just watching the local kids play cricket in the Zenana under the ancient Chinar trees is fantastic, or strolling through the gardens and being offered fresh berries or fruit from the garden by the locals.

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With many thanks to Dr Jan Haenraets for this interview. For more on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir, see Jan’s article here and the UNESCO World Heritage entry here.

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Awards are funny things. A while ago I was sniffy on this blog about Gardens Illustrated’s Garden of the Year, which seemed to be picked from a random shortlist solely on the basis of a few photographs.

Now I’ve visited another feted design, this time with the even grander award of World Landscape Project of the Year.  The current holder of this title is the awkwardly named Bishan – Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore. It’s a linear neighbourhood park in the residential centre of the island, a bus ride away from the tourist spots, and of course on a recent visit I dragged my reluctant family there to see what the fuss was about.

Bishan Park 04

The judges’ comments certainly made it seem worth a visit:

This remarkable project fundamentally transforms the urban landscape of Singapore by reversing the fundamentals of 1960s thinking on drainage canals into an ecological and people-friendly urban sponge. It powerfully embraces the extremes of flooding disasters, while providing a rustic and poetic simplicity with its landscape strategy for the public. Its large scale with subtle local effects also showcases truly sustainable strategies.

Fifty years ago, in line with the thinking of the time, the Kallang river had been forced into a concrete canal to whisk storm water efficiently away from this developing part of Singapore. The park was added either side of the canal in the late 1980s but, for safety reasons (remember that this equatorial part of the world has up to 25cm of rain a month, much of it in thunderous downpours), the water was fenced off and inaccessible to park users.

image from information board at the park

Image of the old canal from information board at the park

Now the German design firm of Atelier Dreiseitl has broken up the canal and introduced a naturalistic path for the river, which flows through a created flood plain, allowing the water levels to fluctuate significantly and thus limit the risk of flooding downstream. The new approach also allows visitors to interact with the water, and better understand its processes, and has apparently increased the biodiversity of the park by thirty percent.

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Plan of the park, from information board on site.

As a helpful sign explained, the risk of soil and bank erosion along the new waterway has been addressed through various combinations of vegetation and other natural materials, from rip-rap and fascines to reed rolls and gabions.

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There is also a large bioswale, which uses certain plants to improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing nutrients.    Bishan Park 16

Part of the purpose of the bioswale is to support the children’s water playground, which when we visited was sadly closed for unspecified reasons. But there are two other funky (if not obviously eco-friendly) playgrounds.

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Bishan Park 02Bishan Park 12 Bishan Park 11

This project is doubtless a great piece of engineering, probably worthy of its award, and has without question left Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park more aesthetically pleasing than it was. There is an impressively holistic approach to the redesign, and a nice attention to detail. Informational signage is good (if all clustered in one part of the park), the playgrounds were a hit with my nine-year-old, and there is little doubt that the changes aim to make the park work in a more natural and sustainable way.

You can probably sense the “but” coming. I was left with two nagging concerns: first that this naturalistic park somehow couldn’t escape the manicured, pristine feel that pervades all of Singapore, which I have described elsewhere. Maybe that is just because it so new.

More worryingly, it was a public holiday when we visited and yet, as you can see from these photos, the park was almost deserted. A few children made use of the playgrounds, and we saw two small groups of older kids near the water, armed with little fishing nets. It struck me that there is precious little shade (less than before the changes), and most of the paths felt very exposed in the constant heat and humidity of Singapore.

For much of its 62 hectares, and despite the designers’ aims to create new spaces for the community to enjoy, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park felt more like a piece of restored wetland than a traditional public park – and I am still musing on how far that matters. Do designers need to do more to make sustainable landscapes obviously suitable for people – or do we as visitors need to adjust our expectations and find new ways to enjoy and use this innovative kind of park?

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