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garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Dan Kiley at La Défense

La DéfenseThis week I went to see Dan Kiley‘s landcape design at La Défense, the business district to the west of Paris.

Kiley is one of my favourite landscape architects. I spent a morning with him in his Vermont home not long before he died, to learn more about his work at the Lincoln Center in New York (now sadly dismantled).

In 1978 he was commissioned to design the vast pedestrian concourse at La Défense, which runs above the vehicular circulation and railway line. It extended the city’s historic axis from the Louvre along the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, bringing it across the Seine to the Grande Arche de la Défense. (Kiley used the term la Dalle Centrale – the main platform – to describe the half-mile long concourse, although today it is usually known as l’Esplanade du Général de Gaulle.)

Dan Kiley designHis work at La Défense is always included in lists of Kiley’s projects, but the design has actually been little discussed or celebrated. The only description I have been able to find of any substance about the project is from Kiley’s own book, The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect, which gives a great sense of his design intentions and includes some photographs from the 1990s. For him the project was “a progressive mix of art, nature and commerce as urban infrastructure.”

La DéfenseMy visit earlier this week started from the metro station Esplanade de la Défense, where the promenade begins beside a large pool decorated with jolly metal poles (a 1988 installation by Takis), and wonderful views over Neuilly and down the Avenue de la Grande Armée to the Arc de Triomphe.

This view of the city persists throughout Kiley’s promenade.

La Défense

I strolled west towards the Grande Arche. The central walkway was exposed and deserted in the 30ºC heat but on either side are characteristic long, linear groves of pollarded trees, providing leafy, dappled shade. The trees are nearly all London planes (platanus x acerifolia), which Kiley loved for their form and beautiful patterned bark. The specimens here are well-maintained: regularly and expertly pollarded, and clearly replaced as necessary. The extensive use of a single species draws the disparate architecture together to form a unified space, just as Kiley intended, while the choice of London plane trees is a deliberate link with the same trees on many Parisian promenades, including the Champs Elysées. Other elements are kept simple as well, such as the single design of wooden bench found throughout the esplanade, and the limited palette of paving materials.

The cotoneaster ground cover beneath the trees is thriving and beautiful; elsewhere ivy and vinca are struggling a little.

The gentle slope up towards the Grande Arche is marked by simple, vast terraces and low flights of steps, now with ugly temporary ramps; apparently in the near future there will be permanent (and no doubt less visually intrusive) disabled access.

As I walked along, the concourse felt majestic, green, and completely right in scale. Perhaps, perversely, that is why Kiley’s work at La Défense features nowhere in the online history of the site, or in the lists of its many works of art: somehow the promenade feels an intrinsic part of the site, something so appropriate that no-one thinks of it as designed and installed.La Défense

At the end of the promenade, the modern fountains by kinetic artist Yaacov Agam are splendid, with their orchestrated jets and tiled surface suggesting constant movement. Kiley was a great fan of the work, calling it “a brilliant centerpiece,” and himself proposed the waterfall at its western edge that links the roads below with the pedestrian esplanade. During my visit, scores of people were dabbling their feet in the cool water; some children were swimming. Beyond Agam’s work is the open, treeless parvis that leads to the Arche, a stark contrast with the leafy, shaded space that Kiley created.

I have not seen ‘as built’ plans for Kiley’s work at La Défense, but it feels to me like a site that has been generally well conserved. There are, however, two additions which jar:

Shelomo SelingerThe first is the 1982 installation in the place basse, part way along the esplanade, of Shelomo Selinger’s sculpture “La Danse,” a series of sculpted planting boxes in pinkish concrete. Whatever their artistic merit, these seem to me too small and detailed for this vast corporate space. Until recently little globular holm oaks (quercus ilex) and groundcover ivy filled the boxes, but this Spring they were replaced with individual specimens of pink-flowered crape myrtle (lagerstroemia indica), a tree which ironically Kiley himself used, but in a more intimate space.

The second unfortunate change is the insertion in the early 1990s of small flowering cherries (prunus ‘Accolade’) among the London planes. They are largely masked by the plane trees at this time of year; but in winter their low, twiggy form must detract from the sculpted architectural shapes of the leafless plane trees. In Spring, as the cherries flower, the contrast (to my eyes at least) is odd and inappropriate. It is — as landscape architect Ken Smith noted about the introduction of forlorn little ornamental pears into Kiley’s previously architectural Lincoln Center courtyard — the triumph of a “post-modern aesthetic”: the desire for flowers rather than form in a landscape.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the esplanade at La Défense felt pleasingly like a mature and well-managed Kiley design. It was a joy to be there.

10 comments on “Dan Kiley at La Défense

  1. Pingback: Dan Kiley and New York Fashion Week « Landscape Lover's Blog

  2. A.P.
    January 25, 2011


    je suis paysagiste dplg, salariée de l’Etablissement Public d’Aménagement, en charge des aménagements paysagers sur le territoire de La Défense et Seine Arche depuis plus de 3 ans.
    J’ai été trés intéressée par votre article sur Dan Kiley et vos appréciations personnelles et vous remercie pour les informations complémentaires.
    Si vous souhaitez plus de renseignements, n’hésitez pas à me contacter à l’adresse ci-dessus.

    Bonne réception,

    • landscapelover
      January 26, 2011

      Merci bien pour votre commentaire. Je voudrais savoir plus sur votre expérience d’aménager un dessin de Kiley, et je viens de vous envoyer un email.

  3. archiden
    January 30, 2011

    bonjour, je suis une étudiante en 5éme année architecture je prépare un projet de fin d’études, je vous prie de bien vouloir me passer des informations et surtout les principes de Dan Kiley sa façon de voir l’espace. je vous remercie d’avance. ciao

    • landscapelover
      January 30, 2011

      Archiden, bonsoir. Je vous conseille de lire le livre de Kiley: The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect. Il n’est disponible qu’en anglais, mais voilà…

  4. Marc Treib
    May 2, 2011

    We actually did include one image—which is not very much, of course—and not a very revealing one, in Reuben Rainey and Marc Treib: Dan Kiley Landscape’s: The Poetics of Space, William Stout Publishers, 2009. Your criticism is very well founded and it was a heroic task given the nature of La Défense. But it’s is not one of his best works and marred by the rather crude paving material (at least in my estimation). Of course in relation to the buildings that suround it, it is a masterpiece.

    • landscapelover
      October 19, 2011

      Marc, I was delighted to see your comment and yet somehow it has taken me months to post a reply. Certainly the dominance of the axis from the Louvre to the new Arche more or less required a rather barren central walkway, not helped as you say by the poor quality of the paving. But once you are in the groves of plane trees either side, the design feels sumptuous and perfectly judged (so long as you can ignore the cherries).

  5. Laura
    November 24, 2011

    I just found your blog and see that you have interest in both Dan Kiley and Marc Treib. I’m a second year MLA student in the US and am writing a theory paper in which I will compare the Miller garden to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” (as they are both seen as icons of Modernism within their fields). I wonder, in your opinion, what would be the best literature for Kiley/the Miller garden. I have read most of Treib’s “Poetics of Space” and have both Trieb’s “Modern LA: a critical review” and Amidon’s “masterworks” book from the library. I would imagine these may be the most comprehensive sources, but it’s possible I’ve overlooked something or perhaps there are more obscure works that could be helpful.
    Also, you may know this already, but it is now possible for the general public to tour the Miller garden–I believe it only opened this past spring–so if you’re in the US soon, make sure to get a reservation, as the tours fill up quite fast!

    • landscapelover
      November 27, 2011

      Thanks for stopping by. What a fascinating topic you have chosen for your theory paper! I’d love to see the results. I had heard that the Miller garden was now open to the public but am not at all sure when I will ever be close enough to be able to visit.
      It is a garden I have admired in plans and photographs of course, but never researched, so may not be the best person to ask about sources. I put together the following bibliography for a piece of research on another Kiley design some years ago, and hope that some of these titles may prove useful to you:
      • Birnbaum, Charles A., ed. Preserving Modern Landscape Architecture: papers from the Wave Hill – National Park Service Conference. Cambridge, MA, 1999.
      • Byrd, Warren T. Jr. and Reuben M. Rainey, eds. The Work of Dan Kiley: A Dialogue on Design Theory. Charlottesville, 1983. [This has been reprinted as the book Marc Treib mentions above]
      • Kassler, Elizabeth B. Modern Gardens and the Landscape. New York, 1984.
      • Kiley, Dan. “Nature: the Source of all Design,” Landscape Architecture. Washington DC, January 1963.
      • Kiley, Dan. “Landscape Design: Works of Dan Kiley,” Process Architecture, 33. Tokyo, 1982.
      • Kiley, Dan. “A Way with Water,” Landscape Design, March 1992.
      • Kiley, Dan. “Dan Kiley Landscape Design II: In Step with Nature,” Process Architecture, 108, Tokyo, 1993.
      • Kiley, Dan. Dan Kiley: The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect. Boston, 1999.
      • Saunders, William S., ed. Daniel Urban Kiley: the Early Gardens. New York, 1999.
      • Webster, Susan, Alan Goodheart, and Michael Laurie. “A Conversation with Dan Kiley,” Landmark ’65, Berkeley, California, 1965.

  6. Pingback: Esplanada La Défense. |

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