“The Versatile Monument Question, Parc de la Villette as Managed Reality” published in the Fall edition of the Journal of Landscape Architecture.

Journal of Lanscape architecture La Villette Versatile Monument 30 years back

Written by Céline Baumann and Vesna Jovanović, this essay examines Parc de la Villette through what will be defined as the ‘versatile monument’ question, in order to discuss a nonlinear, i.e. dynamic, relationship between the processes of project commission – design and implementation – site management.

To consider Parc de la Villette as a ‘versatile monument’ in the making opens up a line of thought that places commission, design, and subsequent site management, normally considered sequentially, into a dynamic relational field. ‘Versatile’ is used here as the capability of adapting to different activities, not only to their simple rotation but also to changing and unforeseeable demands of the site; a ‘monument’ signifies an edifice marked by endurance that carries a collective meaning [1]. The ‘versatile monument’ question finds a resonance today in our daily professional challenges to deliver flexible, yet fixed and enduring solutions for qualitative open space in uncertain climates of weakened planning institutions [2], of quickly changing economical, political, even societal circumstances. This question of building in or for uncertainty was very consciously addressed as a modern problem at the time of the competition and thereby incorporated into the La Villette brief [3], which made the competition a precedent. A most revealing theoretical text of François Barré (who was put in charge of the redevelopment of La Villette in 1981, and who would continue for years to manage its activities, including initiating and overseeing the design competition) on the zeitgeist of 80’s Modernity, and a good contextualisation of why such a brief for La Villette could ripen at this time is ‘Fréquence modernité,’ in which Barré advocates for a positive understanding of uncertainty: ‘The crisis that we live in is not an aberrant intermission that testifies to a dysfunctional system requiring that we return to reality and its permanences. The real has changed. Closed identities and territories don’t exist anymore. It is more important today to learn of the other, to measure that which separates us and to inscribe in this void a relational dynamic, than to shape the topography of a finished world and take stock of its objects. The void is just as important as the full. Our project is impermanence itself, crisis, if you will’ (Biennale de Paris section architecture 1982).

There was, however, a long period of debates and public decisions before the brief itself matured. In the beginning, it was the intention only to implement the Cité des sciences, later this extended to include the Cité de la musique. In the 1976 ideas competition organized by the Atelier Parisien d’urbanisme (APUR) to redevelop the site of the former slaughterhouse district all the proposals resembled collages of a city in miniature (Paris-Projet 1976 : 60), with a large number of housing and office units, and a large hospital that would have reduced immensely the potential that this become the largest park within the Périphérique, which today counts 55 ha, including 33,5 ha of open spaces. In the initial competition the park would have amounted to 15 ha. The idea that La Villette should become a park was secondary (Orlandini 2004 : 32), however it is clearly this identity that today lends the site its monumentality, by unifying all of the other content within its ‘park’ surface. The idea that the park would constitute the central and binding element linking nature and culture (unified by the two poles of science and art), matured by the time of the official launch of the decisive competition in 1982.

Furthermore, Parc de la Villette represented a site for the realization of the political ambitions of François Mitterand, who was looking for an opportunity to reinvent Paris, and, equally importantly, the cultural ambitions of François Barré. Mitterand sought with his ‘grands travaux’ to form monuments, i.e. symbols of permanent modern Parisian identity (Adler, L. 2003). Barré was on the other hand looking for a site able to host the multifaceted ways of producing and manifesting culture in a metropolitan context faced with a positive uncertainty, and plurality (Barzilay, Hayward, Lombard-Valentino 1984: 17). The brief had asked for a totality: ‘an immense Gesamtkunstwerk’ (Orlandini 2004: 178) that would place international cultural institutions into a working class district bordering the suburbs, and for a surface that would inspire multiple different scales of cultural production, a significant focus were alternative cultures not supported (enough or by their nature) by formal institutions. The idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk was behind the time regarding the evolving debate on planning, most prominently it was forwarded by the Bauhaus and reflects rather well the zeitgeist of the first wave of modernist constructions of the last century, i.e. the wave of ‘grand plans’ (Gropius 1962).

On the topic of the demand to provide differentiated cultural content within a park structure, Barré would later note in an interview: ‘[…] most [of the landscape architects] haven’t been able to consider both elements. The proposals [..] were not very convincing in general, and difficult to read. The proposal of Tschumi with the grid of follies was the perfect answer to the concept of “ville-jardin” described by the brief'(Orlandini 2004: 183). The winning proposal had based the satisfying of the programmatic requests through the creation of a formal interplay of landscape and architectural elements and structures that create complementarities, disruptions and unexpected sequences throughout [4], that created what Jean Nouvel described as ‘a new poetry [..] born out of the unavoidable meeting of technology and nature: a poetry of reality’ (Barzilay, Hayward, Lombard-Valentino 1984: 81). In this light it is worthwhile for our frame of inquiry to compare how architecture and the landscape in La Villette transform differently under the current policies of management.

Parc de la Villette Today
A crucial part of our analysis is based on the observation of La Villette today, in order to understand what the park really is, and to take some distance from the professional rhetorical canon that surrounds it. The majority of the extensive written work on Parc de la Villette focuses on critisising the concept of Tschumi, and overlooks the nature of what is happening on the site today, or ascribes it as a failure of his concept [5]. Our observations are framed by a line of thought that focuses on exactly those discrepancies that emerge between the initial design and the site’s actuality, i.e. ‘the cultural experience of sites through their use and modification which augments the potentialities and the original moment of creation’ (Hunt 2004), but also the cultural modifications that digress from the initial project. Our flânerie (in the inquisitive spirit of Debord 1955) revealed some important complexities of how the park is appropriated by its users, providing a qualitative reading of its success.

We were pleased to discover the busy animation of the park during a sunny Saturday in September. The generous open lawns were fully occupied by small groups, while the promenade along the canal de l’Ourcq was intensely used. The attraction of La Villette proves to reside mainly in its open structure, most of the buildings being closed or needing a fee for entrance, like the pony club at the northeast side. Curiously, our most important finding was the discovery of many interstitial ‘accidents’ holding a variety of activities, clearly observable as new additions to the original project. Along the main structural North-South axis, the gallerie de la Villette, the stroller is confronted with multiple fences surrounding a playground area, reclaiming an open plaza and obstructing the walkway. Further south along the lane, a self-made buvette has emerged. The provisional structure surprised us by its generic aspect, standing oddly apart from the park’s design. We discovered a bit further west the garden area Jardins passagers, an ecological and educational urban farm with a provisional restaurant and gathering space. The garden was neatly cut off from the rest of the park by a wooden fence doubled with a hedge.

The chaotic structure of the park today, although intended by Tschumi to ‘emphasize the urban quality of the park with density, heterogeneity, conflict, contradiction’ (Tschumi, B., Walker, E., 2006), is confronted by these modern additions that claim their own singularity: lying physically within the park limits they are conceptually independent. This strange juxtaposition made us curious about the management of La Villette. Why reclaim and transform a well-functioning open area, while other spaces, not to mention buildings, seem abandoned? During our visit, there were a lot of derelict follies, which begs the question why does the infrastructure of La Villette not absorb this inventory within its logics as was the project intent, i.e. could one easily not turn a folly into a play maze [6]?

Management Politics
The buvette, the pony circuit, and the temporary playgrounds we discovered represent private concessionaires, which are new developments installed and leased out by the public management institution of the park, the Établissement Public du Parc et de la Grande Halle de la Villette (EPPGHV). Although a public institution with a public mandate, the leasing of the park’s facilities and spaces is done discreetly. In 2013, concessions represented 22% of the park’s self-generated turnover. Between 2008 and 2013, the EPPGHV has increased revenues coming from concessions by 86% (EPPGHV 2014), a figure representative of the growing pressure on the EPPGHV to seek out its own funding. The concept of concessionaires was present already from the park’s inception, the first of which was the Zenith space, which even preceded the park’s inauguration by three years. There are today many different forms of public-private partnership that help the park to function, from leasing out the parks infrastructure to giving space for commercial and cultural content run privately, like the cafeteria installed in one of the follies.

Concerns over La Villette’s public image have brought about another series of interventions effected to expand the biodiversity of the park by transforming parts of its landscape. The Jardins passagers, described previously, was founded after the raise of awareness on biology and ecology issues provoked by the exhibition ‘Jardin planétaire ’ curated by Gilles Clement in 1999 in the Grande Halle (Clement, G., Sarti, R., 1999). As of 2011, the park has its own Agenda 21 and is implementing numerous projects to enrich biodiversity: installation of bird and insect hotels, sowing of flower meadows maintained by urban grazing, plantation of a conservatory orchard, to name a few. These projects are widely publicized, although they lack importance in terms of size: the jardins passagers comprises 3.000m2 (1% of the total open park area), the conservatory orchard is planted with only 21 trees (the park counts 3,000 in total). They remain enclosed and independent within the park, again going against the grain of the park’s initial concept of an absorptive infrastructure.

Over the years a variety of buildings dedicated to different uses have emerged filling in the surfaces of La Villette, such as commercial lease for the Pavilion Paul Delouvrier, or educational purpose for the Argonaut submarine. The latest addition is Paris’ Philharmonic by Jean Nouvel. In the concept elaboration phase Tschumi had responded to the question of whether the Zenith would ‘damage’ the overall concept by saying that the competition drawing was not to be understood as a blueprint, but rather as an illustration of a conceptual matrix for the park (Barzilay, Hayward, Lombard-Valentino 1984: 26). Tschumi has supervised the park development until its official completion in 1998, but the concessions continued to extend after that date. The physical restriction in the modular architecture of the follies has certainly played its role in the opportunistic reclaiming of la Villette’s open spaces as it is simply more functional and economic to reclaim the available open space rather than invest in the existing structures, albeit the follies were intended to be interchangeable in terms of names and uses (Tschumi, B., Walker, E., 2006 : 21).

The Shape of Things to Come
The La Villette built-Gesamtkunstwerk functions, as was indeed intended, like a city: ephemeral, permanent, bustling with many silent pockets, with an incessant rotation of activities and movement of different groups of people. Its development and open space management is conducted by a multiplicity of organisational structures steered by motivations of various stakeholders. This diversity is a quality, and can be used as a starting point for defining an integrated process of design and management [7]. The ‘accidents’ of La Villette are indicators of social vitality and demand, although by being implemented opportunistically they risk to partition the overall inclusive structure of the park. They should continue to evolve in response to a collected experience that identifies, maintains and augments what La Villette is, allowing it to keep developing in concert with its ‘everyday life’ (Crawford 1999), without exposing the whole to a loss of its monumental character.

For an answer as to what tools can help La Villette to achieve the ‘versatile monument’ in the long run, a look at another important ‘monumental city part’ in Paris and its recent transformation is relevant. La Défense is the business hub of Paris, located in the east of the metropolitan area. Similar to La Villette, it is a monumental site and image for Paris. La Défense has had a single managing entity overseeing its development since 1958: the Établissement public pour l’aménagement de la région de la Défense (EPAD). EPAD expanded geographically [8] and in 2010 the Établissement public de gestion du quartier d’affaires de la Défense (Defacto) was born as an independent public institution with the charge to manage and optimize the existing open and underground space of the site, addressing increasing renovation problems that emerged due to the very particular condition that La Défense was built on a massive concrete infrastructural deck (the 30ha underground counts six levels of parking, commercial and service space), which is now ageing. Defacto commissioned an innovative tool called ‘plan guide’ [9] in 2012, a guideline for a coherent management project for the open spaces of La Défense, addressing specific topics including functions, materiality, public image, ecology, soft mobility, lighting, etc. The management plan will then be used as a framework for launching a series of major implementation projects on the 160ha territory over the next fifteen to twenty years.

In this instance, the ‘plan guide’ serves to identify the resources (latent and used) of the site and elaborates therefrom a territorial reconfiguration as a new strategy of management that steers future design. It detaches itself from the more conventional master-plan by an extreme flexibility, able to adapt and embrace a diversity of new development potentialities. Essentially, it is a toolbox with a catalogue of implementable strategies, profiting from collected experience over time, of the site itself, but also of other similar project references [10]. The establishing of Defacto can be read as a way to give autonomy to the open spaces of La Défense. Compared to La Villette, it is almost an example in reverse: La Villette is a park, that is also a cultural hub of Paris, where the EPPGHV is literally giving a lot of ground in order to maintain its cultural programme, while La Défense is an economic hub whose rigid form collapses under a pressure to introduce urban complexity where before monofunctionality reigned.

La Villette is at an advantage already with its urban complexity and flexible terrain, however an observation of the how the park functions and is managed today reveals that it would easily profit from creating its own set of strategic tools to identify and sustain its flexible terrain in an enduring way, and evolve its identity into a ‘versatile monument’, where each necessary addition doesn’t alter the existing qualities, but reinforces them. The quesiton of both tackling uncertainty and becoming a monument should clearly lie in a re-reading and re-conceptualising of the relationship between design and management, and not solely on a critique of the design concept and style of Tschumi, all the more so because the demands of the eighties’ brief—flexibility, evolutivity, uncertainty—remain extremely relevant today.

[1] while the Latin momentum refers to ‘remind’ and the word finds its general use as a ‘memorial’, for us the understanding of the word implies the notion of becoming, i.e. that not every intended monument is by default vested with collective meaning (Rossi 1982). Furthermore we understand the word as denoting a representative identity when it takes on an iconic value (Choay 1988).
[2] the conditions of planning that we work in today result from two antagonising forces that have transformed the planning profession in the 20th Century: on the one hand deregularisation, on the other—and as a reaction to the consequences of ‘free market’ effects to city growth—a call for democratisation and new participative models of planning that even today in most places are only beginning to form. For a brief yet concise overview of this evolution see for instance Fontenot, A. (2015) “Notes Toward A History of Non-Planning”, Places Journal, January (https://placesjournal.org/article/notes-toward-a-history-of-non-planning/); for a related overview of this debate in France see for instance Cupers, K. (2014) “The Social Project”, Places Journal, April (https://placesjournal.org/article/the-social-project/) or Tissot, S. (227) L’État et les quartiers: Genèse d’une catégorie de l’action publique (Paris: Editions Seuil)
[3] A good summary of the brief can be found in Barzilay, M., Hayward, C. and Lombard-Valentino, L. (1984) L’invention du Parc, Parc de la Villette, Paris Concours International, (Paris: Graphite Editions/E.P.P.V.);
[4] for further reading on the winning concept refer to, for instance, Tschumi, B. (2014) Tschumi Parc de la Villette (London: Artifice Books on Architecture) or Tschumi, B. and Walker, E. (2006) Tschumi on Architecture: Conversations with Enrique Walker (New York NY: Monacelli Press)
[5] Turner put the ethical question clearly forward, but constructed his critique around the concept, only alluding to the fact that La Villette could also have a future as a real-estate carpet. See http://www.gardenvisit.com/history_theory/library_online_ebooks/architecture_city_as_landscape/parc_de_la_villette_real_estate_development
[6] The question of the use of the follies isn’t new, and was already raised during the conception process, where the neighboring inhabitants showed their surprise to some of the pavilions planned without uses, while they were requesting more local amenities, like children’s daycare. See the caricature “occupons les follies vides!’, in collectif la Villette, 1983, http://www.des-gens.net/A-La-Villette-la-concertation-a-l
[7] many approaches to urban design and redefinitions of the role of the architect have emerged from the aforementioned debate surrounding democratisation in planning, perhaps it is central to indicate here Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, as one of the most clear attempts at theorising the everyday rhythm and routine of the city, and Margaret Crawford’s Everyday Urbanism as one of the classic examples of redefining the architect/urban planner as someone who takes the everyday as the starting point in design, and who designs in a processual manner involving multiple stakeholders: “As articulated by its practitioners, urban design requires a wide range of skills, including the ability to design environments that integrate nature into the city, to shape and enact ordinance-based design policies, to facilitate public debates, to serve as advocate for the disadvantaged and disgruntled, and to develop pattern languages of appropriate building typologies.”
[8] transforming into EPADESA, Établissement public d’aménagement de La Défense Seine Arche
[9] the final delivery of the winning plan was in 2014, led by architectural team AWP (Marc Armengaud, Matthias Armengaud, Alessandra Cianchetta) with the support of HHF (Basel), and sustainability/economy consultancies Grontmij, LEA, Jonction. The area of the project is 161ha, and the overall cost of the study is 0,9M euros.
[10] to name another example, the city of Prague has in 2013 created a public space agency Kancelár veřejného prostoru, and they have published a catalogue of successful ‘accidents’ in the city of Prague which are meant to become public space policies: a very real way of learning from the existing city (Kancelár veřejného prostoru: 2014)

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