The story goes like this. In 1983, then-new President of France Francois Mitterrand decreed a one-stage competition for the design of a new public park to be built on the large site of former slaughterhouses in Paris. It was intended to be the largest landscaped park in Paris and the first example of Mitterand’s Grands Projets, and of his great ambitions to leave a lasting mark on the city. A jury of architects and landscape architects met, reviewed the entries and selected the design submitted by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, led by Rem Koolhaas. This was announced in the Paris newspapers, and it looked as though Koolhaas would at last build a major project. Within a few weeks, however, it was abruptly announced that this would now be a two-stage competition, with the winner and the runner-up, Bernard Tschumi, required to develop their designs further and submit them to a new jury. In the Spring of 1984, it was announced that the design by Tschumi had been selected as the one to be realized, which it was several years later. All that remains of the OMA design is the large-scale model built for the second-stage submission. It has been said that Tschumi wisely did little to elaborate his first, very abstract, runner-up scheme, while OMA did too much. Certainly, its complexity appears expensive to build and, more damningly perhaps, to maintain.
OMA’s design shows us Rem Koolhaas at his most playfully original and inventive, yet at the same time most populist, provocative and, yes, conceptual. The scheme transforms the fifty-five hectares into a post-Modern labyrinth of contrasting layers in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. Existing exhibition buildings comprise one layer; connecting pathways and bridges another; street furniture, kiosks and other smaller structures another. The most important layer is the one comprised of forty-three parallel landscaping strips, each the same width, covering the whole site. Each strip contains different program activities, such as sports and games, but also different kinds and placements of trees, shrubs, and ways through them—a kind of botanical garden based not on scientific classifications but spontaneous explorations and, well, sheer enjoyment. Superimposed on one another, the layers comprise a theme-park of a new type, one unprogrammed and without stereotypes, perfect for Situationst derives and children’s (of all ages) games. It is a park that would be difficult to experience the same way twice—repeat visits would each be different. For example, if we walk along the strips, we encounter a particular sequence of landscapes and experiences; if we cut across the strips an entirely different sequence of perceptions is discovered. We might call this park a proto- or supra-urban landscape, in that its experience evokes the qualities we would want a city to have, foremost among them the ingredients of our personally selected self-invention. It is very much a people’s park, not because it caters to the lowest common denominators of expectations, but playfully challenges people to make of it what they can, each in their own way.
This project reminds us that there was once a Rem Koolhaas quite different from the corporate starchitect we see today. His work in the 70s and early 80s was radical and innovative, but did not get built. Often he didn’t seem to care—it was the ideas that mattered. However, his scheme for the Parc de la Villette begs to have been built and we can only regret that it never was.
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- October 24, 2009 / 6:13 pm
- Lebbeus Woods