Beyond the fringe
Two new gardens beside the Palais de Tokyo in Paris make imaginative use of spaces that had long been neglected
In January this year, the west wing of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris - a stripped Classical showpiece, originally built for the international exhibition of 1937 - reopened as a 'site of contemporary creation'. Converted on a low budget by architect Lacaton & Vassal (known for its villa designs in Bordeaux), it has become the site of an experimental shift in the style and format of the state-funded arts centre.
As part of the general effect of a building in-process, projects were initiated to reprogramme residual space in the margins of the palace, including two new gardens in narrow strips of vacant ground on the north and west sides of the building.
In the ditch between the north elevation of the palace and Avenue du Président Wilson, the Berlin-based landscape architect Atelier le Balto (Laurent Dugua and Marc Pouzol) has created the 'Wild Garden'. The ditch had long been abandoned, never having been conceived as a place suitable for public viewing. Approximately 10m below street level, on one side of the plot are the bare lower strata of the palace - bricks, breeze blocks, ventilation grilles; to the other are the brick arches and concrete infill of the Metro line tunnel, which runs beneath the avenue.
A graffiti message, 'Claire', has appeared on the concrete render of the north-west corner of the ditch. This is by the artist André and, like the gardens, is all part of the 'public commission', funded by the Ministry of Culture.
Despite the absence of direct sunlight, Atelier le Balto claims to have introduced some 150 species into the ditch. It had originally hoped to work with a stock of the self-seeded plants which had colonised the space while it was abandoned, thereby intensifying the natural selection process as the first move in establishing the new garden.
However, no actual specimens representative of that botanical history of the space as true wasteland survived the early phases of the building's conversion.
Broadly speaking, the new planting scheme establishes a polemic between climbing plants and ground cover. Climbing roses, clematis and the climbing hydrangea (hortensias petiolaris), with its aerial rootlets, are encouraged upwards toward the street by the provision of a network of wires; while plants such as fern, ivy and baby tears (helxine) - a species of nettle - compete for ground space.
Pouzol talks of his surprise at the interest of local skateboarders during the garden's installation at the end of 2001, and then their attendance at the opening garden party in the following June. Skateboarders are a daily presence in the central plazas of the palace, and have been an attraction for visitors to the Musée d'Art Moderne in the palace's east wing for some years. Perhaps they were expressing solidarity with the affirmation of fringe space proposed by the garden; more likely, they had their eyes on the wooden jetty which has been laid down its centre.
On the palace's west side, outside the staff and delivery entrances, down the length of rue de la Manutention, is the 'Inhabitants' Garden'. This is a long slice of kitchen garden, planted in disused space between a row of well-established plane trees. Wooden garden sheds and greenhouse-like polycarbonate casing at the base of three spiral staircases - recent additions by Lacaton & Vassal - complete the disjunction of a colourful, edge-of-town allotment set amid the sober surfaces of an otherwise typical Parisian side-street.
This garden was authored and orchestrated by the Breton artist Robert Milin. The parcel of land has been divided into multiple plots, each designed and worked by a volunteer gardener.
Milin initially invited 50 people from the residential zones which lie within a predesignated radius of the palace. Thirty of the invitees attended a preliminary meeting and 16 committed themselves to the production of a plot.
The only restriction Milin imposed was that there was to be no use of standard merchandise or kits from garden stores.
This unexpected mode of land use recalls the urban allotments of the war years, save that here vegetables are outnumbered by more decorative species - nasturtiums, eryngium thistles, hollyhocks, for example. But what is significant is that the emphasis is on process and production on an individual scale.
Milin has previously worked with diverse media, including photography, text and object installations. The aim of his work is to elucidate equations between place and circumstances - to work with an (architectural) context via the observation of its use and transformation by occupants. He states:
'There is no place that in itself interests me independently of human behaviour.'
This rings true with the kind of research brought to the conversion of the palace by Lacaton & Vassal. The Djemaa El-Fna square of Marrakesh is cited as its model of a public space - one of desirous movement and change, constantly formed and reformed by the 'whim of its actors'.
Instigated by an initial challenge to conventional usages of land and materials, here at the Palais de Tokyo is the proposition that public space could be a direct expression of an aggregate of influences exerted by its users. At present the gardens seem to hover between a finely crafted fiction of this communal vision and the path to genuine achievement. As with the skateboarding zones of the central plazas, their worth in this respect will only be proved through their accumulating a history of participation.