Should gardens have secret meanings? I think it depends if they are entirely private. If they are, the chances are that the owners will be the main viewers and will be aware of the underlying plot, more evident to them than to visiting outsiders. The great landscape gardener Russell Page agreed that complex, hidden programmes of meaning are not the way in which to make a public garden-plan work. I have just tested his theory by visiting a notable public landscape in Paris.
It has been lingering in my mind since a grand private party in the Place Vendôme at the city’s Ritz Hotel. Gardeners prepare for these sorts of occasion in different ways. I did so in an instructive hour tracking the Princess Diana escape-route beyond the notorious hotel back door. The streets are remarkably narrow for a rapid motorised getaway. Returning to the hotel, I met the famous gardener designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd. She had been much more professional with her time. She had just been off to see the landscaped gardens at the Parc André Citroën and had found them to be excellent. I had never even heard of them, no more than have most foreigners in Paris, for whom the city’s gardens hardly extend beyond the Tuileries. The Parc Citroën stands by a dingy stretch of the Seine and occupies the former site of a car factory.
“Where exactly is it?” I asked Arabella. To which she merely replied: “Take a taxi, stupid.” Taxi meters make me nervous on journeys into the blue. By metro, take a train to the station Javel in the 15ème, follow signs to the left pointing to the park and keep walking for nearly 10 minutes until you find the entrance in the Rue Cauchy. It is worth an open-minded trip.
The park opened in 1992 and attracted some of the most thoughtful landscape architects, or paysagistes, to decide on its plan. Here is what I found, 15 years later: the pathways are all well-surfaced and proportioned; yew and beech hedges are extremely good; curving side-paths lead into wilder areas in which, I like to think, there are bulbs in spring. Patches of wildflowers raised my interest with their sensible take on “meadow” style. They have been carefully chosen and mixed from packets of seed without a cramping concern for an exact replication of France’s “native” flora. Cornflowers, red poppies and campion keep company with very pretty forms of corn cockle and so forth.
The self-seeding star of last week was the tall, orange-yellow flowered inula racemosa, which is not well-known across the English Channel but it has the virtue of showing a spike of well-spaced flowers in July and August. It is tall enough to stand up in a serious English border’s back row. So often a garden’s proud mainstays look much less rarefied when seen from overseas.
The central space of the park is a huge area of hard surfacing, possibly more interesting when the water canals and cascades are actually full. Big pink-flowered lagerstroemerias in grubby white tubs do not make up for the absence of the planned water. Much more charm survives in the series of discreet gardens along the terraced and well-hedged walkway above. Each garden slopes cleverly away from the spectator and has proved resistant to urban vandals. I began to see how the flower-colours had been segregated. More big inulas joined flowering specimens of the golden rain tree, or koelreuteria, which likes hotter summers. Tall Ligularia Desdemona added a familiar note. Rose Golden Wings was flowering freely even in late July, confirming my belief that this fine single-flowered rose is good in warm weather. There was a red-flowered sloping garden and a green one with plenty of green-leaved hostas and inevitable grasses. The blue garden had deep blue Salvia patens, an excellent expatriate plant in sunny summers. There were even my personal stars from dry beds at home, blue Platycodons and white Gauras, a drought-resistant couple whose strengths I first observed in German botanic gardens.
Signs, I then noticed, entitled each of these themed gardens. There was a Jardin Rouge, a Jardin Doré and so on. The series ended with a clever sort of orchard, planted with rows of evergreen Magnolia grandiflora, tightly clipped into upright cylindrical shapes. How charming, I thought, as I wandered peacefully, dodging only the occasional jogger in France’s alternative to purple lycra shorts. Where they once made Citroën cars, now they follow the colour groupings of our own Gertrude Jekyll and the segregated colour-gardens of Vita Sackville-West at “Château Sissinghurst”.
How misguided my viewing was. I have returned home to track down the original thinking of the park’s paysagistes, especially the articulate Gilles Clément. It turns out that I have been following a series of metamorphoses, graded in colours that relate to the atomic form of metals. The wild area, inulas and all, represents movement. The colour-gardens represent the dream of the alchemist, to turn base lead (the grey garden) into gold (all those day lilies and ligularias). The plan escaped me. I am not sure about the magnolia’s meaning but the entire park was meant to express nature’s progress to artifice, the city, through the alchemists’ vain transformational dream.
No doubt it still does but I enjoy this park for its well-hedged spaces, tenacious planting and good proportions. Apparently English, it is actually theoretical and French and its inner meaning escaped me entirely. It also escaped the only two Frenchmen whom I saw in the gardens of metamorphosis. They were engaged in a stylised series of hand-movements above a silvery planting of globe artichokes and it all looked to me like a courtship ritual.
I left this excellent urban project confirmed in my belief that complex inner meanings do not work in public spaces. Fifteen years on, how many of this park’s fans have any idea what the landscapers might have wished to express? It is intelligible on its own surface level and that is why it is still a success. The one explicit statement of mission and meaning when I visited was a hot-air balloon, moored above the central sunken space. Its fabric named its sponsors, one of whom, the Banque Populaire, went on to spell out that “for the Banque Populaire the environment is a lasting engagement”. I could not help wondering whether, like alchemists, the bank was engaged in wishful thinking. The truth is simply that the air is now escaping from banking’s self-inflated balloon.