GDCInteriors Journal. UK

01 2019

Les Jardins d’Etretat And the Curious Ideology of Gardens

There are places, far from cities, that have always attracted and inspired creative minds. The sleepy fishing village of Étretat on Normandy’s beautiful Alabaster Coast is certainly one of those places.

Attracted by the sculptural majesty of the cliffs that contrast with the changing light and spray, writers like Maupassant and scores of artists flocked there including Delacroix, Boudin, Courbet, Matisse, Manet and Monet. Most nineteenth century visitors were drawn to the natural wonder of the famous chalk arch La Falaise d’Avale. Claude Monet – a great advocate of plein air landscape painting – concentrated on his own changing perception of it at different times of day. He obsessively painted the scene 20 times in the cold, wet and windy days of winter from his first visit there in 1883.

Inspired by Monet’s depictions of Étretat, the renowned Belle Époque French actress Madame Thébault decided to make a terraced garden on a steep cliff facing the little cove, planting her first tree there in 1903. Almost simultaneously Monet was also creating his own now famous garden at Giverny, just 86 miles from Étretat: a garden that was to continuously inspire some of his most prominent works in later life.

At the top of her garden and commanding distant views, Madame Thébault built a modest villa, named after her favourite heroine Roxelane, wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, the subject of many plays, novels and pictorial representations. It was precisely that role that had catapulted Thébault to theatrical fame and fortune, enabling the creation of the gardens. Thébault appointed a local landscape designer August Lecanu to design her garden, and amassed a collection of orchids, that to her represented the sultan’s harem of concubines.

Some 114 years later, the enduring allure of Étretat continues to enthral and attract creative minds. The latest incumbent, Russian born landscape designer Alexandre Grivko (artistic director of Il Nature), has expanded and reinvented the garden in a radically modern style in 2015, bringing all the principal elements together of garden, art and of course the famous borrowed inspiring views.

As magnificent as the views are, at first sight any prospective gardener might feel perturbed about the site’s intense exposure to wind and salt. Grivko has however successfully created a sustainable and thriving monochromatic topiary garden./p>

Set within 3.7 acres, Les Jardins d’Etretat is divided into 7 distinct and thematic parts that straddle the steep and dramatic site. This is an ambitious, futuristic garden design that is itself an evolving work of art as well as being an open-air exhibition of contemporary sculpture.

Neo-Futurist Sculpture Garden

In keeping with the artistic heritage of Étretat, the gardens host both permanent and temporary art installations. Every year a number of international artists are invited to exhibit their works in a competition. The winners of which are selected by an impressive jury of art critics, curators and museum professionals (read our interview with one of the judges Sebastien Montabonel).

This year’s theme is Man and Nature: Double Game. Artists are encouraged to explore the fraught and fragile interplay between man and nature – or more accurately, between man and the rest of nature.

The theme also makes reference to Oscar Wilde’s essay published in the late 19th century intriguingly entitled, “The Decay of Lying – An Observation“. Essentially an anti-rationalist Romantic manifesto, it contends that nature imitates art far more than art imitates nature.

This is at least partially true in so far as ‘nature’ and ‘art’ are all taking place in the arena of human perception. So perhaps when artists like Monet framed and culturally packaged up the Étretat views, they created a perception that could more readily be appreciated by generations of culture vultures (wasn’t it that other Frenchman Flaubert who said “There is no truth. There is only perception”?). Without these masterpieces Étretat is after all, just another random scenic place on the French coast.

These are big ideas, but these are gardens that are big on ambition and bigger on ideas – in fact some of the biggest ideas around

One of these big ideas is that the Jardins d’Étretat are avant-garde and neo-futurist in their design. Neo-futurists are usually bloviating architects, accustomed to crowing about their grand schemes with even grander ideas (are there any neo-futurist widget designers? Perhaps). The idea is a positivist and optimistic view of technology saving the planet and humanity – or at least humanity. The buzz words are of course ‘efficiency’ and ‘sustainability’.

The main exponents are Zaha Hadid Architects, Rem Koohaas and Santiago Calatrava, all vying to control the narrative of the future – or what follows on from Modernism and Post-Modernism. Alexandre Grivko in particular references designer and architect Vito di Bari who in 2007 published his ‘Neo-futuristic City Manifesto’, which he summarizes as “a cross-pollination of art, cutting-edge technologies and ethical values, combined to create a pervasively higher quality of life”.

It is of course curious that technology is simultaneously both the problem and the solution. It is inevitably always technology that is touted as the solution by those who have most to gain from it, when perhaps adjustments to human behaviour may be a more obvious solution to many of our challenges, from climate change to over-population. ‘Regulation’ is of course anathema to the die-hard libertarian worshippers of unfettered free markets, many of whom are of course defining the neo-futurist narrative.

Grivko is in good company with his futuristic garden designs. Legendary father and son team Jacques and Peter Wirtz for example, have made their profound mark on futuristic gardens with their distinctive use of evergreens clipped to create undulating clouds of foliage. Along with their restrained palette of herbaceous planting, the result is a startling green architecture. What the Wirtzs have done with topiary, Kim Wilkie has similarly done with his sculptural earthworks, often on a grand scale, such as his striking Orpheus landform ‘garden’ at Boughton Park.

These gardens may indeed be avant-garde, but as Grivko acknowledges there is a debt to be paid to past masters of formality like the great André Le Nôtre, who took topiary to such dizzying heights in the 17th century with his masterpiece at Versailles.

Like today’s neo-futurists, Le Nôtre’s green geometric gardens (that formed the high point of what became known as the highly fashionable and enduring Jardin à la Française style of garden design), rely on monochromatic, geometric and sculptural topiary on a large scale for maximum effect.

Le Nôtre’s designs – and the earlier Italian Renaissance gardens from which they developed – may have been symmetrical where today’s avant-garde gardens are free-form, but the principle of imposing order on nature – or arch formality – is exactly the same. There are really only two types of garden: formal and informal. All gardens are somewhere along that spectrum – and Le Nôtre’s and ‘neo-futurist’ gardens share a common space on one extreme end of that spectrum.

Of course just as with today’s neo-futurists, it was the latest technological developments that properly enabled Le Nôtre to achieve what he did. These included géoplastie (the science of moving earth), hydrology (moving water), hydroplasie (shaping water for fountains) and horticulture (in particular maintaining plants out of season and out of their normal climate). If utilizing the latest technology to do something radically different is ‘avant-garde’, then landscape designers such as Alexandre Grivko are indeed the real McCoy.

‘Parametric’ Garden

Perhaps the biggest of the ideas at the Jardins d’Etretat is that its design is ‘parametric’. Once again, it is architects who are to blame for this idea, the high-priest of which is the controversial contrarian Patrik Schumacher director of Zaha Hadid architects.

With breathtaking immodesty he has claimed that ‘Parametricism’, his theoretical approach to architecture, should replace ‘Modernism’ and its successors to become the universal style of the 21st century. But just how this new idea is defined is not exactly clear even to its champion, who has always avoided all attempts to nail it down.

In a nutshell this whopper of an idea is an architectural philosophy, that contends that computers can design complex structures and forms, that are infinitely adaptable and flexible in response to their use and surroundings. This is apparently made possible by feeding in all the parameters algorithmically, like how people move through buildings, frequency, duration of use and so on.

The assertion that parametric buildings are indeed both flexible and future proof is of course not only unproven but hotly contested. Its main flaw is the sheer unpredictability of how people will use buildings, not to mention the cosmic ineffability of the future.

It is surely supremely arrogant to imagine that you can design buildings to be indefinitely and infinitely future-proof. Even god didn’t quite manage that with his earth project.

Schumacher sees parametricism as ending not just the style wars in architecture (and indeed any heretical traces of whimsy and individuality), but architecture itself. More than that, he sees it as the design philosophy of an unfettered capitalism that he yearns for (he has also called for eliminating social housing, privatising all public spaces and selling off most of London’s Hyde Park for development).

Everything from buildings to furniture and the clothes on our backs would inevitably end up looking the same: curvy, seamless, shiny and above all efficient. Once again Oscar Wilde nailed it when he said life imitates art. Schumacher is of course a reconstituted Howard Roark (no doubt a well-thumbed copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead sits on his bedside table), and his big idea is a nightmarish dystopian master-plan of illiberal, libertarian futuristic uniformity.

So what does all this mean in garden terms? Not much really. Gardens can and often are designed with computer programmes that make short shrift of complex design and planning. But clearly there is not much flexibility or adaptability one can reasonably expect from a green hedge or herbaceous border- even if that were required. Perhaps the day may come when we are able to genetically engineer that flexibility, but as today, patience will still need to be the principle virtue of any ‘parametric’ gardener of the future.

In truth the only thing that a garden like Les Jardins d’Etretat has in common with parametricism is that it is designed on a computer, is future-looking and superficially resembles that aesthetic with its seamless curves. But perhaps that’s all anything really needs to be considered ‘parametric’, as the idea is in any case far more convincing as style than substance.

I suspect that Schumacher himself – who nearly caused a riot when he told the World Architecture Festival in 2016 that Hyde Park is a waste of resources and should be built over – would no doubt baulk at the notion of gardens described as ‘parametric’.

And the high priest is unfortunately even more scathing about art. He recently took to Facebook to call for the abolition of state-funding for art and art schools, branding them an indefensible anachronism. “Schools of art are not justifiable by argument, because contemporary art is not justifiable by argument” he continued. “Public funding decisions should not rely on an unexplained sense of art’s ‘value’ that lingers on even after 100 years of avant-garde efforts to debunk it and laugh it out of existence.” I wonder what he’s got on his walls?

History tells us that all big ideas are oedipal, so it really doesn’t matter one jot what the parent of an idea claims for their child, as they will inevitably develop in totally unpredictable ways. It must be particularly jarring for all control freaks like Schumacher to discover that even abstract entities like their own ideas can develop free will and take wing.

A critical mass of talent, ambition, ideas and funding at Grivko’s stunning experimental gardens have undoubtedly put Étretat back on the map where it deserves to be. And once again creative minds are making a cultural bee line to this place just as they did in the 19th century. It will doubtless be down to innovative risk takers like Alexandre Grivko to take the lead in adapting technologies to confront the challenges of the near future.

Ideas – both big and small – will be required if we are to continue enjoy the life giving magic of gardens.

The Avatar Garden

In Sanskrit, ‘Avatar’ is the guardian of the universe who pervades it with his divinity. A suitable name for a garden occupying the liminal point between the real and surreal worlds of plant sculptures and clockwork trees that make music.

The Emotions Garden

This garden has been modelled after Marie-Antoinette’s first French oyster park, which historically lies at the foot of Les Jardins d’Étretat. Set within exquisitely scalloped topiary are a series of face sculptures (by Spanish artist Samuel Salcedo), expressing the changeable moods of the sea beyond.

The Impressions Garden

Located at the heart of the gardens is this garden commanding the wide sweeping views, that have long drawn the good and the great to this place. This precise location with its picturesque panorama of plunging arched cliffs and swirling ocean has inspired Delacroix, Corot, Manet and Monet among many others. The low curling ripples of the sculptural topiary appears to simulate the gentle ebb and flow of the waters below.

D’Aval Garden

Inspired by the world of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as well as the famous cliff arch (after which this garden is named), is this meeting and resting point for visiting artists. Along a widened path is a vast 10 metre long table and benches made from a solid oak block by German sculptor Thomas Rösler.

The Zen Garden

This green and white garden references the Zen philosophy of gardens, both symbolising and instilling a sense of harmony between man and nature. Suspended in the trees is a sound installation of terracotta sculptures by the Russian artist Sergey Katran. Shaped like sound waves, the word ‘art’ is uttered in many languages – both living and dead – in a calming mantra.

La Manche Garden

Located at the centre of the gardens is this turbulent maze of giant topiary. Symbolising the angry waves crashing on the rocks beyond, the silvery leaves mimic the bubbling foam and surf and draw a contrast with the surrounding darker greens.

D’Amont Garden

Towering majestically from its lofty heights, the garden’s gently undulating terraces are punctuated dramatically with mature trees. The calming repetitiveness in the design is intended to reference the sedimentary layers of the white cliffs of Normandy’s Alabaster Coast.

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