Posts Tagged ‘park’

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The original plan was breath-taking in its iconoclasm, its refusal to provide any historical references or any suggestion of a traditional park.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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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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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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