How the Parc de la Villette Kickstarted a New Era for Urban Design

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What does the Parisian park look like? For many, the answer to that question comes in the form of a painting: Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in which the well-dressed bourgeoisie leisurely enjoy a natural oasis on a verdant island within their industrializing city.

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

But what does the twenty-first-century Parisian park look like? The answer to this more nuanced question, posed by the French government in a 1982 design competition, comes in the form of Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette, where a then-radical landscape set a precedent for urban parks in the decades to follow.

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Today’s heavily-trafficked Parc de la Villette sits what was once an expansive nineteenth-century slaughterhouse in Northeast Paris. The slaughterhouse—built in 1867 as part of Baron von Haussmann’s renovation of Paris—closed in 1974, leaving a swath of land rife for redevelopment. Seeking innovative ways to reimagine the space, French president François Mitterrand sponsored a competition (as part of his “Grands Projects” initiative to modernize the country’s monuments and public spaces) that called for international entries, garnering responses from the likes of Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas. The competition brief, entitled “Urban Park for the 21st Century,” set forth a program that extended, even in its name, far beyond Paris, seeking to broadly redefine the public park.

Abattoir (slaughterhouse) at La Villette Abattoir (slaughterhouse) at La Villette

The competition’s winner, Bernard Tschumi, used his design as a way to respond to the trials of the contemporary city. But where earlier landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, conceived of the urban park as a place to escape from the city, Tschumi viewed the park as a continuation of the city. Specifically, the architect responded to a growing sense in the late 20th century that the city was too big, too anonymous, and too inhuman. The park, in turn, mimics the feeling of urban disorientation: signage is purposefully scarce and paths curve irregularly, leading visitors to nowhere in particular. And despite the site’s history, Tschumi purposefully avoids historical reference in an attempt to make the park a “non-place” where people will behave on their own terms, not in accordance with historical norms for park behavior (think: Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon). As such, critics of Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette—like the Project for Public Spaces, which listed the park as third on their list of the world’s worst parks—condemn it as non-user-friendly.

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Tschumi’s now well-known scheme for the park involved a grid upon which sat points, lines, and surfaces; these theoretical concepts translated respectively into red structures (points), nonsensically curving paths (lines), and landscaped green-space (surfaces). Most famous are the structures, which Tschumi referred to as “follies” in a nod to the non-functional but whimsical structures of the English garden tradition. Built as forms without clear functions, the all-red structures are evenly spaced through the park, becoming an orienting intervention in the large city park.

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The park’s structural features, designed by Tschumi, are paired with the cultural centers it houses, among them museums, concert halls, and Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris. As institutions bring people into the park, it becomes even more so a continuation of the city—a fulfillment of Tschumi’s theoretical agenda. The park’s activity and vitality, then, derive in part from its peculiarity (what other park houses 35 contemporary follies?) and in part from its programming.

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What does the twenty-first-century Parisian park look like? To Bernard Tschumi, it’s a place where people play with follies, navigate winding paths, and, ultimately, interact with each other. If Seurat’s subjects came to the park in nineteenth-century Paris for the sake of relaxation—lounging carelessly on sloping greenery—we come to the park in the 21st century in part for the same reasons as Seraut’s subjects, but we also have a renewed purpose: social interaction. Indeed, a growing consensus, evident in myriad academic papers and work like the Knight and Kresge Foundations' Reimagining the Civic Commons project, sees the public park as a vital space for cross-cultural, inter-neighborhood contact in the increasingly digital and segregated city. Encouraged human interaction is, it seems, what makes a good park in the 21st century—even beyond Paris.

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