la revue urbanisme
La revue urbanisme, hors série n°56, juin 2016

In order to properly assess the status of the landscape architecture profession in France, the distance it has covered should first of all be taken into account. It remains important to remember that following the hecatomb of the war, during a period that lasted into the 1970s, landscape played only a minor role, despite the many opportunities for it implicit in post-war Reconstruction and the Villes nouvelles planned communities of the 1960s. Considered a luxury, landscape design in France was given little opportunity for contributing conceptually to projects, in contrast to the more prominent role it developed at the same time in North America and the Netherlands. The National School for Landscape Architecture in Versailles did not recommence until 1976. Today, the quality of the projects pursued, along with the general awareness of the territory, as well as the overall capabilities of practitioners, have all undoubtedly improved.

There are now many of us French landscape architects, our presence on a project having become mandatory in a large number of architectural competitions. In recent years, some of us have even taken on the position of principal representative of an architectural project and team project leader, with certain contracting authorities deeming the landscape element of their projects to be of prime importance for successfully maintaining consistency across the broad range of territorial studies involved. As the understanding of the natural geography of a site can help determine the location and establishment of infrastructure, the landscape architect becomes more than just an embellisher of roads and parks otherwise designed by engineers and architects. The image of the parkway provides us with a fundamental example. As does water management, where large-scale water collection forms a sort of check and lever to the constitution of public spaces – as demonstrated in the Saclay project, where in opposition to the ideas of the engineers, the environmental engineers included, we based the project on the creation of a physical reality that would maintain a justified and logical coherence.

Taking these positions helps avoid friction and power struggles between disciplines. Having worked a lot in other countries, I have often come across designers who find such dialogue completely normal, a mindset far from the archaisms still present in Europe.

By generating new types of requirements for projects, the metropolization process has brought about another positive development in the field, with both communities and politicians manifesting the interest and will to produce long term territorial visions. Approaches where the landscape is taken increasingly into account have a positive accelerating effect on the process as a whole, as demonstrated in the Greater Paris project consultation phase. The country continues to develop such territorial visions, strengthening our reputation abroad.

Being able to assume the role of assistant to the particular contracting authority is also essential. As none of us claims mastery over all components of a project, collaborative work with the agencies and services involved is often extremely interesting in addition to productive, especially given the fact that the framework agreements in place allow for interventions to take place over time, regardless of what might change politically. We have consciously helped bring about this process, whose impact on the territory has proven very beneficial. And we must remain creative in this area.

Here is a progress both unexpected and considerable, although still marginal. And fragile. The financial crisis has had the effect of producing many competitors to our profession, as well as tending to reduce the amount of resources available to us. In France, there has been little investment in landscape and public spaces. What has been done in our field in urban centers remains extremely minimal with respect to the gigantic urban transformations whose extent goes unmeasured, the byroads, highways, parking lots, commercial zones... And today, as the financial crisis continues, it is assumed our interventions become less and less frequent... We must fight to find the resources that will allow us to bring planned projects to fruition, rather than give in to the easy and seductive temptation of contenting ourselves with their mere design on paper.

The practice of not investing in the landscape has led us increasingly “to theorize our impotence”, according to the formula of Georges Descombes. In addition, there has at the same time arisen the idea that the lead prime contractor of a project should become a kind of social mediator, working in deference to a population to ensure that what is produced is what they desired, as developments throughout are closely followed on the Internet. But no, we are here to guide communities in the shaping of their territory. Without indulging them. It is an approach that of course does not in the least preclude collaborating more and in an improved manner with residents. However, we are able to do so without relinquishing our responsibility, without resigning ourselves to creating substandard works at half price. When everything is fragile, the precariousness becomes palpable: what must be sought first above all is imbuing the land itself with a certain durability.

We are also facing a situation in which the superimposition of skills becomes extremely counterproductive. In France, it has become not uncommon to sit down with thirty people at a meeting, whereas abroad there are often not more than four. The increase in the number of partners to a project, with the subsequent multiplication of orders and counter-orders, balancing the competing interests of some with the constraints of others, results in spaces that will be difficult to appreciate or even understand in the future!

Despite everything, I remain optimistic. Our capabilities have evolved in step with the evolution that has taken place in what projects demand. Students today are much more well-equipped than my generation to appreciate and render smooth operation of the mechanisms that create a territory, with their incomparably richer and more stimulating training. Our capacity for exporting our work has expanded: our methods and our ethic are applicable in a wide variety of situations. The French school enjoys an international reputation based upon its contention that a project only exists in the transformation of the already present. This fundamental principle, which Corajoud and Chemetoff developed and theorized, still remains of marginal importance in many cultures, where the landscape architect enters the scene to embellish what others have designed, where the idea of transformation is not that important. Nonetheless, this principal is increasingly recognized and copied.

Of course, schools should remain influential. As teachers and professionals, it is vital that we have these places where research, sharing, and speculative reflection can take place, and all alongside our preferred interlocutors, the students, whose presence not only allows us to better develop our hypotheses, but stimulates our study of the evolution of the world, encourages us in our speculative nature, and allows us a more rigorous evaluation of completed projects. Teaching abroad further enables this ability to evaluate by comparison, a particularly vital ability for us landscape architects who cannot necessarily evaluate our production over time. At Harvard, I value this openness of spirit present in meetings and discussions with students coming from everywhere, and the distance and thorough perspective required as a result in teaching: how to keep the interest of a Chinese United States resident when narrating the territorial history of France?

I cannot stress enough the necessity of leaving behind the debate between formalism and social organization, a deviation that has nothing to do with the actual state of affairs nor with that to come. Our projects should be imbued with a certain grandeur, that sense of grandeur that has at times been the envy of our peers abroad. We possess particular skills capable of moving us past the mere fulfilling of what is required to the imagining of cities that can impart a daily sense of happiness to their inhabitants, and which future generations can still appreciate and love.