I went to Parc André Citröen prepared to be disappointed. When I was studying landscape design, about twenty years ago, this park was regularly quoted as an iconic example of avant-garde design. Icons don’t always live up to expectations in the real world and anyhow, isn’t ‘avant-garde’ a bit passé by now?
Parc André Citröen was created as part of the 1990s redevelopment of the former site of the Citroen car factory. Framed by high rise buildings, famous for it’s captive Montgolfier balloon, most published photos of the park seem to feature the vast open lawn, featureless terrace and blocks of clipped trees, but there’s more to it than that. In basic layout the park has some similarities to the Jardin de Tuileries, with a grand, open area at the centre and a series of smaller gardens screened by trees either side. One big difference is that here the central space is a lush, hard wearing lawn. No keep off the grass notices. This welcoming space is meant to be used.
The layout of the park makes bold use of changes of level with steps, ramps, cascades of water and walkways at different levels. The architectural design of the central area contrasts clean, straight edges with soft, planted surfaces, a style that demands good materials and careful maintenance. Parts of the hard landscape are looking tired and tatty now, with smooth stone cladding falling away to reveal cheap concrete filler. Some of the cascades are dry and the pools empty, but the soft landscape (that’s all the plants) is wearing better, thanks to natural resilience and ongoing renewal.
You don’t have to be a botanist or gardener to enjoy the varied character that plants give to different parts of the park. There are lines of evergreen magnolias clipped into rectangular blocks and billowing thickets of bamboo around smooth, worn boulders. There are bright gardens of colourful flowers and green gardens of whispering grasses. The plants help to make places for many moods and seasons.
This avenue of hornbeam trees, leading down towards the central lawn, is underplanted with a thriving mix of ferns, hellebores and low-growing Viburnum davidii. The soothing effect of the green, shady tunnel distracts your eye from focussing on the bright open space beyond, with the strange effect that someone walking well ahead of you appears to disappear in a blaze of light when they reach the end of the avenue.