05. December 2012 / Frederick Steiner

Learning from La Villette: From Frogs to Follies

The internationally acclaimed competition for a new park on the grounds of the former abattoir la Villette was decided 30 years ago in Paris. The Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, with offices in Paris and New York, won with a design that triumphantly defied almost all the traditions of landscape design. This competition also influenced the debate in the United States. Garten + Landschaft, the leading German language landscape architecture magazine, devoted its December issue 2012 to this topic:  the consequences of La Villette. Topos now presents the original contribution of Frederick Steiner of the University of Texas in Austin.


Landscape architecture involves a balance between the opportunities in nature and the imposition of the human will. At the time of the Concours International: Parc de la Villette competition in 1982-83, ecology had been on the rise as a concern within landscape architecture – some contend at the expense of good design. The Paris competition marked a reemergence of form-making dominance, at the expense of designing with nature.
Among the initial round of nine joint winners, the French-Swiss/American Bernard Tschumi and the Dutch Rem Koolhaas’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) entries have proven especially influential. Tschumi’s design, the eventual winner, was built and, with it, an emphasis in landscape design shifted from McHarg to Derrida, from frogs to follies, and from green to red. In addition to leaving behind nature, Tschumi’s design also resulted in spaces beyond an intimate human scale, eschewing what had been learned in over a century in traditional park design for grand architectural gestures.

Bernard Tschumi's design for  Parc de la Villette

In the shadows of the more famous Tschumi and OMA schemes, the Dutch landscape architects Bureau Bakker and Bleeker, also joint winner of the competition’s first round, presented a compelling, more ecologically based and human friendly vision that suggests an intriguing road not taken. Still, Bureau B + B (which it became known by) has given birth to Winy Maas, Adriaan Geuze, and Michael van Gessell, among others. In any case, the Tschumi and OMA designs had a strong impact on young landscape architecture (and architecture) theorists, most notably James Corner.


Competition entries by Bureau Bakker and Bleeker (left) and OMA (right)


“Perhaps the single most significant project in forging a new architecture of the landscape was Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette in Paris,” Corner declared in the introduction to his 1999 Recovering Landscape (page 17). Corner’s late twentieth century theoretical writings prominently feature the Parc de la Villette competition. Tschumi’s Jacques Derrida-based deconstruction theories, OMA’s Villette competition drawings, as well as Derrida’s own collaboration with Peter Eisenman, helped enable Corner to build intellectual arguments to distinguish the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) landscape architecture program from that of his former teacher, Ian McHarg, who he had succeeded as department chair (following Anne Whiston Spirn and John Dixon Hunt). In particular, OMA’s Dutch pragmatic landscape as a model, replete with the programmatic intensification, indeterminacy, and landscape succession, influenced Corner.

Meanwhile, at Harvard, Peter Walker and Martha Schwartz steered the landscape design discourse towards abstract minimalism and pop art, influencing, among others, George Hargreaves. As a consequence, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, ecology had been largely marginalized from the core of landscape design at two of the most prominent schools in North America (Penn and Harvard).

As a sidebar, somehow Laurie Olin and Michael Van Valkenburgh managed to avoid being swept into the strong ecology-deconstruction-minimalist currents even though they worked at the two institutions (that is, Olin at Penn and Harvard, Van Valkenburgh at Harvard). Instead, they pursued a rather formal, somewhat traditional approach to landscape design. As an additional sidebar, the firms they established, OLIN and MVVA, have moved in an ever greener direction.

Corner’s ideas, in particular, garnered strong interest among younger theorists. His (and McHarg’s) former student, Charles Waldheim, named this movement “landscape urbanism” and it has become associated with the work and ideas of Geuze’s West 8 and Chris Reed’s Stoss, in addition to Corner and Waldheim. Nina-Marie Lister and Mohsen Mostafavi have especially reinserted ecology as a principal concern for landscape urbanism. The basic idea is that landscape should structure urban areas. Traditionally, urban growth has been determined by transportation and building development with landscape regarded as decoration and/or as areas too costly or dangerous to develop. Landscape urbanism flips this traditional approach to urban design by asserting a prominence for open space.
As Corner has moved from theory to built work, the connection with Tschumi’s and OMA’s designs for Parc de la Villette have dimmed on the ground. In some ways, echoes of Bakker & Bleeker’s more human-scaled, ecologically tinged scheme emerge. Other Paris precedents are evident, perhaps Parc André Citroën (opened in 1992) and certainly Promenade Plantée (inaugurated in 1993).

The High Line exemplifies this movement. Its more narrow space immediately distinguishes the elevated park from the wide open spaces of Parc de la Villette. A walk along the High Line is intimate and human-scaled. The French park looks inward, whereas the High Line celebrates its lower Manhattan context. Plants were used as decorative elements by Tschumi and those who designed the themed gardens of Parc de la Villette. James Corner Field Operations and Piet Oudolf smother the High Line with a rich, ever changing plant palette (perhaps decorative as well) which is an effective attractor of birds, bees, and butterflies. Tschumi’s architectural red follies were also decorative.


At the High Line, James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfo’s architectural elements are much more functional. Architecture is employed in these spaces to bring people from the street level and to provide seating to watch the traffic below.



Tschumi made at least two big landscape architecture moves at Parc de la Villette. The first major architectural gesture was to avoid a linear character and to make the experience more cinematic. Second, Tschumi distributed program elements across the Paris site. These represent two landscape architecture moves by an architect. In contrast, with the High Line, Corner seems to treat the line as a whole and concentrates program in the line instead of along the line. This represents an architectural move by a landscape architect.

In spite of one substantive distance between Parc de la Villette and the High Line, a strong conceptual thread remains between Tschumi and Corner: their ambition. Both their parks sought to attract people and to create interactive space. Both succeed in different ways: Parc de la Villette attracts many people primarily through its major museums, concert halls, and theatres; the High Line attracts through its singular urban adventure. Arguably, it is inside Villette’s cultural attractions where people interact most, whereas the High Line is an outdoor experience. Both Tschumi and Corner sought to redirect park design, and they largely accomplished this goal. Tschumi employed architecture to transform the landscape; Corner used landscape to regenerate the city.


Acknowledgments: I appreciate the helpful suggestions made by my colleagues Dean Almy and Allan Shearer.


Images: 7_70/flickr.com; Tschumi Schichten_Fede___G_flickr; from Garten + Landschaft 5/1983; Friends of the High Line; Urban Land Institute; from Rattenbury Hardingham SuperCrit, page 20/21

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