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The Sun King Also Rises in the 21st Century

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Admittedly, this might be a stretch of the imagination, but stay with me as I walk along this path. It is a meandering one, but there should be some benches along the way for a quick rest. Okay, here it goes.

Versailles is full of gardens, or you might say, one gigantic garden scaled for an equally large ego. You know…it's a king's thing to own lots of land. Did you know that the gardens had so many fountains that only the most opulent water features nearest to the palace would operate all the time? The water source could not comply with adequate pressure to activate all of them simultaneously. This is back in the day when fountains did not recirculate. Instead, they were all gravity fed with a series of valves to control operations, similar to a railway switch. Anyway, when the king decided to take a leisurely stroll, the gardeners were required to shut down other fountains to operate the one he blissfully passed. Out of his view, the fountain was shut down again so the next one could start, and so on. Rough life.

Already I am meandering; it is too early for a bench rest. Moving on.

To match the king’s ego, the gardens were designed with a two-fold intent (I am being simplistic here, otherwise we would need camping gear and sit for awhile). The first intent was to present the palace. A contemporary declared, “the eye is best satisfied by seeing the whole at once," meaning the palace should be free of unnecessary obstructions like those silly trees that can get the way. To further quote from The Oxford Companion to Gardens, “The Palace and its gardens were to be the visible symbol of Louis’s own conception of the role of the French monarchy.” It is easiest to understand its opulent scale by simply flying over it via Google Earth. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Now try to imagine walking its full breadth!

Which brings me to the second intent, to view the garden(s) from the palace. Parterres, vistas, bosquets, and of course, fountains, were situated primarily to be gazed upon from the comfort of a gilded room. In this way, the patterned landscape extended the indoors out to exaggerated measure. Besides, who would want to walk such distances? Only the little people for certain, which today is the modern tourist. No, if any strolls by the invited aristocracy were to occur, they would stay close to the palace and enjoy the tapestry about their feet.

Let’s turn to the right and look at the vista. Beautiful, isn’t it? Let’s keep going.

Indeed, there were several hands in the making of Versailles’ landscape, but primarily that of André Le Nôtre. He had worked on several other palace gardens, such as the grand parterre at Fontainebleau, so Le Nôtre had earned some street cred. To compliment the Versailles palace, he carved out extravagant parterres but also a grand canal and distant vistas. As discussed, the scale is massive, with a canal and grand vistas to represent unbridled opulence. It is this last point that changes everything moving forward, so let’s take this other path that will lead us to the United States.

Wait…what? I was just enjoying my visit to France…well, tough cookies, let’s hop the pond.

There was another Frenchmen who was deeply vested in the future development of United States by way of planning the layout of Washington D.C.. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, an urban designer who, dare I say, ingratiated himself upon George Washington and proposed the formal plan for the capitol and everything government. This is your other opportunity to take flight and look at Washington D.C. from the sky, where you will see the influence of Versailles complete with a canal (the Mall) and distant vistas. Even the Capitol sits high on a hill, much like the Château de Versailles. Yet Washington D.C. is not a garden but a vast city, you might observe. Good catch. Just as L’Enfant was deeply influenced by Versailles, so were the up and coming contemporary urban planners of the 19th and 20th centuries.

We must pick up the pace now…this garden path just became a grand boulevard. Hurry!

The United States presented a fabulous opportunity (which is a whole other treacherous hike I can’t unpack here) to expand in what appeared to be limitless space. To succeed meant taming the wild while showing the World (mostly Europeans) just how cosmopolitan we can be with our worldly tastes and fanciful architecture. Cities evolved, too, influenced by early urban planning for vistas and grand boulevards. We can see this when we visit San Francisco, where Market Street’s end is punctuated by the Ferry Building. Even the Worlds Fairs replicated grand promenades and formal gardens to highlight how far we salty Americans had come.

The Ferry Building is a great place to rest, because we’re closer to the point I want to make. Make sure you pick up some crazy awesome chocolate while your there.

The grandest of scale persists…what was once relegated to royal gardens has been reinterpreted as massive streets lined with equally large buildings. Every other owner wants a representative edifice while their architects and planners reinvigorate royal landscapes. And like the royal gardens, the streetscapes are meant to be seen from the high-rise office; walking these new streets is uncomfortable, taking time and energy with few places to rest. Public spaces might be simply defined by an ill placed bench.

Don’t sit there…it’s dirty.

People...the everyday users of public not need Versailles, they need modern, urban interpretations of Hameau de la Reine; the rustic and naturalistic small-scale gardens used as a retreat by Marie Antoinette. Never mind the players in this act, the gardens are beautiful, and provide space to linger, smell the roses if you will, and enjoy the scenery, tucked away from the hardcore formality of everything around it. Are you still with me?

Planners have lost something during massive development and redevelopment. Or maybe it was never there to lose if grand schemes and big ideas were always at the forefront of motivation. Sure, we have given New Urbanism a go, but all to often its ideas, such as front porches on new houses, are given the short plank and are unusable as their intended purpose: to holler a hello to neighbors, drink a lemonade, and past the time.

There are few grand canals left to build. With Californian cities putting the kibosh on outward expansion, the real challenges today are in redevelopment. Sure, there are still Sun Kings today and of recent past, but in city planning, there are everyday people to serve, which pay taxes by the way. Our future is not in uninhabited avenues, or as the (can we still call it new wave?) band Missing Persons reminded us, “nobody walks in LA.” The future urban landscape, if successful, will include more small-scale public spaces meant for, well, you know…people. Fortunately, new vocabulary such as green streets and complete streets are making their mark, modifying what was once dedicated to the automobile and turning the focus on safe, healthy, and pleasurable experiences for pedestrians and cyclists....coming to a city near you.

So, we’ve come to the end of this meandering path that started in France and ended lost on a street somewhere in California. The path has no end, and that works well for me. I am always curious to know what is around the next bend.

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