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Writing about parks is more fun than writing about buildings. Parks are unpredictable, not so harnessed to the auteur system as buildings. The designer of a park is never so powerful as nature, who always has her say at the drawing board. Many buildings are most beautiful on the day they are finished but a brand new park, as Ronald Reagan said of the USA, has its best days ahead of it. Depending on how well they are built, buildings deteriorate or age while parks grow like living creatures from one day to the next and across the seasons. I would bet that many city-dwellers’ happiest memories take place in parks. They seem to be the most, and perhaps the last, mirthful places left in today’s cities. Rather than the ritualized coffee-drinking and passeggiate of the piazza, parks encourage an amplitude of movement and feeling. Down at the park a runner might push himself to exhaustion, a picnicker might scrub time watching an ant abscond with a crumb. Beyond their ecological benefits, parks are essential to our own well-being, our dignity even. In a park, as in a library, everyone is rich.
Parks have long been a particular challenge for Paris, the densest city in Europe. Intra-muros, and even beyond if one counts the orderly fields which make up much of Île de France, the city has been almost entirely designed for particular purposes, with only small pockets of leftover space. It is difficult for us to imagine how relentless the city must have been until the 19th century. There were no town commons and hardly any designated parks. Until the coming of the railway there was no affordable way to escape to the country other than your own feet. The parks built under the Second Empire established that nature had a place in the city, a position from which there is no going back. Certain poor or dense areas are still under-treed and so the city continues to build parks, some of them fairly major, such as the already-popular Parc Martin Luther King at Clichy-Batignolles in the 17th arrondissement.
Built across so many periods, in so many shapes and sizes, Parisian parks offer a living museum of landscape design and an experiment in the way human beings interact with green space. The formal French garden does not dominate, even if its spirit lives on in the bizarre Parisian tendency to chop trees into cubes (I appreciate the many fine services provided by the City of Paris, from self-cleaning toilets which talk to you to free wifi, and I understand that the squared-off look works in the Tuileries, but does it really make anyone’s day to see the trees quite so butchered in the middle of a traffic sewer like Porte Maillot?).
Compared to the parks of London or those designed byFrederick Law Olmsteadin the United States, Parisian parks tend to be small, more places for promenading and being seen promenading than for getting lost. Even the Bois de Boulogne, which may appear to be a real forest on a map, is carved up into fenced-off concessions and parks within the park (among them the earthly paradise of the Parc de Bagatelle). It does not really offer escape in the way that, say, Hampstead Heath in London does. Inside, one never forgets the streets, and one is rarely alone.
The relative tininess of these parks reveals just how compact a city Paris is. The Bois de Boulogne is enormous at 846 hectares, but it is peripheral to the city and only within walking distance of certain wealthy neighborhoods The largest of the more centrally located parks such as the Buttes-Chaumont (25 ha), the Jardin du Luxembourg (22.5 ha), Parc Montsouris (16 ha) and Parc Monceau (8.4 ha) are minuscule compared to Central Park (341 ha), Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens (253 ha, combined), or Regent’s Park (166 ha). Such comparisons are not just fun facts. A park in the hundreds of hectares is a fundamentally different sort of place both practically and poetically (and where is poetry more practical than in a park?).
Here is a selection of interesting Paris parks, some of them well-known, others well-hidden:
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Parc des Buttes Chaumont (1867, 25 ha)
I usually find the temptation to bag on the Baron irresistible, but the parks built under Haussmann are, along with the sewer, a real gift to the city. For someone willing to redesign a city in part to contain the threat of revolution from Paris’ red east, it is ironic that Baron Haussmann gave the 19th arrondissement his greatest improvement of all, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, built on the precipitous remains of an old gypsum quarry. English garden design was the fashion in 19th century Paris and the three big Second Empire parks, Buttes-Chaumont, Monceau and Montsouris, show the diversity of this style. If Parc Monceau, with its wide paths tightly lined with benches, is built for promenading oneself at jogging or walking pace, Buttes-Chaumont is a visual experience, almost a built landscape painting. It is as much a constructed landscape as Central Park or any English garden, but Buttes-Chaumont seems less committed to naturalism. Rather than mimicking nature, it uses the irregularity permitted in the English garden tradition to provoke something close to awe. The park’s alarming steepness makes distances unpredictable, space is sometimes compressed, sometimes extended so that the park seems bigger than it is.
Though the park predictably abuts the most desirable corner of the 19th arrondissement, the surrounding neighborhoods are more heterogenous than in other parts of the city, perhaps because of the hilly terrain. The village atmosphere of Mouzaïa on the hill is very different from the more gritty (but gentrifying) areas which slope down towards the Canal St. Martin.
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Parc André Citroën (1992, 13 ha)
Perhaps even more than the Tuileries or the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Parc André Citroen would be inconceivable in any other city. Built on the former site of the Citroën car factory, on a part of the left bank which had been used for industrial purposes since the 18th century, the park is one of the largest since Haussmann. Its ultra-modernism is so unapologetic, so geometric and so French that it is tempting to dismiss the park as over-formal and a bit cold, Last Year at Marienbad converted to 3D.
Then the place itself starts to work on you and style ceases to matter. A series of enigmatic little gardens branch off from a central lawn lined by perhaps the most rectilinear trees in Paris. These are different enough from one another to express a feeling of montage in the landscape; the spaces do not flow into one another as they would in a more naturalistic park. The effect is complex, the gardens unfold like a sequence of jump cuts, but are linked by small bridges and passageways which ensure a connection. Your body, by walking, makes the junction, but the mind walks though this park as well. The Parc André Citroën is an intellectual and kinesthetic adventure in which you can still kick a ball around.
The 15th arrondissement is the largest and possibly the most diverse in Paris. The area around the Parc André Citroën has no grand monuments, but is well worth a wander.
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Parc de La Villette (1982-98, 55 ha)
Though also built on former industrial land — the city abattoir — at around the same time as the Parc André Citroën, the Parc de la Villette embodies a very different tendency in contemporary architecture. It is to deconstructivism what the Pantheon is to the Roman temple, the exemplar of a style. When one sees McDonalds restaurants built in a certain style, it’s a good sign that that style is finished. I’ve never seen a decon McDonalds but it seems safe to say that deconstructivism turned out to be a small but interesting ripple within the wake of another ripple, historicist post-modernism. Perhaps more than any other style in the history of architecture, the built substance of deconstructivism was obscured by a thick cloud of theoretical justification (and post-justification), some of it a borrowed from certain French philosophers. In physical terms, deconstructivism seemed to say that architecture should express the uncertainty of our world through an apparently unstable or fragmented architecture. Thus were born many forests of tilting columns. The “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition which took place at MoMA in 1988 was not as historic as the famous exhibition which defined the international style in 1932, but many of its participants, among them Bernard Tschumi, the designer of Parc de la Villette, have had big careers, whether or not they ever were or remain deconstructivists.
True surprises are rare in our cities. The natural temptation to make comparisons between places tends to create preconceived ideas which smooth out the world. This is convenient, but it means that one is rarely surprised the way I was by the Parc de la Villette. After all I had read on Tschumi and the general critical reaction to his design, I was expecting a place which was cold, theoretical, cerebral, a puzzle to be grappled with. What I found was a place which made me happy. I just loved it. Five stars. If deconstructivism is meant to convey the angst of our age, then Parc de la Villette finds the uncanny joy in this project. Upon crossing the canal Saint Denis my slightly gloomy mood just vanished, and I don’t know precisely why or how. Certainly was a beautiful spring day and there is something reassuring about the way such an avant-garde design, including its not particularly functional red “follies,” was executed with so little compromise on such a scale at public expense for public use. The park itself is filled with superb diversions like the Cité de la Musique (by the underrated, at least outside France, Christian de Portzamparc) but nothing in particular explains my instinctive reaction. I don’t dream of cities filled with parks like this, or like Buttes-Chaumont, but that day it was so perfect that I hesitate to ever go back for fear of second impressions.
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The Promenade Plantée (1988-95, 6.5 ha)
Before the High Line there was the Promenade Plantée, the parallel universe which extends for 4.5 kilometers on the abandoned railway viaduct which once led to the Gare de la Bastille, where the Opéra now stands. If the Promenade Plantée inspired the High Line, the two are in reality very different parks. The High Line (and I have only visited stage 1, shortly after its opening) seeks to express its own ferroviaire origins. It consciously mimics the wild vegetation which accumulated among the abandoned tracks, while the Promenade Plantée is more a beautiful park which happens to be up in the air, except that it is not just in the air but on the ground, in cuttings, in tunnels, narrowing and widening, creating a sense of movement which recalls the energy of the railway more than the materials of the landscape ever could.
The Promenade Plantée’s relationship to its surroundings is different as well. It traces a path through a series of mostly likable but ordinary neighborhoods from the surroundings of the Gare de Lyon to the almost futuristic Allée Vivaldi to the quieter streets of Bel-Air at the eastern end. Various art galleries have taken up shop in the arches of the viaduct, and there are a number of spiffy new apartment buildings but the Promenade Plantée does not seem to have provoked the same ultra-gentrification as the High Line, which has been powerful enough to lure even the Whitney Museum south. The High Line and the Promenade Plantée represent two different kinds of success — the new world version is a phenomenon, nearly a movement unto itself, while its Parisian older sister is as everyday a part of her neighborhood as any corner park.
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At its less-frequented eastern end, the Promenade Plantée terminates in a beautiful and spatially complex park which abuts another abandoned rail line, the simultaneously famous and elusive Petite Ceinture. Just eight days after declaring himself emperor in 1851, the terminal rail buff Napoleon III decreed the construction of a ring railway of inside of Paris’ fortifications in order to connect the city’s various main line train stations. The 32 kilometer line helped encourage the expansion of Paris into the territory annexed into the city in 1860 between the detested octroi wall of the Farmers-General and the Thiers fortifications built in the 1840s where the Boulevards des Maréchaux run today. Trains ran between its 29 stations until 1934, though part of the line in the 16th and 17th arrondissements has been integrated into line C of the RER.
What remains of the Petite Ceinture is neither a unified whole nor fragments. The line takes on different guises at various points on its route. Sometimes the abandoned tracks are in tunnels, more often in plain sight, overgrown with vegetation which has become an important site of urban biodiversity. Small sections, particularly in the 17th arrondissement have been converted into miniature promenades plantées with formal plantings and playgrounds. Two sections, one in Bel-Air and a larger one extending south from the Jardin du Ranelagh, have been lightly adapted into nature walks which allow the public to experience the ecosystem which has spontaneously installed itself on the abandoned railway. We can be thankful that Paris has managed to resist the urge to turn the Petite Ceinture into Something Useful. As one of the city’s few a terrains vagues, I suspect it fulfills a need no park ever could.
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Jardin Anne Frank (2007, 0.22 ha)
The “pocket park” is now so widespread that one wonders whether the grand days of park building are over. The pocket park suits the tensions of a neoliberal age. As in the famous case of Zuccotti Park in New York, it is often not quite public space (such places would arguably be more honest if they were behind locked gates, as are Gramercy Park and many London squares). In Paris, the distinction between public and private space is usually easy to read, and pocket parks are just small parks, sometimes carved out of the densest parts of the city. Parks are often described as oases or lungs, and that is exactly what the Jardin Anne Frank is. It is only 2,200 square meters, designed in a pleasant but not at all flashy low-maintenance style one might call Mairie de Paris de nos jours but it has an uncanny way of being hidden in the midst of the most abrasive part of the 3rd arrondissement, one of those neighborhoods where Paris is suddenly a little too parisian.
Perhaps one can dream of a city where everyone finds the the park they need.