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Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

Today it is fashionable to grapple with the idea of collective meaning and memory in landscapes. Conferences are held, books written, different styles of garden analysed, all debating how far deliberate messages and associations can be conveyed through designed landscapes. My favourite article on the topic is Marc Treib’s wry “Must Landscapes Mean?” which examines six ways of introducing meaning, but ultimately argues that designers should focus on creating pleasurable places, and just leave associations to accrue naturally over time.

The extremes of the debate are illustrated, at one end, by the work of Scottish gardener and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose careful use of Latin inscriptions, poems and artefacts at Little Sparta recalls the allusions of Renaissance gardens, designed to present deliberate messages and philosophical ideas to erudite visitors.

At the other extreme is deconstructionist architect Bernard Tschumi‘s 1982 design for Parc de la Villette in the northeast of Paris. The 55-hectare space was formerly the site of slaughterhouses and a meat market. It was transformed into Paris’s largest public park as one of President Mitterrand’s grands projets.

Parc de la Villette

The slaughterhouse history of the site had no relevance for Parc de la Villette’s designer Bernard Tschumi. Image from http://www.villette.com

Tschumi’s competition-winning entry for the new landscape was famously a series of deconstructed points, lines and surfaces. Each point was marked by a large red cube that he described as a ‘functional folie,’ intended to be deliberately irrational and challenging to visitors’ expectations. Tschumi thus intended to push the notion of individual response to its controversial extreme. He denied any possibility of inherent meaning or commonly understood symbolism in architecture and argued that his design for Villette ‘means nothing‘ [Tschumi’s emphasis] and could only offer ‘a multiplicity of impressions’ that each visitor would interpret individually.

Tschumi's plan

The original plan for Villette, from Tschumi Architects.

The original plan was breath-taking in its iconoclasm, its refusal to provide any historical references or any suggestion of a traditional park. It sent shock waves throughout the world of landscape architecture. But during detailed design and installation, inevitably, Villette took on many standard park features: large areas of lawn, tree-lined allées, children’s playgrounds.

Today it is widely regarded as a failure. A recent survey suggested that visitors who use the park’s many venues (including concert halls and a cinema) rarely stay to enjoy the outside space. Conversely, those who picnic and play ball on the park’s lawns do not venture into its exhibitions or shows. Villette can be seen as a rag-bag of features and buildings with no common theme or spirit drawing them together into a recognisable place. It (deliberately) lacked many of the standard features of a park; now some of the red follies have been awkwardly converted into cafés and information centres. The US Project for Public Spaces has, perhaps unfairly, condemned Villette as one of the worst parks in the world, a place more interested in tricksy design and philosophical techniques than in human use of the space.

Functional Folie

One of the ‘functional folies’ – now a café.

Others seek to defend its philosophical intent as a deconstructionist proclamation, a return to design zero. Some just argue that, whatever its faults, parc de la Villette is a much-needed and popular place in the city’s busy 19th arrondissement. It was without doubt an extraordinarily brave decision by the State to choose Tschumi’s design for the site, and a refreshing change from the bland, ‘lowest common denominator’, controversy-free plans so often implemented for public parks.

Visitors must make up their own minds about Villette, just as Tschumi intended…

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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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Square du Vert GalantTucked away in the heart of Paris, the Square du Vert Galant sits on the western tip of the Ile de la Cité. Its name – which my dictionary amusingly translates as ‘gay old spark’ – is a reference to the raffish king Henri IV, who used to cavort on this spot with some of his many mistresses.

It was Henri who created the Ile de la Cité by joining together three smaller islands and building the Pont Neuf, which joined the two banks of the Seine.

Turned into a public park in 1884, the little green triangle is visible from both sides of the river, and from the Pont Neuf, but it is difficult to work out how to get there (in fact, you follow the signs for the tourist boats Les Vedettes du Pont Neuf down the steps in the centre of the bridge).

Once there, you will find a pleasantly shady little spot, with great views of Paris either side, some mature trees, an odd lump of Canadian rock and some even more oddly-planted flower beds.

It is ideal for a picnic, with a water fountain near the entrance, lots of benches and some lawn. You are so close to the river on the path that surrounds the park, it is almost possible to dangle your feet in the water.

Square du Vert Galant

There is a well-known photo by Robert Doisneau of the park in 1950 as a slice of Parisian life.

Since its creation, a large equestrian statue of Henri IV has looked approvingly over the green spot that bears his name, which is still known as a place for romantic assignations and marriage proposals.

Square du Vert Galant

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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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Hotel Biron planting 1

The gardens of the Hotel Biron are currently a sea of creamy hydrangeas and soft green foliage.

A few weeks ago I posted on the lush roses and paeonies that filled the grounds in June. It appeared to be the peak of the summer.

But now everywhere is a mass of lacecaps and mopheads, all planted in generous drifts.

Hotel Biron planting 2

Hotel Biron planting 3This seems to me thoughtful, confident design, planting for leaf form and colour, and using big swathes of a limited range of species.

Shown in these four photos, taken last weekend, are the oak-leafed hydrangea, H. quercifolia “Snowflake”, and the popular H.aborescens “Annabelle”, with a lilacky splash of H. macrophylla “Blue Wave.”

These are not fancy or fashionable plants, but the whole thing feels tranquil and unflustered, just right for the heat of midsummer.

Hotel Biron planting 4

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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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Shivani, bd HaussmannOne of the pleasurable things about living in Paris is the fleuristes – the many flower shops with their beautiful displays of plants and cut flowers. This one is Shivani on boulevard Haussmann in the 8th arrondissement. It currently has displays of hydrangeas, tree ferns, lavender, philodendron and orchids, all carefully set out on the pavement each morning.

Once you have chosen, the sales assistant will ask if it is a gift (c’est pour offrir?) and will then spend several minutes trimming, arranging and wrapping your purchase, all at no extra cost.

OK, so it’s bit of a cliché to post on charming Parisian flower shops, but it doesn’t stop me smiling every time I go past Shivani.

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rainbows and daisesrainbows and daisiesAt one of the side entrances to l’Eglise Saint Germain des Prés in the 6th arrondissement are four little box-edged flower beds. This summer, one of them is thickly planted with rainbow-stemmed swiss chard, pink cosmos and dahlias. (There are also some rather unnecessary, straggly standard roses.)

My daughter and I stood for a few moments on Saturday to admire the planting. The chard was translucent in the sunshine. Even in the short time we were there, several other people also stopped and commented on the display, noting admiringly that the leaves were edible as well as beautiful.

It was a tiny space, a few annuals, and a delightful moment.

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ecole des beaux-artsThe Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was established in the seventeenth century and, in its heyday, was an enormously influential school for architects, painters and sculptors throughout the world. Its alumnae include Degas, Delacroix, Givenchy, Monet and Mary Cassatt.

Its current home in the 6th arrondissement was built on the site of an early seventeenth century convent. Something of a hotchpotch of styles and earlier historical remnants, the school’s buildings were designed by architects François Debret and Félix Duban between 1816 and 1872.

Today the site has a shabby, faded charm, with a mix of poorly maintained classical-style buildings, temporary modern classroom blocks, and a good deal of graffiti. We visited last weekend for the portes ouvertes – an open day showcasing the work of current students.

ecole des beaux-artsThe site includes the Cour du Mûrier, a charming little courtyard, created by Duban on the site of the original nuns’ cloister. It is named after the Chinese mulberry tree planted there by Alexandre Lenoir, who had for a time established a Musée des Monuments Français in the convent, aiming to rescue fragments of old buildings at risk from revolutionary fervour.

The courtyard is today a small leafy space, with a grand fountain at its centre and copies of classical statues displayed in painted arcades.

ecole des beaux-artsAdded later, the Jardin Lenoir contains some of the remnants acquired for the Musée des Monuments Français, including the façade of the hôtel de Torpanne, originally built in the Marais around 1567.

The open lawn of this pleasant garden is currently being used to house prefabricated classrooms, and the rest is sealed off behind fencing; sadly we could only see glimpses of the tree-filled space.

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British Embassy ParisWith Wimbledon in full swing, I am reminded that there is a solitary grass tennis court in Paris. It is located, perhaps not surprisingly, in the gardens of the British Embassy in the 8th arrondissement of the city. The French, of course, prefer clay courts.

British Embassy ParisThe Embassy court is used by staff and visitors – including (I am told) by new British PM David Cameron when he visited Paris recently, and was delighted to be able to try out the tennis racquet he had just received as a gift from French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The rest of the gardens, which are relatively small by Embassy standards, are a pleasant mix of grass, shrubs and perennials, with lots of English-style roses and lavender. They are not generally open to the public, but sometimes people are lucky enough to receive invitations to traditional British events held there, including a Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfire and a birthday party for the Queen.

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