Parisian Landscapes: Public Parks and Art Urbain, 1977-1995

Open Access
Vincent, Amanda Shoaf
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 03, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Monique Yvonne Yaari, Dissertation Advisor
  • Monique Yvonne Yaari, Committee Chair
  • Willa Zahava Silverman, Committee Member
  • Allan Inlow Stoekl, Committee Member
  • Jean Claude Vuillemin, Committee Member
  • Sarah K Rich, Committee Member
  • Jean Pierre Le Dantec, Committee Member
  • Paris
  • France
  • landscape architecture
  • public parks
  • urban design
  • Bercy
  • André-Citroën
  • Promenade Plantée
Having evolved from of a profession that has undergone profound transformations since the beginning of the century, renewed municipal political and administrative structures, and Parisians’ own expressed wishes for more and improved green space, the large urban parks created by the City of Paris from 1977 to 1995, including the Parc André-Citroën, Parc de Bercy, and Promenade plantée, dramatically altered perceptions of urban landscape design potential. Aesthetically complex, theoretically sophisticated, and mindful of their social role within the city, these parks were developed by architects and landscape architects selected through high-profile design competitions and were grafted into sectors of the city undergoing renovation and renewal. As such, they provided a true alternative to the uniformity, functionalism, and traditional style that had been the trademark of the city parks service, laboring under the weight of Second Empire’s style municipal and the reductive spatial grammar of Modernism. Rather, these parks offered fresh approaches to the garden tradition and reoriented the symbolic geography of the city. This dissertation proposes a cultural analysis of Parisian public parks during the period 1977-1995 with the aims of analyzing these parks from an aesthetic and cultural point of view, and exploring their impact on broader questions of cultural memory, image construction, and contemporary urban design, using this phenomenon as a prism through which to better understand contemporary France. My formal and contextual analysis of these parks is situated at the intersection of two fields: French studies and landscape and garden studies. The former, which draws methods and perspectives from the cultural history of the present as applied to the everyday urban environment, provides an understanding of the socio-cultural context and political stakes of urban park creation. The latter offers concepts and theories addressing society’s culturally-mediated relationship to nature, drawing on related disciplines whose shared purview is the articulation and qualitative perception of space, such as the visual arts, architecture, and cultural geography. Both fields practice poststructuralist readings of visual culture. This study is ultimately conceived as a contribution, through the object park, to French cultural studies, for which the city, public space, the environment, and ecology are subjects of increasing scholarly interest. The study shows how each of the three parks, by using traditional stylistic elements devalued or abandoned in Modernist green space design, and by engaging with history and memory as well as with current contexts, become heterotopic sites (to borrow Michel Foucault’s terminology). Rather than owing this otherness to their soothing vegetal elements in contrast to the roil of the surrounding city, the symbolic and poetic nature of these parks predominates over nature and its representation, so that they stimulate an allusive, metaphorical, or allegorical experience. This quest for an aesthetically and symbolically engaging experience in the urban context resonates with Bernard Huet’s vision of l’art urbain, meaning urban design grounded in principles of interdisciplinarity, a heightened appreciation for the city as the site of everyday life, and sensitivity to perception and representation within the urban landscape. The choice to project complex aesthetic and ecological sensitivity into the public sphere while taking up historical themes and styles in a critical manner suggests a possible definition of a French postmodern garden. This turn to the qualitative as part of an effort to reconcile a storied past with not just the concrete demands of the present but also the contemporary imagination is central to urban design and architecture in Paris as in urban centers around the globe.