Royal Gardener Planted The Seed Of Urban Planning At Versailles

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France's Chateau of Versailles has pulled out all the stops for one of its favorite sons, gardener Andre Le Notre, who designed the palace's famous gardens. This year, to mark the 400th anniversary of Le Notre's birth, several of the garden's fountains are being restored and the chateau is hosting an exhibit on his life through February 2014.

Experts say Le Notre's work was so groundbreaking, it continues to influence contemporary urban architecture.

'The Interlocutor Of Kings'

Andre Le Notre was born in 1613 into a family of royal gardeners, but he would take the profession way beyond a trade. That's according to Jacques Moulin, Versailles' current gardener — or architect — the 30th since Le Notre.

"Le Notre transformed the profession of gardener into a high-level royal service and turned his trade into a grand art," Moulin says. "He became the interlocutor of kings and princes across Europe and built a huge art collection."

Le Notre was 25 years old when Louis XIV was born. Despite the generation gap, the two men worked together to transform Versailles and Paris, where Le Notre designed the Champs-Elysees and the Tuileries Garden. Architect Georges Farhat helped put together Versailles' Le Notre exhibit.

"This was the time when, at an unprecedented scale, planning was addressed in royal and manorial domains," Farhat says. "People were trying to address issues such as how to cope with long distances and extensive surfaces when you want to deliver a coherent spatial composition."

To do that, Le Notre developed new solutions, such as anamorphosis and collimation, an optical principle that plays on relationships between levels, heights and distances.

"On a very flat terrain, such as what we have at Versailles, if you want to show something along a 3-kilometer-long axis, you have to find optical solutions in order to compensate for the shortening of all the different elements in the sequence," Farhat says. "So the farther they will be, the larger and longer you will have to make them. But you need a rule for this. Anamorphosis and collimation is a very good device for this."

From Marshland To 'Disneyland'

Fahrat says the roots of modern urban planning can be found in the gardens of Versailles, with its avenues and allies radiating to infinity.

To see Le Notre's genius for yourself, you can board a small train at the palace. It makes stops deep within the grounds at the two minipalaces where French kings kept their mistresses. Versailles guide Pamela Grant says this was all marshland until Le Notre got hold of it.

"He actually made a name for himself at a very famous chateau called Vaux le Vicomte," she says. "Louis XIV saw the magnificence, the clarity and the perspective there, and he said, 'I'm taking this old hunting lodge' — Versailles — 'and I want you to beautify it.' "

The last stop is the Grand Canal. Le Notre created it by pumping water from the Seine River.

"There was a minifleet of ships," Grant says. "It was [Louis XIV's] own navy. He wanted to show how powerful he was and it was almost like Disneyland. You could take a little ride."

A Lasting Influence

The final room of the Le Notre exhibit has examples of the 17th century gardener's impact on modern architecture. There are a photo of the Mall in Washington, D.C., and a model of New York's Sept. 11 memorial. Curator Beatrix Saule says the memorial's architect, Peter Walker, was deeply influenced by Le Notre.

She says Walker wrote about how haunted he was by the void evoked in Le Notre's waterfalls at the far end of the Vaux le Vicomte gardens' grand axis. Saule says that void inspired Walker's waterfall memorial, emphasizing the void that used to be the twin towers.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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