The Landscape Guide

18.9 A deconstructive reading of Parc de la Villette, Paris

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Parc de la Villette makes a powerful comment on the history and theory of landscape design. Tschumi notes that "at the time of the competition... landscape designers violently opposed the challenge of architects'. His design can be read as saying that landscape design lags fifty years behind the fine arts, as Jellicoe once remarked, and that designers should look with fresh eyes at the culture of their own time, at contemporary art, philosophy and literature. Whether or not Tschumi intended Parc de la Villette to be read in this way, it is an opinion with which I wholeheartedly concur.

But there is another respect in which the art of landscape design has progressed, and in which Tschumi's design lags behind. No land ethic informs the plan for Parc de la Villette. For most members of the landscape profession, respect for the Genius of the Place is a categorical imperative, in the sense defined by Kant. One might think that the land of la Villette, being the site of a slaughterhouse, was dead beyond the scope of ethics. But the ecosystem could be brought back to life. In the park that has been made, every living thing is there for the glorification of man. It is a high-tech, high-energy landscape. The land ethic has been disregarded. Grass is mown, shrubs are weeded, water is piped. But the management could be revised. The design could be deconstructed and reconstructed, in both literal and literary senses.

The point about the land ethic highlights a fundamental weakness in the deconstructive approach to architecture and landscape. It arises from the over-hasty conversion of a theory of criticism, known as deconstruction, into a design approach. To start from zero, yet again, and to proclaim "There is nothing outside the text', opens fascinating horizons for critics. They are brought into dynamic relationships with their subjects. Such dynamism can extend to other texts and other arts. But books can always be put on shelves and forgotten. Architecture and landscape design are relatively permanent and relatively public arts. They affect the land itself, in addition to owners, users, neighbours, future generations, plants and animals. Ethically, I believe it is wrong to proclaim: "There is nothing outside the project'. What about frogs? What about meadows?