Parc de la Villette – Follies with Meaning (1984-1987)

A combination of two events brings you Parc de la Villette this week. First, moving and fixing up a house is behind us (for now) and you can now find me walking outside trying to soak up every last sunray of summer left. Couple this desire with the ongoing debate on Paris hype circulating my office recently and I am thinking of Parc de la Villette. Part folly, part park, is well worth some exploration.

Sitting on the edge of the city’s 19th arrondissement, the third largest park in Paris does not meet many people’s ‘park’ expectations. And that’s okay because in general we are all a little apt to have too many expectations.

When people think of a “park”, they often focus on Frederik Law Olmstead’s notion. They expect to enter a space where the city no longer exists. They expect a retreat or an oasis. Parc de la Villette does not retreat from the city, but it invites the city in without any limitation. There are no desired activities for areas, there is only 137 acres layered with folly points and line walks.

Folly at folly’s best. Don’t you think?

At this point, you are probably confused. Most park spatial organizations are not conceived of in lines, points and surfaces. But most parks are not designed by an intellectualizing deconstructivist either.

Bernard Tschumi, a French architect of Swiss origin, beat out the likes of Koolhaas, Nouvel and Zaha Hadid to win the competition for Parc de la Villette. In the 1980s, Paris was looking to redevelop the abattoir area (don’t let the pretty French word fool you, they are talking about slaughterhouses). The competition brief asked for a forward-thinking design that would mix a complex program of cultural facilities. Tschumi attempts to go beyond park and create a place where the natural and artifThe icial are forced together. The passerby is encouraged to interact with and discover these different spaces.

Folly and Line and Surface side by side.

Tschumi imposes a three-part system of 35 points (25 of them being red follies), lines, and surfaces. The red architectural follies are the points. They are used for wayfinding as they are spaced precisely 120 meters apart from each other. Their noticeably different form allows you to recognize and place yourself in space. The next layer of paths become the lines of movement throughout the park. They intersect and bend into points of interest with abandon. Surface makes up the rest. 85 acres of green space is left to be defined and reimagined by each individual park-goer.

Think of it like a stack. First comes the grid of points, next comes pedestrian paths (crossing at will), and the leftover is the surface.

The entire design hinges on layering. It attempts to provide freedom of movement and use inside a superimposed organization of the points and lines. With this freedom, Tschumi upsets the basic architectural assumptions inherent in most systems by rejecting organization. These three components are stacked, not organized. There is no composition or hierarchy. They merge and shift into each other, encouraging interaction with their own. They collide at will.

But why? Why do this? Tschumi believes removing a coherent meaning will force people to have their own experience and interpretation of the park. This whole conceptual strategy emerged from the deconstructivism running rampant at the time.

But it sure makes for some interesting park walking.

Deconstructivism embodies the idea of fragmentation and dislocation. It loves curvilinear shapes that skew and mess with object frameworks (just like the idea of Tschumi’s paths).  Deconstructivism embodies controlled chaos and unpredictability, while still not being haphazard.  That “control” in controlled chaos is the most important part. The precise placement of follies helps tie the whole thing together and together, this park becomes an ideological manifesto. It attempts to eschew the common concept and turn it on its head.

Points of reference made possible by big forms and bright red paint.

But while ideas and concept are all great, my favorite part is the follies. The word folie is often connotated with silliness or delight. In England, the idea of the ‘folly’ related more to the folly of the rich for building an elaborate replica of whatever floated their boat (often greek temples or pyramids) than joyfulness.

I’m pretty joyful.

Often, extravagant country homes in France or England would feature lawn ornaments or garden sculptures that were extremely elaborate and without real purpose. These structures took on the term folly. In this park, there is something beautiful about finding your way through a space based on these ornaments.

What about you?

In them, I think Tschumi tries to get the best of both worlds. Deconstructivism aims for anti-ornament or decoration as it breaks apart a building to its very essence; since the folly lacks any real meaning it completely embodies the idea of deconstructivism.

Each folly starts as a three story cube which is manipulated, added to, and subtracted from at will. The permeations are seen throughout. Some house important park functions, while others are just spaces to pass through. All are coated in bright red.

Under and over and through we go.

The constant process of designing and all its permeations is often overlooked.  With a finish building, you rarely see the process work that modeled every type of grand stair possible or all the possible options for how that door would hinge to create a flat plane. You miss the earlier revisions, where small tweaks to window placements and form shifts can make a big difference. But these things are happening constantly. This month, for me at least, it’s sculptural. At work, we are designing a 3d sculpture for the center of a space. I have already made 10-12 possible options that will mold and shift and maybe even combine to a finished product.

This one is a playground. Some folly on this folly.

When I look at these follies, I see process. I see the love that comes out of playing with form and artfully dissecting or adding to it. While, I’m sure Tschumi had many more than 35, it’s nice to be able to see more than one. It’s nice to think that the process has become a finished product here.

Tschumi hoped to create this park in a vacuum. He hoped to eschew historical precedent (even though if you ask me that follies look very modern 1920s). He strived to create a non-place that invited interpretation and exploration. His critics would tell you that it lacks personal scale and ends up being more conceptual and analytical than they desire. But, I think in his personal mission he succeeded. He created his manifesto and challenged theoretical concepts in the spatial experience. Believing space is defined by event and action, not space and form, the design encourages you to wander and make it your own.

And you better believe I wandered that park searching out all those follies. I interacted, explored and moved through them. I saw the points of intersection and embraced the moments with lack of scale. It may not be your typical park, but perhaps it’s all the better for it.

Those follies live up to their definition of delight.

From Where I Sit – Week 27

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would need you to weigh in on two ongoing debates. First, I would want to know if you think summer is over now that July fourth has passed. Do you know people actually think this? It feels like it has just started getting warm and people are already decrying the loss of summer.  Are you one of them? And if you are, can you please give me some advice on how to maximize the now ‘end’ of my summer. I need all the help I can get. Second, what are your opinions on Paris? Is it overhyped or the best city in the world? Once I heard your rationale for these two things, I can make the corresponding tallies and continue on with the rest of our lovely dessert date.

If I was sitting across from you right now, you would beg me to explain. Normal people don’t just ask random polling questions and then settle back into their chai lattes. I would tell you that I am bemoaning the whirlwind of summer. It’s almost shocking to have transitioned from dreaming of sun-kissed skin to being insulted by the heat even though it happens every year. With all the impending activities that are packed into the next two months I am overwhelmed. Throw a new house into that mix and we are on ‘make the most of summer’ crisis mode. Every time I hear that summer is over, a part of me stands madly resolute that it can’t be. It can’t have passed me by already, when I have yet to enjoy it. We would make a pact to do something to enjoy it this weekend.

If I was sitting across from you right now, you would  tell me that most people love Paris. My poll seems to prove as much. They love the romance, the quaint feel, the food, and the architecture. Meanwhile, I think I just like the crepes and the Sainte Chapelle. I would need to explain my hatred for hype. I am critically averse to hype. If you are hyping something, I am hating it. Are you like this? Am I the only one? This is why it took me so long to watch Hunger Games or listen to Serial. If I am being honest, this character flaw I have, to hate something hyped, has helped me out. It is much easier to binge watch/listen to these things than wait year after year for the next installment. Believe me. You would have to interject, because Paris cannot be binge watched. Nevertheless, I am not feeling the hype of Paris. Don’t get me wrong, it is lovely. But, I could name dozens of places  (even in France alone), I would rather see before Paris. After my tirade, I would want to know why. What makes you love this city of lights or love whatever else it is the city of. Maybe you would be able to convince me a little. Maybe not, but you would try regardless, because turns out people are very serious about their love of Paris.

If I was sitting across from you right now, you would ask to see pictures of the house that Chris and I just bought. The little fixer upper that is taking all my free time and extra money. Although the house will never grace this blog in the capacity of being amazing architecture, it is exciting. It is exciting to finally not be renting and to be able to do little things to make the place we live better. If you were interested, I would tell you about all my big plans and the many phases to come. I would even invite you over for some cake once things are made livable. I hope you would reassure me that it will be less of a construction zone in two weeks when we move in.

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would ask about your recent dreams. Lately, I’ve been suffering from panic dreams of painting.  This is quite possibly the most boring dream ever and oddly stress inducing, but it makes me think that dreams are not just random synapses firing in my brain. If so, shouldn’t my dreaming be a little more random? If we were together, I think we would both marvel a little at how much of the human body we still don’t know about. This is just a crazy thing if you really think about it. Case in point is the dreaded lyme’s disease I had last month. Turns out doctors still don’t have a lot of information on lyme’s disease, dreams, and concussions.

Instead of thinking about how frightening it is (and it is frightening if you are the one suffering), I’ve decided to believe it’s because we are all marvels. And even though it is a scary, it is also empowering. Everybody is a thing not fully described, not fully understood. Made up of millions of elements that are smaller than what we can really see, we may never be completely mapped out. There are not robotic or rote answers for all of us, everything is a puzzle. And because we are never fully understood or static, that means you can still be a little bit of anything, always.

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would wonder about your plans. I was watching a comedian the other night who cracked a joke about people in their thirties. The comedian goes, “what does it feel like to no longer be the future?” It was funny, but also crazy depressing. As I inch closer to that with my birthday next week, I would have to admit that my future still seems lengthy. I don’t believe I’ve fully arrived at it. You would agree because at this age we have to. But most likely, everyone feels like that always. You will talk about your own endless hours wondering where you are going or where you want to be. I would ask if you think the grass is always greener on the other side, or when is it appropriate to take a leap of faith. Turns out I am not big on taking much leaps. I crave regularity. So, I would propose that we take some leaps together.

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would excuse myself to go get another ice cream sandwich and ask you to remember right where we left off.

Nasher Sculpture Center –  Urban Oasis (2003)

You sense the birds. You hear the bubbling water. You can almost feel the dew still on the grass. And as you pass down each path, you inhabit the space of the sculpture. One by one you peer at them, around them, through them. Then they start to blend and morph as they interact with their neighbor. Up until the moment a small boy almost fell into the fountain, it was quite possibly the most peaceful break I have ever experienced in a bustling city. And even the fact that this kind of oasis could be in the middle of a city blows my mind a little bit.

Texas has its fair share of urban oasi (and yes I’m just going to treat that as a plural oasis- whether or not it is). We’ve seen them before. Remember, Johnson’s Fort Worth Water gardens? That one is an oasis of water and cement. This is an oasis of sculpture and trees.

Old North Church / Christ Church – Fake News (1723-1745)

On my parent’s most recent visit we strolled along the Freedom Trail in search of pastries. (This is a pretty common occurrence if you come visit me; take note potential visitors). Turns out the freedom trail is great for those in search of sugar. At some point, we ended up in Old North Church and stumbled upon a fascinating display extolling the inaccuracies of the church’s perceived history.

And because fake news is ever present on our minds (or at least mine), it’s presence on the political scene as early as the Civil War and likely earlier stuck with me.

Blue Mosque – Teenage Dream (1609-1616)  

Pride. It comes up a lot in architecture. We see it often when looking at buildings commissioned by kings and emperors; but don’t rule out the pride that goes into your neighbor’s renovations either. In a large part, the built environment stands because someone wanted to show off. And in that sense, the Blue Mosque (officially called Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is no different.

In fact, it’s that very concept on steroids.

From Where I Sit – Week 15

If I was sitting across from you right now,  I would tell you that “Honor the space between no longer and not yet,” (Nancy Levin) has been resonating a lot with me lately. In the most basic terms, it’s the weather. It is no longer dark winter, but spring hasn’t quite fully arrived either. In the most complicated terms, it is life. I am no longer the person I once was. I am not yet the person I will be. Although, those statements are easy to type, they are hard to wrap your head around. I would tell you, that if we are being honest with ourselves, we will never really be that final person. Not because we won’t change, but because we won’t stop.