Place des Droits de l’Homme, Evry, France
Rights of Man Square by Kathryn Gustafson
Kathryn Gustafson is an American, born in 1951 and raised in Yakima, Washington; she crossed the nation for her undergraduate education at the competitive Fashion Institute of Technology of New York and thereafter crossed the Atlantic to work in Paris. She turned to landscape design in France and graduated as a Landscape Architect from L’École nationale supérieure du paysage de Versailles in 1979. Gustafson understood her French audience. She is renowned for her studious interrogation of each space once assigned to her. Gustafson thoroughly knows the history, the popular use, the significance and symbolism of each setting ; such information is foundational in her approach to design. Gustafson won the competition for this Square in 1989; the 2.5 acres (1 hectare) granite pavement space is surrounded by a train station, national highway bordering the north, and the City Hall of Evry; Mario Botta’s Cathedral, another bordering structure, was installed 2 years after Gustafson’s square was completed. Underground spans a parking lot. The square is a suburban nexus between public transitional-transportation spaces, a civic building and a novel sacred space.
The French Constitution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was a document inspired by the Enlightenment during the French Revolution; this document’s publication immediately preceded the French Constitution’s and inspired Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Two drafts were completed on August 26, 1789 (223 years ago; Gustafson’s Evry square commission was for the bicentennial of Les Droits de l’Homme) and on June 24, 1793 (219 years ago). The Rights of Man are sacred; royalty is banned, so declares the people. Equality is a natural right of all French citizens.
Perhaps Gustafson synthesized the significance of the French version of Human Rights with the space, supporting her infusion and the importance of her design principles with understanding of the document and spirit of the proto-constitution. Relevant to a landscape architect, I imagine, is the eleventh tenant of the French Rights of Man: “Free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Consequently every citizen may speak, write, and print freely subject to responsibility for the abuse of such liberty in the cases determined by law.” Freedom of expression is a theme that Gustafson evokes and encourages in this democratizing park. She welcomes overlapping perspectives by way of subtle grading and from perches places at various heights; Gustafson most sensorially evokes humanity’s freedom through her water features. We need water to survive. It is a basic requirement of life. Is Gustafson equating water—life—the potential for the consequential activity water provides, with the rights of man, with the expression of ideas, with the freedom to express, export, be expedient or slow, to play as children, to remain serious as adults tend to do? Gustafson’s equations, whatever they may be, are not linear. Gustafson does not set a Manichean x = y; she suggests and provides.
There are few designated paths in the Rights of Man Square. However, pathways over water are linear; once a visitor is on terra firma, anything goes. The right of man, woman and child is freedom to pave individual paths. The Rights of Man Square, this stone nexus provides a wellspring of distraction. People will traverse, will descend to parked car, will rush through their lunch breaks; however, Gustafson does not include goosefoot axes, does not allow for a crow’s flight. There are no orthogonal biases immediately connecting civic, religious and commercial space. In order to connect each of the exterior edifices, one must move through water, one must move around water, one must experience water. Water is the valley. There is a slight decline, a slight incline. Water is meant to reduce the tempo of the space.
… reflects the sky when resting horizontally; it essentially welcomes the vertical with a horizontality. Water breaks perception. Water is a mirror. Gustafson plays with this dynamic with her still Dragon/Ribbon Pool and Movement Pool.
… is vertical as a fountain jet; Gustafson has water shapeshift to wheat. The fountain jets evoke the site’s agricultural history. Gustafson asks us to come back to the land, if abstractly. The water, the sensually playful refreshment it provides also distracts us from the gravity of any memorial, any historical reference to a national document.
… is a lens that reflects and reverses space, transforms and refracts light; water has texture, changes texture; water has color, changes color. Water takes on colors of the environment.
… is transient, evolving, polar and stable. Gustafson installed and designed the fountains to fill empty space and to be absent during peak hours. More of a presence than an absence, more of an absence than a presence. Water is moving, malleable.
Water is distraction, an option to linger, to remain, to absorb the necessary nourishment of experience. To move. The right of man is the right to embody the self. Water is quintessentially abstract medium; it cannot easily be shaped but it can be guided, sprayed, siphoned. Water distracts visitors from the possibility of concentration on the appearance and potential symbolism of memorial.
Le Corbusier in his 1949 Modulor wrote: “The lines do no more than establish order and clarity on the level of geometrical equilibrium, achieving or claiming to achieve a veritable purification. The regulating lines do not bring in any poetic or lyrical ideas… they merely establish a balance.” The themes of balance, justice, scales, regulation, laws, order, constitution commune. Gustafson obeys geometrical rules; she follows a constitution and achieves a space of navigable openness. The resulting balance is for the people. The constitution is for the people. The grid of the pavers is geometric. The geometry recalls the constitution, the organization, the ordering, with the intent of balance for the people. For the rights of the people. The space is characterized by a peaceful openness which can be modified into a forum for play. There is axiality in the constitution of this space, and the water is the cooling focal point, the intentional distraction.
Space has existing slope which Gustafson divided into a “plinth,” subtle graded plane, leveled area and set of “site-scaled seat steps.”
Plage des Jets (Beach of Jets) allots the space to “be full when empty, empty when full.” At the center of the plaza, 153 recessed nozzles emit thin streams of water at varied heights, as tall grasses.
Dragon Pool is “reference line,” retaining wall, riverlike pool, plaza divider and balcony. Pool/basin walls are green granite, 15 centimeters (~6 inches) thick, 5 meters x 2 meters (16 feet x 6.5 feet).
Movement Pool: Narrow rectilinear stationary water feature invites visitors to wade in water.
Siège/Seat/Guard Rail: a sculptural, metal rail inviting observers to perch.
Seat Steps: Broadly stretched set of steps which serve also as seats rise from the north side of the space. Steps spread the width of the plaza.
The Grand Stair: connects to the parking lot below.
Materials: Minimal components. Stone, water, light. Plantings: Oak trees, still young in dividing axes.
Organization: Sight lines, physical (horizontal) movement, vertical movement of fountain streams, horizontal flow of canaled water, public interaction, double use of space for performance and observation, stage and viewing, perch and climb. The space is designed for freedom of expression.