By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada
The Jardin des Tuileries can be a little disconcerting when you see it for the first time. It’s a park, marked on most maps in green, and yet, when you come upon it from the Place de la Concorde or from the river, the overwhelming colour you see is…beige. The wide gravel paths stretch off into the distance and cover much of the surface. The green is corralled into small patches, neat and squared-off.
The effect wears off eventually, and you realize that you have to look up to see much of the green. Looking up in Paris is always a rewarding thing to do. But the grounds are laid out as a parterre of paths and clipped hedges (the original design dates from the 17th century).
There are lawns, of course, especially at the end near the Louvre, but the gardens are designed for promenading, created at a time women wore long gowns that would get wet if they walked through grass. This is a social space for encounters and for looking at other people. It is also a beautiful example of a traditional French garden, all geometry, rationality, and order.
Jardin des Tuileries, a traditional French garden
You might think all French gardens are like this, with long, straight lines leading to a vanishing point at the skyline (think Versailles particularly), but a look at a couple of other Paris gardens will set you straight. The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, created from a disused quarry in the 19th arrondissement in the 1860s, is all wild waterfalls and unexpected changes in elevation, with a belvedere on a rocky outcropping reached by a footbridge (passerelle) designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel. There are no right angles, no wide expanses of gravel path. If you think in musical terms, think Hector Berlioz with his hair falling over his eyes, conducting the Symphonie Fantastique. Très romantique.
Garden design in France
Garden design in France continues to evolve. Take a look at the Parc Bercy in the 12th arrondissement, created in the 1990s, in an area once covered by warehouses. (The French were doing creative renovations of industrial sites before the rest of the world even had industrial sites to renovate – after all, the Tuileries were built where actual “tuileries” – kilns for making ceramic tiles – once stood.) At Bercy, a few buildings here and there recall the days of the warehouses, and several cobbled streets have been left in place.
The park is best approached by a curvy new passerelle – the only Paris bridge named for a woman, Simone de Beauvoir – from the left bank and the New Library. The first thing you see after you cross over is a series of quirky sculptures made from manhole covers from dozens of different world cities. Enter the park by descending a hill with an artificial waterfall to keep you company, and then walk through a series of distinct spaces – an open area where children can run free, a more formal garden with flowers and a long rectangular pool, and a wilder space with dunes and long grass. A high bridge connects two sides of the park over a busy road.
All three parks – the Tuileries, the Buttes-Chaumont, and Bercy – are completely different. Perhaps the one thing they share is the fact that they are well-used and well-loved spaces, filled with life and children’s voices, open to all. It wasn’t always so – at one time the gardens were policed to ensure that only the right sort of people could enter (we remember reading that “men with parcels” were specifically excluded from the Tuileries) – but today they welcome everyone.
P.S. On your next visit, check out the vertical gardens (les murs végétaux) that are sprouting up everywhere – Quai Branly, Pershing Hall Hotel, Fondation Cartier, behind the Bazar de L’Hôtel de Ville. The work of designer Patrick Blanc, these green walls sprouting with ferns, mosses, and leafy plants are extraordinary. We told you that looking up in Paris is always a good idea.
The gardening writer Marjorie Harris once called the French “an entire nation that would like to have a pair of secateurs to hand to clip anything and everything around them”). Another French tradition is that of les arbres étêtés or écimés, pollarded trees, which have been severely cut back to allow new branches to grow to maintain a bushy shape. A rarity in Paris, but common in rural gardens is the potager or kitchen garden, which, Marjorie notes, can be every bit as ornamental as a rose garden.
Vocabulary: French to English translations
Arbres étêtés or écimés: Pollarded trees, which have been severely cut back to allow new branches to grow.
Parterre: Formal garden with paths and beds and formally clipped hedges, typical of many traditional French gardens.
Pollard: Tree with limbs cut back to promote a more bushy growth of foliage.
Potager: Kitchen garden.
Tuileries: Kilns for making ceramic tile.
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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
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