Monday, April 12, 2010

How a Frenchman became America's Hottest Landscape Architect: A Focus on Michel Desvigne

Michel Desvigne is having his American moment. One of the most celebrated French landscape architects has recently completed a spate of high profile American commissions.

Desvigne’s recent U.S. work includes the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (with architects Herzog & de Meuron), the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts (with architects Norman Foster and REX/OMA), and the St. Louis Art Museum (with architect David Chipperfield).

Desvigne owes much of his recent success to his association with European starchitects such as Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Herzog and de Meuron, and Jean Nouvel. Cities across the globe are turning to these celebrity architects to revive neglected urban areas by creating sensational cultural buildings. When cities want an architectural adrenaline shot—what Gehry did for Bilbao, Spain—then Desvigne is often the corresponding landscape architect.

The irony is that Desvigne’s designs are anything but iconic. “Having reached what one architecture critic described as the midpoint in my career, I feel I have nothing to show,” describes Desvigne in the introduction to his book Intermediate Natures: The Landscapes of Michel Desvigne. He continues, “Or at least nothing that resembles the seductive images in architecture books.”

Perhaps it is precisely because Desvigne’s work resists formal composition and design stylization that makes him so compatible with celebrity architects. His landscapes are a field to their objects, a living fabric that knits together the architectural pieces. In Dallas, Desvigne’s ten acre Sammons Park offers a green foil to the complex of opera houses, theaters, and ampitheaters that sprawl over the loosely defined district. The park is rather minimal in its design and detail. Blocks of lawn combine with strips of concrete, and the young trees and “micro-gardens” give the landscape an in-the-works feeling.

“He has a fascination with the unfinished,” says American landscape architect James Corner. “He does not seem at all bothered that a landscape architectural project may appear raw, young, still-in-development.” Corner and Desvigne are transatlantic intellectual allies. Both landscape architects share similar conceptual approaches that eschew form-making and embrace agriculture as a metaphor for urban intervention.

Perhaps Desvigne’s interest in agricultural landscapes is the key to understanding his work. Agricultural sites differ from scenic landscapes in the fact that they are working and ever-changing landscapes. In the agricultural setting, people work the land and dwell in it, a pragmatic model Desvigne considers appropriate for urban sites. The landscape is not a static object to be looked upon, but a field in which we dwell. “I like poplar groves, orchards, artificially planted forests,” describes Desvigne, “I like to perceive these spaces whose conventional order is forgotten so that they are only densities, variations on density. Neither full nor empty, these squared spaces are sieves of a sort, where paradoxically life moves in—traps for an intermediate nature.” (Image below Keio University, Tokyo).
The influence of agriculture—or more broadly geography—is seen more literally in his design for the Millennium Park in London. The site was a former gasworks that required radical decontamination efforts that leveled the site and created a tabula rasa. Desvigne rejected the idea of creating a large urban park with predictable lawns, playgrounds, and natural areas. Instead, he advocated for the creation of an “intermediate landscape” to give texture and density to the formless site. Inspired by images of aerial photos of alluvial forests, Desvigne called for more than twelve thousand native hornbeam trees and over one hundred thousand shrubs to be densely planted in a grid with clearings indicated for future park activities. The design created a flexible framework for future development that considered the park’s evolution through time.


This process based approach is a hallmark of Desvigne’s work. It gives his work a quality of anticipation and possibility. “I think it is important to hold out against clich├ęs, to play with the multitude, with the successions,” writes Desvigne, “There is no ‘beautiful’ image, nor should there be, except by accident.”

1 comment:

  1. I liked your critique it was useful! Desvigne seems to put art/architecture first plants second. I understand the dilemma...I love both plants and art! I see these popular trends and people that feel they must follow one to the exclusion of all the others...i.e. wild gardens, native plants. I like to challenge myself to open my concept of what a garden is...I love your posts. I had a client the other day apologize because she wanted a square patio, that is modern but permeable (found Belgard just put out a new product that I am looking into) and thin rectangular beds planted with only green plants. I told her first it is her garden and she should feel happy in it. Then I asked her about how she likes to dress...lots of color? (she was wearing all black) or neutrals? She smiled...I said we can create a very serene, modern garden with mono tone plants that will be beautiful. I am excited for the challenge : )

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