The Jardin Atlantique on a sunny Sunday afternoon; nice details, impressive backdrops, great trees…. and no people. What’s wrong?
(Click on any of the small pictures for a larger image).
The three hectare, rectangular green space, surrounded by office blocks, is divided into two halves by a wide, central path. The description on the city council website explains the theory between the division. The western half has an open lawn, avenues of trees, tennis courts and other sports facilities ‘symbolising sun and energy’. The eastern half, with a maze of interconnected, screened spaces ‘symbolises shadow and daydreams.’ On Sunday afternoon a scattering of people were enjoying the sun on the main lawn or sitting on benches in the shade of the avenue. On the eastern side the intriguing, complex garden, with its beautifully designed play area, was deserted.
The seaside theme and name of the Jardin Atlantique were chosen to reflect the destinations served by trains from Gare Montparnasse. This is a roof garden on an extraordinary scale, installed on a concrete slab 18 metres above the station platforms. In the 1970s, when Gare Montparnasse was relocated several hundred meters from its original site to allow the building of the Montparnasse tower, local residents were promised that the new development would include a public garden. It wasn’t until twenty years later that the development was finally completed by the installation of the garden. It’s an extraordinary achievement but that alone doesn’t guarantee a successful public green space.
The Jardin Atlantique is not a neighbourhood park, as any ‘neighbourhood’ was destroyed by the building of the Montparnasse tower and the other massive office blocks. It’s not a pleasant detour from the street, as it is invisible from street level and the entrances are hard to find. It’s not really peaceful, as the rumbling and hissing of trains below is relayed through the ventilation shafts hidden in the planting. And visually it doesn’t make sense.
Views from the top of the Montparnasse tower show the garden as it must have appeared on the drawing board, complex, detailed but coherent in overall design. On the ground it is easy to get the measure of the open, western half but the paths, walls and hedges of the eastern half curve and interlock, with dead ends, shadowy corners and unexpected twists. The background noise, though not loud, is enough to disorient and to mask sounds nearby. Are you alone here or not?
The complexity of the design and innovative use of materials poses maintenance problems. Water features are out of action and the central ‘rocky island’ structure is closed for repairs. Judging by the pair of trousers hanging up to dry near the top, the notice doesn’t deter everyone.
Searching for this garden is an exploration and finding it feels like an achievement. (If you’re OK climbing stairs, I’d suggest following the sign by platform 1). I’d ignore the guidebook that says this is an ideal place to find a quiet corner with a book. If you’re in the area it’s worth a look, but bring a friend or two for company.