Posts Tagged ‘parc Monceau’

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.

Tuileries 1

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Feeling at home

Where do I most feel at home in Paris? That was the question put to me by photographer Chloe Lodge, as part of her portrait series on foreign women making new lives for themselves in the French capital.

It didn’t take me long to suggest parc Monceau, the splendid 8-hectare public park that’s just a few minutes walk from our apartment. What is it about Monceau? Well, most obviously, it is our nearest green space, and our daughter goes to school in a building right next to the park, and plays there every day.

Carmontelle image of Monceau

Designer Carmontelle handing the keys for the pleasure grounds at Monceau to the Duc de Chartres, c.1775. Image from the Musée Carnavalet.

But Monceau for me has a magic beyond its mere proximity. As a landscape historian, I find its past pleasingly extraordinary. Much of its history is still apparent, if you know where and how to look: the vestiges of the mad 18th century pleasure grounds with their Disneyesque attractions and rumours of the owner’s debauched behaviour; the 19th century features installed when the site became a public park under Napoleon III; the reminder of the terrible end to the 1871 Commune.

Every path and feature and tree is familiar to me, from the gilded entry gates designed by Gabriel Davioud in the 1850s… Davioud gates…and the traditional pony rides offered for kids on Wednesday afternoons and weekends…

Pony rides

…to the frenzy of picnickers and sunbathers on the lawns when all of Paris tumbles out of doors during the long summer months. summer

I love Monceau slumbering under light snow in the winter, its gates locked whenever bad weather threatens; its fresh bright colours in Spring’s lengthening days; its soft autumnal hues as the ancient trees mellow to brown and gold.


Several of Chloe’s subjects chose public parks as places where they felt most comfortable in the city: the gardens of the Palais Royal, parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the Tuileries, the jardin du Luxembourg. It’s clear that, for many of us as foreigners here, the parks of Paris quickly become proxy gardens, refuges, symbols of the city, and welcoming friends.

Certainly for me in Paris, parc Monceau is where I feel most at home.

Chloe Lodge image

Landscape Lover in parc Monceau. Image © Chloe Lodge

I’d welcome comments from anyone who finds him or herself in a foreign place: have you discovered somewhere there that feels to you like home?

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Next week I’m off to Philadelphia for a few days.  I’ll be speaking at a symposium at the UPenn School of Design, called Foreign Trends on American Soil. It promises to be a fascinating look at the many influences on landscape design in the US. My paper will compare Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris with its American interpretation at Mount Auburn in Massachusetts.  And I’m looking forward to attending a related lecture by Blanche Linden at UPenn on preservation problems in historic rural cemeteries, and to visiting the gardens of fellow blogger and shade plant specialist Carolyn Walker.

Sadly I’ll just miss the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is happening this week. Its theme this year is “Springtime in Paris.” Philadelphia is a city with strong historical, political and cultural links to the French capital; it would have been fascinating to see how exhibitors are interpreting the topic.

Instead, I shall console myself with a few photos taken this morning in parc Monceau of, well, springtime in Paris.

corylopsis ?paucifoliaPhotinia leavesForsythiaMagnolia budsCherry blossom

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A friend who sells vintage accessories has just sent me an old postcard of parc Monceau that she bought in the northeast of England. Postmarked 1905, it shows the rotunda designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the 1780s as a tollgate for a deeply unpopular customs duty. Now, as in 1905, the splendid neoclassical building sits at the main entrance to the park.


Parc Monceau 1905


Parc Monceau 2011

Comparing the postcard with a photograph taken this morning in much the same spot, what is interesting is the similarities between the two. Apart from the obvious seasonal differences, not much has changed at this grand Paris park in 106 years. The fine ladies promenading with their children have become scurrying commuters dashing across the park. The building looks rather cleaner, and there are the distracting features of a modern city parks department, including wheelbarrow, empty terracotta pot and bright green rubbish sacks. But the essential layout and feel remain the same: a wide, inviting pathway, shaded by large trees, leading to the rotunda and the gilded entrance gates, backed by two stately Haussmannian apartment blocks.

You would need to go back another fifty years to see real change at Monceau, and indeed throughout the capital. In the 1850s and 1860s Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann thrust grand boulevards through the old medieval city, in the first example of major urban planning. Haussmann is frequently reviled today as a destroyer of the charming byways and old buildings of Paris, and it is easy to forget that one of his aims was to introduce light and air into filthy slum districts.

book jacketA new book, Paris avant – après: 19e siècle, 21è siècle by Charles Marville and Patrice de Moncan (Editions du Mécène, 2010), shows the impact of Haussmann’s work, taking nearly four hundred photographs of the city from 1865, which capture old Paris in the midst of its transformation, and pairing each one with a photograph taken from the same place today. It is fascinating. Fellow blogger Adam has an interview with author Patrice de Moncan, who defends Haussmann’s legacy and wonders what future Parisians will think of today’s city.

As well as new boulevards, sewage systems, aqueducts, grand civic buildings and uniform apartment blocks, Haussmann also created a network of public parks and squares around the city ‘where the working classes could beneficially spend their leisure time… and all families, whether rich or poor, could reliably find healthy places for their children to play.’

For me, one of the most fascinating images from the book is a site in the 19th arrondissement. Previously a limestone and gypsum quarry, a rubbish dump, an outlet for the city’s sewage and – for many centuries – a gallows, the place had become a barren industrial scar until Haussmann and his team turned it into the city’s most dramatic park, Buttes-Chaumont. You can see from the two photos here that the steep, entirely artificial topography of the quarry was retained, but softened with extensive vegetation, including fine trees such as beech, chestnut and cedar of Lebanon. The arched viaduct is also still present (now known as the ‘suicide bridge’) and leads to the romantic Temple of Sybille, added in 1869. It was designed by Gabriel Davioud, who also created the beautiful gilded entrance gates at Monceau, visible in the postcard above.

Paris avant - après

Buttes Chaumont, 1865, photograph by Charles Marville

Paris avant - après

Buttes Chaumont, 2010, photograph by Patrice de Moncan

The mairie has some of the book’s images on its website and there is an exhibition to accompany its publication at the Académie d’architecture (in place des Vosges), from 4 to 24 February.

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Gladsome gardens

Today we have seen the first snow of the season in central Paris. Parc Monceau has an icing sugar dusting of white on its grass and still-autumnal trees. Usually the City closes the parks in storms and snow, for safety reasons, but this is light enough to allow us still to wander and enjoy.

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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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carpinus betulus?We have enjoyed a glorious Indian summer in Paris, lingering well into October, with temperatures in the 20s and bright sunny skies almost every morning.

But the trees know. Shorter days and cooler nights have signalled the changing seasons to them.

Here is one beautiful example from last weekend, in our local parc Monceau. I think this tree in its full autumn livery is a young hornbeam (carpinus betulus), but could be wrong.

liquidambarAnd in the parc de Bercy in the 12th arrondissement (where we picnicked last Saturday in summer dresses), a view from the mount at the eastern edge of the park shows – amongst a mass of still-green summer – the distinctive dark red autumnal leaves of a young sweetgum (liquidambar).

We are ready for more.

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parc Monceau path

Monceau rotunda

Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement of Paris is our local park, a five minute walk from our apartment. Our daughter’s school is based in one of the access roads, and she plays there every day. At weekends, we often walk there as a family for picnics on the undulating lawns, or for a stroll around the perimeter path with its ancient trees and jazzy flowerbeds. It is almost always full of joggers and children and thousands of other apartment-dwellers making the most of its eight hectares of green space.

It is easy to overlook the history of Monceau. First created in the 1770s as a flamboyant, theatrical garden for the future Duc d’Orléans (cousin of Louis XVI), it contained a series of follies, including a Dutch windmill, Egyptian pyramid, minaret, ruined watermill and a naumachia – an oval pond for sea jousting. A new city wall was built along its northern edge in the late 1780s, with a rotunda designed by Ledoux that served as a toll-gate.

Egyptian pyramid

In the 1860s, the site was bought by the city of Paris, and half was sold for development. The remaining area was laid out as a public park as part of the transformation of Paris undertaken by Baron Haussmann.  New features, such as the monumental gilded entrance gates and the cascade and grotto, were added to those that remained from the original garden.

Naumachie and columns in Spring

I am currently doing some work with the Friends of Parc Monceau, a group of local people trying to maintain the park’s historical character, and will post again later in the summer about developments at this special place.

Spring picnickers

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