Continuing the avenue living history
What is the main contribution of Le Nôtre, the creator of the Champs-Élysées axis, to the art of garden design?
Le Nôtre’s oeuvre reflects a time when the rationalization of territories and topographic measurement tools made it possible to work on the three dimensions of space in concert, at full depth, for the very first time. The art of classical gardens is characterized by the implementation of a visual system that captures and frames the great landscape within them. As historian John Dixon Hunt explains,John Dixon Hunt, L’Art du jardin et son histoire [The Art of Garden Design and its History] (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1996), 30–34. the perspective extending towards infinity symbolically creates a form of continuity as the level of wilderness incrementally shifts from the enclosed, domestic space of the garden, with its highly designed lawns, to the landscape beyond the gates. The “great perspective” connects the garden to the productive landscapes of the surrounding forests, where thoroughfares are laid out rationally in goose-foot and radial patterns to better organize forest management and circulations, which, in return, influences the design of the garden itself. This was the case for the axis between the Tuileries Gardens and the Colline de Chaillot hill. Before the construction of a swing bridge spanning the Tuileries moat, which imparted it with a functional role, the perspective of Champs-Élysées was an arrangement that aimed to extend the royal garden beyond its enclosure, to make it, at least visually, the feature generating an entire territory.
The Champs-Élysées form an ambiguous space: neither park nor boulevard, it does not pertain to either an urban landscape or a rural one, and it marks the birth of a vision of the city as being open towards the countryside. In that sense, it may be perceived as being close to the planted boulevards that gradually replaced the city walls starting in the 1670s. Nevertheless, despite their raised belvedere position, offering an open promenade to Parisians, the Champs-Élysées remains a physical border due to the slope between the urban settlements and the rural farmland. It is therefore an extension—first visual, then practical—of the city towards the countryside, soon to become a high traffic zone. The perspective can be seen as one of the models of Haussmann’s grandes percées, the cutting of straight new streets through the urban fabric two centuries later. But though the layout heralded Haussmann’s urban planning, it was preserved up until the nineteenth century by a strict policy aiming to protect it from property speculation, which further intensified the extraordinary and ambiguous nature of the avenue.
Does the Champs-Élysées represent the quintessence of « natural » public space?
The Champs-Élysées was one of the first public promenades to be arranged in a « natural » environment. Though this was an age when the practice of the promenade developed gradually throughout Europe, it did so in urban environments, whether in the suburbs or the inner city. In those rare instances where the promenade occurred in a « natural » environment arranged for that purpose, it was then the preserve of the privileged, with ordinances and fences regulating access. This was the situation of Cours-la-Reine for instance, which was designed in 1616 for Marie de’ Medici, based on the Italian corso.
A hundred years later, the practice of the promenade became a social ritual orchestrated by the emergence of medical literature advocating the benefits of walking and contact with nature. The promeneurs are invited to descend from their carriages and adapt their wardrobe to the new practice. The Champs-Élysées, which is open to all and features green foliage, became the Parisian promenade. Historian Laurent Turcot’s researchLaurent Turcot, Le Promeneur à Paris au xviiiesiècle (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), 219–271. reveals a Champs-Élysées attracting a population that is both diverse and geographically segregated: the lower end, which was invested by luxurious hôtels particuliers starting in the 1720s—the most famous of which is the Hôtel d’Évreux, currently the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of the French Republic—was a fashionable and busy promenade, whereas the upper end, beyond the roundabout, was fairly deserted and blighted by petty crime, prostitution, and illegal markets.
It is also interesting to note that though the boulevards quickly became commercial areas, coveted by property speculation, the royal administration pursued a strict preservation policy on the Champs-Élysées. It thus strove to protect the plantations from the crowd and carriage traffic, as well as to safeguard the bordering plots from residential construction and commercial activities. For a long period of time, only temporary buildings were authorized.
The Champs-Élysées nevertheless became the recreational hub of Paris, as evidenced by many descriptions, etchings, and travel guides. Various forms of activities were carried out under the canopies and settled there on a long-term basis, even during the urbanization of the second half of the nineteenth century. In that respect, the Champs-Élysées Gardens provided an invaluable experimental space and area of freedom compared with other Parisian parks and gardens.
Indeed, contrary to certain gardens that were landscaped for the affluent classes so as to offer elegant places for promenades in carriages, on horseback, or on foot—as in the cases of Parc Monceau and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (at least in their initial construction)—from its very inception, the Champs-Élysées has accommodated people from all walks of life as well as all kinds of activities, both plebeian and highbrow. Its history is punctuated with the installation of café-concerts, puppet shows, balls—which witnessed the birth of the French cancan—, ball and stick game fields, and so on. Though the Champs-Élysées were renowned for their concert pavilions, leisure places of the aristocratic and bourgeois classes, through the twentieth century, they also provided many other types of entertainment to the working classes, thus shaping a unique space of social propinquity.
It is precisely because it embodies both the urban culture of the promenade and its rules of composition inherited from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that engineer Adolphe Alphand ended up choosing the Champs-Élysées Gardens as testing grounds. It had always been a place for living and recreation for a diverse audience, with protected plantations and organized flows of traffic, but its restructuring during the Second Empire, subtly bridging different eras, turned it into a reference for public promenades.
The second « great man » of the Champs-Élysées Gardens, following André Le Nôtre, is evidently Adolphe Alphand. How did his intervention there revolutionize the art of gardens?
The transformation of the Champs-Élysées Gardens by the Service des promenades et plantations, headed by Alphand, is often mischaracterized as the creation of an « English » or « picturesque » garden, following the irregular layouts that were in fashion during the second half of the eighteenth century.
In 1859, Haussmann ordered that the gardens be refashioned, hoping to surprise Napoléon III on his return from the Italian Campaign. The new design, featuring curves and sinuous pathways, did not please the Emperor nor part of the critiques,Eugène Haussmann, Mémoires du baron Haussmann, 3 vol. (Paris: Victor Havard, 1890–1893), III–459; Alfred Darcel, « Les anciens parterres et les nouveaux squares à Paris », Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1859): 114–119. who were quick to condemn the disappearance of the classical layout, which was rooted in the site’s history and facilitated the flow of crowds. A new form of garden was being invented there however, at the intersection between the classical garden and the picturesque garden, one of the prototypes of what was to be called the « modern garden ». By articulating the orthogonal grid with the curved layout of the fashionable fixtures, Alphand was making a flagship project for the city’s grand public promenades in these gardens. In his opinion, they indeed offer everything required to accommodate and deal with high visitor numbers and diverse uses: shaded places for strolling with rare plants as decorative eyecatchers, broad avenues ensuring proper flows, places for recreation, and entertainment.Adolphe Alphand, Les Promenades de Paris, 2 vol. (Paris: Jules Rothschild, 1867–1873), I–LIX.
Though art historian Jurgis Baltrušaitis defined the the irregular gardens of the eighteenth century as « lands of illusionJurgis Baltrušaitis, « Jardins et pays d’illusion », in Aberrations. Les perspectives dépravées (I) (Paris: Flammarion, 1995), 199–269. » compositions referring to a fantasized elsewhere—the Orient, Arcadia, the Italian landscape with ancient ruins—the parks and gardens of the Second Empire could be considered rather as « expanses of progressChiara Santini, « Adolphe Alphand (1817-1891) et la construction du paysage de Paris », post-doctoral HBR history thesis at Université de Cergy‑Pontoise (2019), 278 (soon to be published).». Through their portrayal of real landscapes of contemporary France, whose geography was being rewritten by the new road and rail infrastructure, they stage a fully-awakened dream. The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont features seven bridges erected by the Corps of Bridges and Roads, as well as a monumental rocky island and a lake built from scratch and a heavy use of reinforced cement and concrete, then cutting-edge materials. At the time of the saga of the conquest of terrain, of the crossing of the Alps, Parisians are thus offered a representation of France as it is discovered through train windows, with its landscape dotted with viaducts, bridges, and tunnels, real technical feats of civil engineering.
The gardens designed by Alphand’s administration often feature an irregular layout embedded in the axial grid of classical gardens. This can be seen in the Champs-Élysées; undulating lawns take on a characteristic « s » shape within the lined plantations framed around them. It should be recalled that the structure of the classical gardens then served as a reference for city planning as it addressed the technical, social, and economic challenges of the regulation of flows (of people, cars, air, water, town gas, etc.). Though irregular layouts are fashionable, they are ill-suited to accommodate heavy use. This is why, in the great public promenades, the Service des promenades et plantations favors the formal vocabulary of axial gardens: roundabouts, tree alignments, quincunx rows, and so on. Indeed, the Champs-Élysées represents an important link in the organization of the Parisian networks of Haussmann’s great urban project. It connects the western boundaries of the historical core to the Bois de Boulogne, the new hotspot for urban promenades. Every day, the upper classes thus paraded along the Champs-Élysées and Avenue de l’ImpératriceNow, the Avenue Foch. to get to the « Bois », which became the showcase for Parisian fashion and art de vivre beginning in the Second Empire.
This strategic urban link was transformed into a space for social representation and the staging of France’s horticultural knowledge and know-how. Horticulture is then a booming industry, and its advances are triumphantly presented during the World’s Exhibitions of 1867, 1878, and, above all, 1899. Public gardens take part in this dynamic. In 1859, for the plantation of the Champs-Élysées Gardens, Alphand’s service purchased a large quantity of plants from Belgian tree nurseries for instance, and drew on Baron de Serret’s extraordinary collection of trees and shrubs in Holland, regarded as a « veritable museums of plants ».César Daly, « Achèvement des travaux des Champs-Élysées », Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics (1860), 89. The pursuit of quality and excellence in the selection of tree species and their arrangement goes hand in hand with the care invested in the preservation from any uncontrolled occupation by the Parisian administration of the Second Empire, and then the Third Republic.
With the allotment of the district, numerous proposals for concessions as well as retail and entertainment activities were put forth—including new panoramas, a riding railroad for children, and merry-go-rounds—all of which were refused by Adolphe Alphand. The engineer considered that the Champs-Élysées should remain a reference composition, the « magnificent characterReport by Alphand’s administration on the construction design of a panorama on the kiosk of Concert Muzard at the Champs-Élysées, 10 June 1880, Archives of the City of Paris. » of which was not to be denatured by constructions of any kind. Given what the Champs-Élysées have become, I believe that it is utterly crucial that the care given by public authorities to the preservation of the aesthetic coherence and the quality of this promenade intended for Parisians be emphasized.
How can the needs of our century be combined with the heritage aspect of these gardens created during the nineteenth century?
The Charter on Historic Gardens (ICOMOS-IFLA, 1981) defines them as living “monuments”, palimpsests evolving over time, uses, and technical landscaping skills. This can be seen on the Champs-Élysées with its changes in the layouts and its successive tree planting campaigns, starting with elm in the 1600s, then lime and horse chestnut trees, and finally planetrees during the twentieth century. Should we adopt a purely preservative approach, one of museification, we run the risk of losing the sense of place, i.e., the values that lend heritage value to a place down the ages. By freezing the gardens at a given moment in its history, by trying to turn back the hands of time and go back to a bygone and oftentimes, imaginary past, its quality as a dynamic, living space, bearing value into the present, is wiped out. I am not advocating the erasure of historical layouts, but I simply place myself (as Alphand did) in a vision fitting together the old and the new. The idea is to evoke history while adapting gardens to the uses and requirements of our time. This, of course, presupposes a scrupulous study of the various stages in the evolution of the promenade to capture the genius of the place, beyond these contingent transformations. In that sense, history is less of a constraint than it is a formidable potentiality. By studying its developments, we get to perceive the social value of the public space based on how a new project can be conceived, following the heritage of the past and opening it to the future.
This article was initially published in Champs-Élysées : Histoire & Perspectives, co-edited with le Pavillon de l'Arsenal, in February 2020.