I can’t say I like the Jardin des Tuileries. I’m impressed by the grandeur and interested by the history, I admire the statues and gaze along the extensive vistas, but like? No, this garden wasn’t designed to be liked.
I might have liked Catherine de Medicis’ original garden on this site, even though it was never intended to please the public. That was a grand, royal garden too, five hundred metres long and three hundred metres wide, but it was divided by tree-lined allées into many smaller areas, including orchards, vineyards and kitchen gardens as well as flower gardens, fountains, lawns and a labyrinth. The royal court had a lot of people to feed and to entertain.
André le Notre’s redevelopment of the garden, for Louis XIV, was intended to impress. This wasn’t about feeding a royal household or providing a place to hold royal dinner parties. The new landscape, with it’s main vista extended by a vast avenue well beyond the bounds of the garden, was a demonstration of power. The enormously wide, sandy pathways of the garden were built for cavalcades and parades, the parterres were intended to be surveyed from the terraces above and if the king chose to venture into his garden it would probably be in a coach. The redevelopment took six years but when it was completed, in 1672, the king wasn’t around to enjoy it. In 1667 Louis, alarmed by successive rebellions of the nobility and people of Paris, had moved his court to Versailles and embarked on his project of absolute monarchy. In the king’s absence, the Tuileries was opened to the public.
Since the seventeenth century the Tuileries has been a place for crowds. Between violent episodes in its history, during the Revolution, the Paris Commune and the Second World War, the garden has hosted royal firework displays, revolutionary pageants, balloon ascents, balls, fairs and flower shows. Recent estimates put visitor numbers at 14 million per year and on a sunny day it’s not hard to believe that.
The garden has been altered and remodeled many times and is in the course of restoration once again. This time the stated aims include rediscovering the former splendour of the garden but also improving access for all, maintaining a healthy stock of trees and enhancing biodiversity. That last might account for something funny going on in the flowerbeds. The wide flower borders of the Grand Carré have been divided up by narrow strips of rough grass – I guess they are meant to encourage predatory beetles. The remaining borders are filled with a seemingly random mix of perennials, bedding plants, annual wildflowers and plants which it’s hard to classify as anything other than weeds.
I wanted to like the planting in these borders. It’s clearly well intentioned, it’s modern, quirky and environmentally friendly (at least in part), but it looks a mess. In a small community garden it might seem charmingly spontaneous but on this scale (7,000 square metres of flower border) it doesn’t make visual sense. This is the kind of planting that could give biodiversity a bad name.
The landscape framework of the Tuileries still echoes with memories of royal power and control, over nature as well as over human citizens. If a new message of inclusion, cooperation with nature and biodiversity is to be heard in this context, it needs to be supported by bold thinking and bold planting to match. Whether it’s likable or not, the landscape of the Jardin des Tuileries is a work of art. Good planting design, ‘ecologically tuned and aesthetically aware’, is an art form too. The Tuileries deserves better.