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The original plan was breath-taking in its iconoclasm, its refusal to provide any historical references or any suggestion of a traditional park.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