Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Parc André Citröen: Loved & Loathed

A Paris park polarizes opinions. What say vous?


35-acres of controversy: Paris’s Parc Citröen

Photo: Mairie de Paris

So which is it?

Brilliant? “An exercise in post-modernist geometry.” Or abominable? “Barely more hospitable than the car factory it replaced.”

Our friends Corrie MacLaggan and Oliver Bernstein were in Paris not long ago and, being adventurous types, metroed out to visit one of the city’s newest and most debated public spaces: Parc André Citröen. It covers 35 acres along the Seine in the 15th arrondissement, on the same site where Citröen once built his bug-eyed cars. The factory closed in the 1970s and some twenty years later, after the auto plant was razed, Alain Provost and Gilles Clément won the competition to design a park here.

The description below—a rarity—idles calmly in neutral. It says that the Parc Citroen includes

“four themes (artifice, architecture, movement and nature) with an overall transition from urban to rural.” We can’t quite picture rurality in the 15th, but, to continue…“The use of water and clipped plants carry a distant echo of the French Baroque. A White Garden and a Black Garden are set into the urban fabric and lead on to the park’s central feature - a vast rectangular lawn sliced through by a diagonal path. Two glasshouse pavilions, separated by a pavement of dancing fountains, stand at the urban end of the lawn. The River Seine flows at the far end. One flank of the lawn is bounded by a monumental canal and the other by two sets of small gardens: the six Serial Gardens and a wild Garden in Movement.”

Okay, “dancing fountains” pirouettes toward praise. But it’s nothing like this encomium from two fervent urban planners at MIT.  Here is a clear case of park envy:

“If Boston were to adopt a park development approach for the Central Artery exemplified by Parc Citroen,” they write, “the required capital and leadership would dwarf anything so far considered.” We think that means “It ain’t gonna happen in Bean Town” but we trust that any park has dwarf potential. “Parc Citroen represents a level of design, construction finish, and maintenance that exceeds Boston standards. As Robert Campbell of the Globe has pointed out, Paris spends as much as eight times more per park than other French cities. Boston won’t do this. There are too many competing political constituencies whose influence exceeds that of public open space advocates. Also, Citroen—for better or for worse—represents high-concept triumphant over public participation. The American style of review that imposes constraints on the creative process has not yet reached Paris. Whatever else can be said, Citroen is not an example of lowest common denominator design.”

Vive l’autorite! Nothing like that grand modernist tradition of ignoring the local citizenry for achieving “best design” (whether architectural or genetic).

For a radically different assessment, check out the Project for Public Space. This group elects Parc Citroen to its “Hall of Shame.”  Why? The PPS jury says the park is “indifferent to users’ needs.” It finds the four themes “a series of fussy little design vignettes.” Further, the park, says PPS, “lack(s) even the most basic supporting amenities, such as seating or picnic tables” and did we forget to mention “the entrances, playgrounds, seating, and activity areas are complete failures” ?

Please DO look over the Hall of Shame, as a very lively discussion ensues. Many visitors protest, saying they consider it “a real jewel.” And, what seems to us a conclusive testimonial, in the park’s favor, one writes:  “Having spent many more days in Parc André Citroën than the five-time observers, I have to disagree. I’ve slept on the lawn, in the shade and in the sun, on both hot and cool days and used the steps and ramps of the jewel-box accesses to recline while reading or napping.”


Deep purple iris in the garden at Parc André Citröen, June 2007

Photo: Corrie MacLaggan and Oliver Bernstein

Corrie and Oliver appear to have maintained full consciousness during their visit, and their sense of equanimity as well. Corrie said nothing about “jewels” but did very much like the park’s gorgeous stand of deep purple iris. As do we!

To reach Parc André Citröen, take the Metro to Balard or Javel. Thank you, Corrie and Oliver.


Posted by Julie on 09/19 at 08:18 PM
Gardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Flower-Buddhas of Burma

A tradition of floral sculpture—and a livelihood—are dwindling among the Pa-O in Burma.


with inset of Lake Inle

Map: Shwe Inn Tha

What’s Buddha made of?

We refer not to Siddhartha Gautama or enlightened others but to the figurines long made, traded and devoutly offered in Burma (Myanmar).  Kyi Wai’s recent article describes how a floral craft of the Lake Inle region—the molding of dried flowers into statues of Buddha—is vanishing.

“Generations of craftsmen have been making the exquisite statuettes for centuries, molding them from the petals of dried flowers, mixed with powder, teak sawdust and resin. Figurines molded from the petals of flowers and donated to lakeside temples are invested with miraculous powers by the Pa-O, Shan and Intha people who live in the region.” Smaller statues also sell, of course, to travelers as souvenirs of this beautiful place

“The rising cost of the raw materials, particularly the teak sawdust and resin, and encroaching competition from manufacturers of cheap wooden and plastic Buddhas have brought the local handicraft business practically to a standstill,” Wai writes. According to one source, there are only two or three traditional flower-Buddha makers left. “Twenty years ago, a flourishing demand for the Buddhas kept at least a dozen craftsmen busy.” Some of these statues were larger than life, up to six feet tall.


Flower buddhas for sale at the Nam Pam Market along Lake Inle, Burma

Photo: The Irrawaddy

The problem doesn’t seem to be the cost of flowers (which are plentiful here) but the price of teak sawdust, which over the past two decades has risen from the US equivalent of 8 cents per bag to $2.30.

One wonders, too, whether changing religious observances in the area might also account for the decline. We’ve read that caves and temples surrounding the lake were once laden with Buddha figures. The Pindaya cave is said to contain thousands of statues of all sizes. Are there no longer so many pilgrims to this holy site? Or has their form of worship changed?

We’re grateful to learn of this fascinating craft from Burma, one of too many floral customs that appear to be fading in the face of industrialization, secularization and the high costs of living for many in the world. We hope to hear more from readers who live in Myanmar or are fortunate enough to travel to Inle Lake.



Posted by Julie on 09/17 at 04:22 PM
Art & MediaReligious RitualsTravelPermalink

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Corn Lily’s Black and White Magic

False hellebore, a mountain wildflower, has proven lethal, but scientists hope to harness its powers over cell development and use it to stop cancer.


Rocky Mountain Corn Lily (Veratrum californicum)

Photo: SW Colorado Wildflowers

The bane of sheep ranchers may lead to a breakthrough in oncology.

Veratrum californicum is a Rocky Mountain wildflower, variously known as the corn lily, false hellebore, and “skunk cabbage.” Several years ago, reports began appearing in the science journals that cyclopamine, a chemical compound in the corn lily, had shown some success in stopping “medulloblastoma cells, the most common brain cancer occurring in children,” from growing.

New research shows that this same compound may block the cell-signaling system of other brain cancers.

Cyclopamine seems to inhibit the so-called “Hedgehog gene” that directs cells to multiply. “Researchers have shown that radiotherapy fails to kill all cancer stem cells in glioblastoma” (brain tumors) “apparently because many of these cells can repair the DNA damage inflicted by radiation. The (Johns) Hopkins team suggests that blocking the Hedgehog pathway with cyclopamine kills these radiation-resistant cancer stem cells.” More than 10,000 people die of these brain tumors each year just in the U.S.

Thus far, the cyclopamine experiments have been conducted only on mice that have been implanted with human brain-cancer cells.


Image: wiki

Sheep ranchers have known for years about the power of Veratrum californicum. Ewes that ingest even small quantities of this plant during the 14th or 15th day of gestation have been known to give birth to deformed lambs. The terrible sign of corn lily poisoning is that offspring have only one eye (cyclopamine is named for the mythological one-eyed giant, Cyclops). The plant has posed a special problem for livestock in Southern Idaho and other parts of the Rockies, but more recently a lamb with this deformity appeared in Lublin, Wisconsin.

Rancher Jim Grajkowski said his sheep “had not been out west at any time, so they could not have been poisoned with the Corn Lily. The species most likely to have caused the damage was a close relative of Corn Lily, the False or White Hellebore (Veratrum viride), which ranges from New Brunswick and Quebec west to Minnesota, and southward as far as Maryland (but all the way to Georgia in the uplands) and in the Pacific Northwest.”

Cyclopamine, with its capacity to suppress the Hedgehog gene that signals cells to grow, is one powerful substance, capable of transforming “normal fetal and postnatal development, and, later in life, helping normal adult stem cells function and proliferate.” Quite a lot of voodoo for a Rocky Mountain wildflower.

The Johns Hopkins science team, led by Dr. Charles Eberhart, cautioned that the human brain research “is only in its early stages and there is much to be done before they can even begin to do testing with human subjects. They must first find out if it is possible for the drug to be delivered to the whole body safely and effectively or if it must only go into the brain. They must also see if there is any adverse effect on the healthy stem cells.”

Considering what this plant’s chemistry has done to sheep, we’d say so.


Students from Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory customarily parade

in “skunk cabbage” costumes on the 4th of July in Crested Butte, CO

Photo: mjcyrus

On the blithe (but still scientific) side, we’ve learned that the 4th of July celebration in Crested Butte, Colorado, includes a frolicsome Corn Lily custom. For the past twenty years, students of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory have dressed up in the big pleated leaves of False hellebore and paraded through town. Maybe they’ve been expecting huge things from Veratrum californicum all along (or maybe its leaves are just big and plentiful enough each summer around Crested Butte to cover a multitude of embarrassments).

Posted by Julie on 09/15 at 03:14 PM
MedicineScienceSecular CustomsPermalink

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Garden Going Since Before ‘Gardens For’

Revisiting nurseries and public gardens, John Levett catches sight of Henry James but still hasn’t found “The Pottering Garden.” If you have a map to it, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) in Cambridge, England.

imageAt Cambridge Botanical Gardens

Photo: John Levett

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Since when did the thought of going to a garden bring about palpitations of anticipation? Not recently? Not since the last time? Err…about 1984? Well, sometime around then. Or maybe it was just the last time when the arrival matched the picture in the head. Maybe I’ve had enough of gardens. Not gardening (although I start to flag this time of year). Just other people’s.

I was walking with a friend around Docwra’s Manor  just outside Cambridge last year and realised it was the walkin’ and the talkin’ that made it and the thought of ‘this is the sort of place you get cream teas with scones and clotted cream and homemade blackcurrant jam and sticky fingers and nuclear strength tea imported in wooden casks from the Empire’ (it wasn’t).

imageSimilar thing the year before. A friend was house-sitting for the Summer somewhere on the river near Hemingford Grey and would I fancy coming over for the evening and I did and it was The Manor where Lucy Boston had written the Green Knowe books. It was late evening and chilling up and friend’s dog went missing and so did I on the search and walking through the garden silence gave grounds for belief in the underworld.

So back to 1984, which had the best of times. And Ingwersen’s Nursery  down in Sussex. For reasons now lost I’d got a passion for alpines. Read the books, bought the troughs, got the greenhouse (Yes! I know it’s not the same as an alpine house but it could pass for one!), seed from the Caucasus and points east sown but I wanted Instant Alpine and Ingwersen’s looked like it had the pedigree.

It was early April, bright, frosty, dawn. I drove down the A1, cleared London passing a ‘Troops Out’ protest in Parliament Square (Ireland in those days) and ate breakfast of salmon sandwiches at Biggin Hill overlooking the Weald listening to Johnny Mathis singing ‘Stardust.’ It’s still that clear. Ingwersen’s wasn’t a let down. They had the troughs and the alpine houses and the stone outcrops and the miniscule flowers which looked just like the illustrations and a steam railway at the bottom of the garden. It only needed three children in buttoned-up costume and their mother gathering her skirt and an old gentlemanly gentleman and ‘They were not the railway children to begin with.’ The thing I can’t recall is how much I spent. Guilt and memory consorting.

From that moment that nursery came to be a special place. Mustn’t go there too often then. So I didn’t but when I did it was always the first Saturday in April and the start time and the route and the salmon sandwiches on Biggin Hill stayed the same. Going back to special places needs its routines and its history. Then going back’s past its time. My last visit reminded me of what I knew—place has to do with time and how we were then and who and what was in our life.

Kew Gardens  is like that for me, too. My mum, gran and me were always going to go to Kew for a day out but we never did. Gran died, then mum, by which time Kew had taken on myth. I got there in 1988 when life was spiritless and a friend called and said ‘Here’s a day out.’ We had lunch at The Old Rangoon near Hammersmith and thence to Kew but for my life then it was Hardy’s heath or Bronte’s moor at their most bleak. I arrived back there last year to see the new alpine house. Closed for repair, so I walked through the trees and sat by the Thames at Syon Reach, out of the crowd’s way, read and slept.

imageCambridge Botanical Gardens

Photo: John Levett

I had similar feelings last week. I had a morning when I wake up and think ‘I’m closer to death than I was ten years ago so why am I spending time doing this’ and then restructure my morning accordingly but fall off the plan at half-past-one and take the (metaphorical) dog for a walk. To Cambridge Botanical Gardens.  I’ve lived near botanical gardens (or ones that look like them) throughout my life and can see the Nineteenth Century point of them and they make sense in the current epoch when seen as places of work but I’ve never got much fun out of them. Which meant that I turned up there with a strop on. (Going places annoyed at the thought of being there is a part of me I should deal with.)

History first. Darwin learnt there and C.C. Hurst speculated there on the origin of the rose. Enough.

I got taken with incidentals—the age of one to whom a seat was dedicated (forty-four’s no age to die); the noise of grass cutting, tree felling and traffic on Trumpington Road; a cat stalking ducks; a group of day-trippers tripping from bed to bed; yet another alpine house under renovation. And gardening as an industry.

It wasn’t so many decades ago that I used to stop off at the Rose Society’s gardens in St. Albans on my way home from a day’s teaching, shattered and in need of head-space; hardly a soul around; seats and beds and acres of island. Standing-room only now. Last Thursday it touched me that I’d become a Larkin-like mitherer—the crowds and the prams; the intrusions of working days into one’s own day; the concessions to the current public taste. Maybe it was the acknowledgement of the current zeitgeist that we have to be gardening ‘for’ something—the Dry Garden (no watering required), the Fen Garden (repopulate the wetlands), the Winter Garden (no time off for good behaviour elsewhere in the year), the Fragrant Garden (now with wind chimes).

The Pottering Garden? I couldn’t see it. The one where you walk about clipping a bit, thumb-in a cutting, layer a trailer, scrape a space for some bulbs, shift this to there. I passed the ‘listers’, secretary-like with pen and pad, readying for the raid on garden-centre, website and Tesco. Clear the space, break the pot, heel in. Sorted ‘til the next generation. Like decorating a room.

Towards the end of the afternoon I walked out towards the far edges of the garden to where the staff were finishing off. There was a young lad there, maybe late teens, maybe an apprentice. I remembered leaving school in 1960 aged fifteen. There were three employment options open—metalwork, carpentry and gardening. It was still (just) the age of ‘a job for life’ and there were still lads who’d go into gardening, maybe in the municipal gardens, maybe on an estate, and stay there for the duration and into a pension. I wondered if this lad tidying up the beds of hardy geraniums, wiping off his tools, collecting the scattered pots would still be hoeing fifty years hence, not rushing but giving plants, and himself, time.

imageCambridge Botanical Gardens

Photo: John Levett

I was going through one of my periodic ‘Modern Times’ moments—remembrances of gardens strolled through by Barbara Pym characters and maiden aunts with grans. Then, for reasons unknown, thought of Henry James. James furnishing Lamb House in Rye; choosing plants for his walled garden as he chose furniture for his rooms; matching foliage to brick as he would tapestry to panelling. Then I thought of him arranging his papers and his pens, his shelves, his working ways with his views, his chairs with his fireplace, his comfort with his protection.

Then I thought ‘just like me’. The garden as comforter. I reflected on how I arrange my chairs around my garden; the morning site, the mid-morning-coffee site, the lunch-time-snack site. How the time must be ‘just so’ to catch the sun above the warehouse wall (no problem for James with that one!); the annoyance of next door’s children out early on Sunday (very Henry); saving the un-read article to partner the cake-treat from Fitzbillies (how to explain that, should he be seen?) My garden for me is the pair of slippers, the useful cardigan, gloves that fit, Marty’s recliner, Norm’s bar stool. Sometimes ‘the garden for the bone idle’; other times ‘the GWF Hegel garden’; in my mind’s eye ‘the John Cassavetes garden’ (think scripted but improvised); never ‘the Princess Diana bring your lame and sick garden’ (ten years and still no miracles?).

I walked towards the exit in late sun and met a couple sitting near the water garden; a daughter and her father who was working in the gardens at the outbreak of war in 1939. I thought of a conversation with him but thought better; he looked tired, or lost elsewhere. I left with a pleasantry and went looking for tea. I snuck something out and sat in the part of my plot known as the woodland garden—nine square metres underneath next door’s tree, next to my ferns and R.Davidii with its autumn heps. There was probably noise. No mithering.

Posted by Julie on 09/13 at 01:50 PM
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