Monday, June 8, 2015

In the Shoes of Le Nôtre

From The New Yorker:
The first time I saw the landscape architect Louis Benech (he prefers the word “gardener”) was on a cold, rainy evening at French Institute Alliance Française in New York more than a year ago. He was talking about his work in progress, the restoration of the Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau, or Water Theatre Grove, one of fifteen themed groves nestled in the forest park of the Château de Versailles, which André Le Nôtre laid out, together with Charles Le Brun and Pierre Lepautre, and a team of hydraulics experts, between 1671 and 1674, at the behest of Louis XIV. The king wanted a grove that would feature fountains and pools, be inviting to children, and also contain a stage and seating for dance performances. (Louis himself was an avid and by all accounts excellent dancer.) The grove was remodelled by Le Nôtre’s rival Jules Hardouin-Mansart after his death, and later dismantled completely by Louis XVI. It was further devastated by the winter storm of 1999, which saw the loss of three hundred and twenty-five trees. The grove had since lain dormant; it has now just opened to the public, daily and year-round.

Benech and his interlocutor, Paula Deitz, the garden historian and editor of The Hudson Review, were seated opposite one another, in tall black director’s chairs against a black backdrop. Dietz, clad entirely in exquisite shades of gray, resembled a bird in a wood at dusk. She said, “One of my first talks with Louis Benech was in 1991, on a walk in the Tuileries, shortly after he won the project to redesign the old part of the gardens, along with Pascal Cribier and François Roubaud. . . . Louis told me at the time that he thought of himself as wearing ‘the shoes’ of Le Nôtre. I’ve since read things that have been translated into English as ‘the footsteps,’ but I think the way you put it was much better.” Involuntarily, I glanced down at Benech’s shoes: exquisite tobacco-brown suède loafers, almost pantoufles, decorated with an explosion of pompons. It wasn’t all that much of a stretch to imagine Le Nôtre himself donning them at the end of a hard day. Benech wore them with purple socks, nondescript khakis, a navy blazer, a checked shirt, and some kind of tie. The shoes seemed to have nothing in common with the rest of him. (Read more.)

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