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.

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