I’ve been avoiding La Défense. I’d visited once, more than twenty five years ago, in a cold spring laden with misery that had nothing to do with Paris. I remembered a forbidding vista of grey, windswept concrete leading to the cavernous empty space of the Grande Arche. I was in no hurry to return. Yesterday, after three years in Paris I decided it was time for another look.
I’d heard good things about recent developments at La Défense but a business district of gleaming skyscrapers isn’t my natural habitat. I was prepared to be disappointed. Emerging from the metro at Esplanade de La Défense, a flight of stairs leads up to the Bassin Takis – a wide, shallow pool dotted with lamppost like sculptures. (On a still, bright day the reflections would be dramatic). Across the pool the distant Grande Arche is dwarfed by its taller new neighbours and the axis leading to the arch looks surprisingly green.
(Click on the first photo to view the gallery)
So far, so green and pleasant. Since my visit I’ve been looking up the development of public open space at La Défense, discovering the gradual development from trees in isolated boxes to real green places. Green doesn’t come cheap here. The entire district with forty hectares of pedestrian space is built on a vast concrete slab, raised above the metro lines and service roads, so planting beds have to be constructed and filled with imported soil.
Up towards the Grande Arche there are surviving reminders of the meager beds that were earlier attempts at ‘landscaping’. The miserable shrubs and trees that survive in them are too small and isolated to have any real impact on the hard greyness of the built environment. Brightly coloured tiles on the plant boxes didn’t help much either!
Tucked away at a lower level, not far from the Grande Arche there’s an incongruous small vegetable garden, clearly brand new this season. Neatly framed and inaccessible it’s more vegetable art than a serious attempt at horticultural production but it may be a sign of change in the wind. People need plants.