Explore the Landscapes of Michel Desvigne

Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste / courtesy of Birkhäuser

The French landscape architect Michel Desvigne isn’t well-known in the U.S. but a new monograph of his firm’s work from the publisher Birkhäuser should help change that. Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste beautifully conveys Desvigne’s simple yet striking parks, plazas, and master plans. There is a sense of clarity in his work that emerges as you look through the book’s many rich color photographs.

The book is entirely focused on Desvigne’s public projects, which is where his passion lies. As he explains on his website, his firm’s goal is “to play a part in the formation of common territory, transforming landscapes produced by society. Past and present traces of society’s activities inspire and help foster the design.” Desvigne aspires to “give an area meaning, at least legibility.”

At the same time, he does so with great restraint. He says his landscape designs have an elementary, even dumb composition. The landscapes “do not entail any heroic feats of execution or any extravagance.” These places are distinguished by a “certain poverty” or rustic quality. The landscapes are a bit austere, even just under done.

The purposeful minimalism perhaps enables people to more easily inhabit these landscapes and bring their own meaning. But he adds that his firm brings rigor to the design of these seemingly simple landscapes. In reality, simplicity takes hard work to achieve.

Transforming Landscapes begins with a photographic essay by Patrick Faigenbaum that immerses the reader in Michel Desvigne Paysagiste (MDP)’s landscapes. At first, it’s hard to tell what is a natural or agricultural lansdcape and what has been designed.

As Francoise Fromonot explains in the introduction, “the ditches and ponds, roadbeds and rubble, paths and valleys sometimes merge to such an extent that the current earthworks are no longer distinguishable from the agricultural land from which the work has molded the contours of a new public space.”

In Fromonot’s introduction, we get a sense of the intelligence of Desvigne’s landscapes, how he works at an urban scale, combining different strategies. Desvigne wants intersecting layers of landscape design at different scales to accrue into a landscape-driven urban design.

These layers include large park systems like the Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston; new parks and recreational areas that bring back nature to the city; and tiny pocket parks that give a city “its porosity and comfort of daily use.”

The 10 case studies in the book feature master plans in France, the Middle East, and the U.S. that are realized through multiple scales — bigger parks and boulevards, and smaller parks, plazas, and green streets. Desvigne himself describes how the pieces cohere.

The first case explores his firm’s work in the Old Port and public spaces of Marseille, France. As part of a team with Foster + Partners, MDP created a framework plan for adding green public space to Marseille’s city center through multiple layers.

The plan envisioned a “chain of parks” to complement the remodeling of the port landscape, which was to be “uniformly mineral,” meaning without greenery. Desvigne explains that the space is “treated like a vast stone plateau, simple and homogeneous. Proposing vegetation here would have made no sense historically. It would have almost been a desecration!” Unfortunately, that means the space is blazing hot during the day time in summer.

A new landscape for the Old Port of Marseille removed parking and brought people up to the water. / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

Before, 75 percent of the quays were used for parking and just a third accessible to the public. The design team made the entire perimeter of the port open to the public.

New landscape brings visitors up close to maritime life in the Old Port of Marseille. / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser
New landscape at the Old Port of Marseille focuses on the “mineral nature” of stone. / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

Green spaces surrounding the port act as a counterpoint to the expansive stone quays. Further into the interior of the city, MDP created a plan for creating or revitalizing many small green spaces and boulevards.

Plan for Old port of Marseille and surrounding green spaces. The Old Port is at the center right of this image. / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

In another case, Desvigne explains his work in Lyon since 1999 with various partners, including urban designer Francois Gerther and architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. Over more than a decade, a succession of projects at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers transformed a peninsula. An abandoned industrial area, crisscrossed by railway tracks and once rife with prostitution and drug dealing, became a new green, livable urban district. MDP accrued green spaces by “progressively establishing ‘filaments’ of vegetation running toward the interior of the peninsula.” The peninsula became a “ramified park” — ramified meaning branched.

Ramified park elements green the inside of the the Lyon peninsula, found at the confluence of two rivers. / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

As described in the Bordeaux Rive Droite case, MDP also created green filaments extending from the City of Bordeaux into the Garonne riverfront. What is amazing though is that he persuaded the mayor, local policymakers, and developers to abandon their plans to urbanize riverfront land that had been set aside for development. Instead, some 50 hectares (123 acres) of land adjacent to the river was “delisted and made unbuildable,” so that those green fingers could terminate at a grand park.

Filaments of green space lead to a new riverfront park (at left) in the city of Bordeaux / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser
Scientific analysis on ecological succession was conducted in the new riverfront park in Bordeaux. The park also included a nursery to grow its own trees. / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

In Burgos, Spain, MDP partnered with Herzog & de Meuron again to create Bulevar del Ferrocarril, a new 9-kilometer (5.5 mile)-long urban boulevard where was once a railway. Abandoned railway infrastructure, including disused warehouses, marshalling yards, and other parcels, became the basis for new neighborhood development. These impactful before and after photos show the range of people-friendly transformations along the length of the project.

Before and after photos of the Bulevar del Ferrocarril / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

And, lastly, in a case that underscores the ambitious city-making scale of MDP’s work, we once again see how small and large green spaces form a new layer of green urban design. MDP created a series of urban parks along the coastline of Doha, the capital of Qatar, in the Middle East. There are striking landscapes around major new museums such as the National Museum, designed by Jean Nouvel, and Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei.

Desvigne’s landscape around the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

And in the Lusail marina district, the Emir of Qatar first wanted to MDP to design a prototype landscape at 600 meters (1,930 feet) long. Once the prototype was approved, the rest of seafront was developed in the same lush patterns.

Simplicity, Qatari-style in the Lusail maritime district / MDP, courtesy of Birkhäuser

The same sense of clarity as found in Desvigne’s other work can be seen here, but adapted to the landscape forms and native plant palette of Qatar.

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