Allen S.Weiss

A hybrid space inaugurating modernity

Le jardin des Tuileries tracé par André Le Nôtre, et la perspective des Champs-Élysées,
A. Meyer, 1697.
© BnF

Allen S. Weiss is a Distinguished teacher at New York University, landscape theorist, and a specialist of Le Nôtre. In his book Mirrors of Infinity, he analyses how the « Jardins à la française » resulted from the new aesthetic and ethical dimensions taken by geometry in the 17th century. The Champs-Élysées, the royal gardens of Versailles, and those Vaux-le-Vicomte have in common wide central perspectives, traced by new mathematical and optical tools, thus emphasizing the royal power. However, Weiss explains that the Champs-Élysées is distinguished from these two other works by their form as a hybrid space, an extension of the urban open to the rural : the Champs-Élysées introduce modernity in a city that is still fundamentally medieval.

The Champs-Élysées emerged from a perspective traced by Le Nôtre, from a profoundly visual and spatial act on the territory. Do you nevertheless consider that it can only be understood from a philosophical standpoint?

We colloquially speak of le jardin à la française as the jardin cartésien, which is both description and metaphor. (This designation is truly unjust, for we owe this most famous of European garden forms to André Le Nôtre, but after all, it would be difficult to turn his name into an adjective.) If one had to describe such gardens in a word, it would be “geometrized:” in an epoch where the ideal was to reduce knowledge to modes of mathematics—the mathesis universalis of René Descartes—geometry took on new aesthetic and ethical dimensions. The geometry of such gardens featured lengthy straight axes in symmetrical formations, emphasis on the vanishing point at the horizon, a panoptic layout organized in conjunction with the architecture of the chateau, topiary trimmed in clear and distinct geometric forms, and a general monochromaticism so that the chromatic would not compete with the formal (not unlike the manner in which some architects feel that displaying art in a building distracts, or even detracts, from the architecture!) Such is an aestheticization of geometry, manifesting the tension between the complexities of the Baroque and the purities of the Classical, between the organic and the geometric, between the natural and the artificial.

As Le Nôtre left few writings concerning his projects, it is impossible to know at what moment and in what form the intuitions for his major inventions arose, but it is clear that his aesthetic was in great part the sublimation of both his daily environment and his course of studies. For he came from a family of gardeners, and his father was responsible for the Tuileries, where the family lived for some time, eventually purchasing a tract of land and constructing a house and gardens on what would become, under his son’s supervision, the Champs-Élysées. Thus the formal garden was André Le Nôtre’s first vision of the world, one that he would ultimately bring to aesthetic epiphany and national glory. 

Having studied gardening within the family, as well as math, painting, and architecture at the Louvre, André Le Nôtre received a formation which would permit him to combine art and science in the perfection of landscaping. We should remember that as the most humble vegetable garden is directly related to the peasant hut, so is the family manor to the adjacent park, and the Tuileries to the Louvre. The issue of scale is of the essence, and part of the genius of his first major creation, Vaux-le-Vicomte, was that it encompassed, but did not surpass, the limits of human perception. Le Nôtre’s spatial gesture was a function of his visual heritage.

It is amusing that the initial question of this interview ends with the phrase optique philosophique (“philosophical standpoint”), intended in the informal sense of manière philosophique (“philosophically”), though in fact one might take the phrase literally and remember how the art historian Erwin Panofsky, in La perspective comme forme symbolique (1927), showed how the optical forms embedded in linear perspective— developed in Quattrocento Italian painting, and key to the French formal garden—have innate theological and metaphysical implications, and thus truly constitute an optique philosophique, an optical system with philosophical overtones.


Beyond Le Nôtre, do you see the Champs-Élysées as en emblematic expression of the perspectival system that is employed in French formal gardens? 

From its origin in 1667, when Louis XIV charged Le Nôtre with the project of creating a road to connect the Palais des Tuileries and the Château de Versailles, the Champs-Élysées (thusly named in 1694) was related to Versailles both aesthetically and practically: it offered a vast perspective as seen from the Tuileries, on the scale of the gardens extending outward from the château of Versailles ; and it served as a Grand-Cours to link the Tuileries with the Domaine Royal de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and then beyond to Versailles. Since the Tuileries was a royal palace, the perspective formalized by this major axis represented, practically and formally, a royal vision, and was consequently emblematic and symbolic.

Linear perspective is a manner of seeing, of organizing, of representing, of creating. Within this system, every point of view has a vanishing point, the two points connected by a straight line of sight. A straight line on a flat plane is the shortest distance between two points; a straight road best serves its practical purpose; efficient garden plantings are generally done in straight lines; the rectification of an urban labyrinth by the use of grands boulevards (a project inaugurated at the time of Le Nôtre and epitomized by Baron Haussmann’s transformation of 19th century Paris) ameliorates transport, aids in crowd control, and symbolizes power. As such, the strong central axis within linear perspective functions as a potent symbol. Le Nôtre did not invent the central axis – which has existed as a sign of power from time immemorial—but inscribed it into a vast symbolic structure dedicated to the glorification of Le Roi-Soleil.

Paris depuis les hauteurs du village de Chaillot,
Jacques Rigaud, XVIIIe siècle.
© Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

How might Descartes’ Dioptrics and his treaty on The Passions of the Soul have influenced Le Nôtre’s work? Can the influences of the two men on each other be proven?

Descartes had little interest in aesthetics, which in any case has traditionally been at the bottom of the Western philosophical hierarchy, though we know from a couple of letters (1641) that he was aware of Le Nôtre’s work. As for Le Nôtre, his studies and social position placed him in the same milieu as Descartes, Mersenne, Gassendi and others who were at the forefront of contemporary philosophy, optics, mathematics, mechanics and art. For our concerns, the narrow historical question of direct influence is of less interest than the manner in which a certain common Zeitgeist, a particular configuration of knowledge and practice, informed and connected these figures.


What do the Champs-Élysées and Le Nôtre’s masterpieces such as Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte have in common?

In the French formal garden, the architecture of the chateau serves several purposes: it offers, as in a Renaissance painting, a window upon the world (the artificial, utopian world of the garden); it establishes a precise perspectival viewpoint upon the garden (transforming it into a sort of picture); and it determines the architectonic structure of which the garden is a prolongation (hence the geometrization of the garden). The result is a garden that appears like a painting, but one which one can actually enter, one that is thus full of surprises. Such is what may be called the “Le Nôtre” style.

That said, just as every painting bears a different message, and is even subtended by a different metaphysic, every garden has its own fundamental aesthetic and use-value. Vaux, in its brief existence as Fouquet’s domain, was dedicated to the extravagant pleasures of the extraordinarily rich, exemplified by the optical illusions experienced in traversing the garden, a phantasmatic space, inspired by Baroque Italian garden effects and experienced as a wondrous illusion, a magnificent frivolousness; Versailles, to the contrary, bore the solemnity of the divine power of the King, a symbolic space expressed by an extra-human scale and the valorization of the vanishing point at infinity, symbol of absolutism; the Champs-Élysées was something quite different, an open extension of the urban into the rural, a hybrid aesthetic and practical space, the inauguration of modernity in what was essentially still a medieval city; it was what we would today call a mixed-use area : a garden of sorts, but in an extended sense of the term.

Niveau équipé d'une lunette,
Sébastien Leclerc, Mesure de la terre,
Jean Picard, 1671. © BnF

The theoretical origins of modernity are often traced back to Descartes but do you believe that Le Nôtre’s work on the Champs-Élysées physically spatializes it?

Modernity has many origins in many places. One of the foremost, established by Descartes, Pascal, and others in the seventeenth century, is the mathematization of infinity. Until that moment, infinitude functioned as a predicate to describe the transcendent attributes of God, a sign of what exists beyond the limits of human understanding, a symbol of the incommensurability between the human and the divine.

However, with the invention of calculus, infinity took on radically different, mathematical and practical, functions. In order to avoid the ostensible heresy of such theorization, two regimes of infinitude (l’infini and l’indéfini—infinity and indefiniteness) were differentiated, the theological and the mathematical: an absolutely unknowable transcendence distinct from a totally calculable world. This bifurcation had aesthetic implications: as Panofsky showed in La perspective comme forme symbolique (1924) concerning painting, and as I argued in Miroirs de l’infini (1992) concerning gardens, the appearance of the vanishing point established a concrete manifestation of infinity, an infinity within the world, loaded with symbolic implications.

Consequently, concerning Le Nôtre—whether at Vaux, Versailles, or the Champs-Élysées—the use of linear perspective in the planning of his gardens created what has been called a “moral geometry” based upon the double meaning of infinity. The optical representation of infinity at the vanishing point, having been « captured » in the garden, took on symbolic connotations. (The procedure of the vue captée was created in 17th century France at the same moment, but independently of, the Chinese and Japanese creation of shakkei, the framed view, which was a manner of incorporating the view of a distant landscape into the garden by means of careful framing.) In this manner, the sublimity of nature, its transcendent qualities, and the theological realm itself, became part of the worldly beauty of gardens.

Thus in a figurative sense, the zero milestone of modernity is to be found precisely at infinity, as it was instantiated in several gardens in and around Paris during the 17th century. However, the belief that nature may be conquered and transcendence grasped might be deemed sheer hubris. For we have witnessed the destruction of the gardens of Versailles several times over, and today, literally, le kilomètre zéro—the zero milestone of all roads in France—is the parvis Notre Dame, upon which stands in ruin the great cathedral that inspired French faith for centuries.


Le Nôtre was criticized as working “against” nature and being an “enemy” of nature. Do you believe this makes sense? Does the rational mastery over nature proceed from a will to dominate or a will to understand?

We owe the thought of the garden against nature to the Duc de Saint-Simon’s famous quip about the gardens of Versailles, where the gesture of the gardener was to “force nature” (forcer la nature). What makes such a garden “Cartesian” is precisely the confluence of mathesis and technique—knowing and doing—which was a central ideal of the epoch. We have come to learn, through Nietzsche, Foucault, and others, that knowledge is always a form of power. That said, the garden must be thought of as a third nature, mediating wild nature and cultivated landscape, and the perfect garden is perhaps the one where la force de la nature is in equilibrium with the gesture of forcer la nature.

Mesure de la terre, gravure de Sébastien Leclerc,
Jean Picard, Paris, 1671. © BnF

Do you think the theatricalization that weaves together the expression of absolute power and that of technology on the Champs-Élysées is specific to Le Nôtre and this territory?

The prototype of the theatricalization of the landscape in France was Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, both sites of power and pleasure. (We should remember that under Louis XIII, Versailles was merely a hunting lodge, thus a realm of power and pleasure, though mostly void of theater, except those rituals associated with the hunt.)

Versailles under Louis XIV became a site of the most extraordinary festivities, the epitome of the spectacle of power, culminating in the great festivals Les Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée (1664), Le Grand Divertissement royal de Versailles (1668), and Les Divertissements de Versailles (1674), where landscape, architecture, poetry, theater, music, dance, ballet, waterworks, fireworks, cuisine and fashion were all coordinated—chronologically and spatially, dramatically and symbolically—into a total work of art. Indeed, the King saw the gardens themselves as a spectacle, having created three different itineraries, referred to as Manière de montrer les jardins de Versailles, as a formal guide. One anecdote about the role of technique in the theatricalization of power need suffice. In order to permit the many fountains in Versailles to function, that marvel of technology which was the “Machine de Marly” was created, a huge pump that supplied Versailles with water. However, the pressure was insufficient to allow all the fountains to function at once, thus when the King traversed one of his itineraries, scouts accompanied the courtly procession to signal the moment when the King and his courtiers passed by a given fountain: once out of sight, it was shut off and the fountains newly within the royal perspective were activated. To the contrary of such landscape theater, the Champs-Élysées constituted – despite certain formal similarities – a very different situation: an urban expansion rather than a pastoral utopia; an open space of transit rather than a closed world of ritual; a practical site of habitation and production rather than a symbolic domain of ritual and power.


Do you believe that the staging of science and technology carried out by Le Nôtre in his design of the Champs-Élysées has made a lasting impression of its DNA? 

During the reign of Louis XIV, the Princess Palatine remarked that there was not a single place in Versailles that had not been modified ten times: for decades the gardens were in perpetual transformation. This claim should remind us that the very name “Versailles” must reveal—though it all too often masks—a vast heterogeneity. When we speak of Versailles, precisely which Versailles are we referring to? That of Louis XIII? Louis XIV? The Regency? Louis XV? Louis XVI? Napoleon? Louis XVIII? Of moments of nineteenth century neglect, or of twentieth century reconstitutions? Of reconstructive projects, or of deconstructive critiques? The answer to this question affects every act of conservation and restoration, yet there are no unequivocal answers, precisely because history and temporality are of the essence. Versailles is a palimpsest, a hybrid entity. To state the case hyperbolically, we need only remember the extent to which flowers were hardly favored in the Versailles of Louis XIV, while they were adored in the Versailles of Marie-Antoinette, or that Louis XIV could hardly have dreamt of Le Hameau. The genius loci is always multiple.

The case of the Champs-Élysées is quite different. While the Versailles of today is fully recognizable as an amalgam of its entire history, the Champ-Élysées bears absolutely no resemblance to what was created by Le Nôtre. Versailles was and remains an aesthetico-political utopia; the Champ-Élysées has become the antithesis of a garden, a monstrous mutation of Le Nôtre’s vision, a dystopic urban landscape where the vanishing point reveals not the infinity that symbolizes a God and a King, but l’arche de la Défense, the symbol of a business district where power, style and technique are articulated by the endless flow of anonymous international capital.

To use the genetic metaphor of DNA is to allude to both selection and mutation, reproduction and hybridization, creation and ruination. It should be remembered that the inaugural event in the construction of Versailles was the spoliation of Le Nôtre’s first great creation, Vaux-le-Vicomte, immediately following the fall of Fouquet: one hundred trees from Fouquet’s park were uprooted and removed to the incipient royal gardens, a literal transplant of DNA. In 1999, I witnessed the destruction of Versailles by the cyclone that swept through France, transforming these gardens into a vast nature morte, a sort of vanitas: the aftermath resembled those strange paintings by Hubert Robert depicting the cutting down of trees during the winter of 1774–75. The work of conservation subsequently returned the gardens to an earlier state, effacing the effects of the natural trauma by reinstating the effects of the artificial trauma of forcer la nature, first effected by Le Nôtre. Time was reversed, history stilled, nature contained, forms returned to the rule of timeless Cartesian geometry. In an article entitled “Obituary for the Trees of Versailles” (Architecture New York, 2000), I argued that the formal garden should bear vestiges of its sedimented history and that traces of time, history and destruction must be maintained. I would argue much same for the future of the Champs-Élysées.


This article was initially published in Champs-Élysées : Histoire & Perspectives, co-edited with le Pavillon de l'Arsenal, in February 2020.