Jacques Simon is a name unfamiliar to most landscape architects in the U.S. However, he influenced a generation of designers in Europe. A French practitioner who studied fine arts in Montreal, then landscape architecture at the School of Versailles, he was also broadly, though informally, educated through his rural upbringing and lifelong personal engagement with wild and agricultural landscapes. Given this education and background, Simon eluded categorization. Working at the edges of the discipline, he blurred boundaries between land art and ecological design, carefully-staged interventions and traditional farming practices, and play and technical experimentation. He added elements of surprise and delight to familiar landscapes, inspired people to take a closer look at their surroundings and see the potential for play and creativity in the everyday.
Though I never had the privilege of meeting Simon, I have learned about his work from Teresa Gali-Izard, International ASLA, former chair of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia (UVA) and principal of Arquitectura Agronomia. In 1992, as a recent university graduate, Gali-Izard took a road trip “pilgrimage” to France to meet the man whose work she had long admired from afar. That meeting with Simon marked the start of a deep friendship that lasted until Simon’s death in September 2015. After three years as a student of Gali-Izard at UVA, I am now beginning to understand how strongly her pedagogy has been shaped by Simon’s ethic and appreciate his influence on the profession I am about to enter.
Most of Simon’s written work has yet to be translated into English. However, his drawings, built work, and recorded interviews offer some insight for those whom French might be a barrier. He was a prolific thinker. His sketches, studies, and notes flood over 60 sketchbooks. His projects ranged in scale, from urban playgrounds to regional-scale parks. He played, wrote, and acted, gathered people together, and appropriated media and tools necessary to carry out his visions. In 1990, the French government awarded him the first Grand Prix du Paysage for his contributions to the development of ideas and concepts in the field of landscape architecture. In 2006, he received the Grand Prix National du Paysage for his design of the Parc de la Deule in Lille, France.
I recently came upon a video interview that captures Simon’s spirit, as he leads us through his work at the Parc de la Deule:
Explaining the 400-hectare park that follows a 17 kilometer stretch of the Deule Canal, Simon walks along, pushing aside branches that hang over the path. Kneeling down, he pulls up blades of grass that he uses as drawing tools, illustrating the ideas that shaped the park. A series of perpendicular walkways of vegetation extend through the park, linking the canal and park-land to the surrounding villages, farm fields, and forest. Simon pauses in front of a field with a tunnel of sculpturally-arched willows to explain:
“I like working with the hearth, with mankind and its diversity. This diversity gives us teardrops, commas, curves and the like. They intertwine, double back, twist around. People discover things differently here than in an open field. Everything is linear, rectangular, then suddenly something surprises them. That’s important.”
Simon worked with dynamic processes, forging relationships between plants, soil, and materials that evolve long after their initial construction. He was a choreographer of vegetation, intervening with sensitive, formal edits that considered growth cycles, morphology, seasonality, and cultural use. Community participation was vital to his process of maintaining and caring for designed landscapes. In Parc de la Deule, Simon invited friends and children to stage small theater productions on site, building papier mache gnome puppets who “spoke for the forest.” His projects remind us how imagination and play can free us from cultural constraints and help us to know a site intimately.
Simon passed away in September 2015, but his legacy lives on. Every April, in his playful and hospitable spirit, Gali-Izard invites the landscape architecture department to her home to celebrate his birthday. Students and faculty gather to share a meal and hear her recount stories from her lifelong friendship with him. As we sit cross-legged on the floor, flipping through page after page of his drawings, we can’t help but think of how our own practice and creativity might unfold.
Though Simon has passed on, we can only hope that all of us will remember to play a little more, touch and experience the materials we are charged to work with, and not feel too tied to convention as we leave academia and enter the world of practice.
This guest post is by Amanda Silvana Coen, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Virginia.