No joke Posted on September 29, 2010

A few summers ago I proposed a competition to find France’s funniest rond point. It was the early days of a gardening fashion that has done nothing but expand. It started with concrete planters of the most durable shrubs wasting valuable space in shopping streets. It flourished in more and more exotic concoctions of the most emphatic flowers anywhere the municipality could find to perch them, seizing on roundabouts as empty spaces where excesses of horticulture could be committed in the fullest public view with little likely retribution.

We soon had golfers, astronauts, vignerons, fishermen and of course cyclists and their habitats represented, often on a huge scale and in unmissable materials. This year a mélange of banana plants, tall blue grasses, cannas and camphor plants and every brilliant daisy have been in play – and of course a gazillion petunias. No street lamp, meanwhile, has been without its hanging basket. Today a ville fleurie, to gain even one star, must mortgage the mayor’s chain to splurge on flowers.

All this is harmless, summer-seasonal, gaudy, potentially comic, and fun. Not so a newer tendency: to let the spirit of horticultural gaiety invade the sobre rhythm of an avenue.

The Avenue de Champagne in Epernay was once described by Winston Churchill as France’s greatest address. For a mile or so it is lined with the rather comely factory buildings labelled Perrier Jouet, Pol Roger, Moet et Chandon….. their courtyards protected by gilded gates. Now, in the spirit of the times, the street has been dug up and relaid at half the width as an anti-motor measure. On either side is a broad strip of granite setts to prevent smooth walking, and in the setts, instead of an avenue, is a sort of linear arboretum ; an omnium gatherum of the most ill-assorted trees you can imagine : maples, cherries, ginkgos, pines, oaks, larches…. There is nothing so unsuitable for street planting that they haven’t popped one in. The effect, young, is simply demented, like a building put together with whatever materials came to hand. Long term, if it is allowed to remain, it will become more and more grotesque as the habits and proportions of the trees become more assertive and more different.

What does this tell us about public taste in the country that invented the allée and gave us majestic gardens in harmony with majestic buildings? Do they really have to relearn the lesson that repetition is the essence of harmonious planting ? An avenue works by repeating the form and scale of a perfectly-chosen tree without hesitation or deviation.

Twenty years ago Westminster City Council committed the same solecism, putting planters with such trees as birches and spruces along Pall Mall and St James’s Street. Public ridicule got rid of them within half a year. The trees of the Avenue de Champagne are not in planters, though, and where is the ridicule to undo this ignorant and tasteless folly ?

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