The whole life cost of a Citroën (or why to think twice about water features)

In a recent trip to Paris, I made a point of visiting Parc André Citroën to the western side of the city. Wikipedia describes this succinctly as “… a 14 hectares (35 acres) public park located on the left bank of the river Seine in the XVe arrondissement (district) of Paris.” It was designed and built in the early 1990s by Landscape Architect Giles Clément and Architect Alain Provost on the site of a former Citroën automobile manufacturing plant, and is named after company founder André Citroën.

The design is daring and the scale breath-taking. The central lawn alone is 275m long by 85m wide and refreshingly there are no restrictions on games (unlike most Paris parks). The design is a very strongly structured. Two vast pavilions overlook the park from the south east end. Between these is a paved terrace with a field of water spouts in which children splash around (similar to those at Somerset House and elsewhere). The central lawn is effectively sunk below the surrounding ground.


The upper level canal as it was when the park was first opened...

On the south-west side it is flanked at the higher level by a canal, punctuated by at regular intervals by monolithic stone pavilions, alternatively housing staircases and cascades. On the other are colossal blocks of pruned hornbeam backed by a raised walkway. It is cut beneath by routes through to a series of secret gardens and also by enormous water chutes echoing the cascades on the other side of the lawn. Or it would be. Because sadly, most of the water features no longer function. The monumental canal on

…And the canal as it is now.

 the south west side lies forlornly empty, with nothing but a ruckled butyl liner to remind you that it was a water feature, along with a slightly ironic sign in French saying ‘for your safety, please do not enter the basin’ fixed to the concrete upstand in place of a missing coping stone. None of the water chutes on the other side function either, although the field of water jets still delights the children. The basic maintenance – grass cutting, pruning etc. has been carried out carefully. However, there is little evidence of ‘gardening’ in the half dozen or so themed gardens and whenever something breaks or fails, there is either no will or resources to replace it. The net result is a gradual decline in the park.

This is hardly an unfamiliar story to English ears. We have countless public parks and open spaces that have suffered the same fate. What interests me about Parc Citroën though, is how much of a part the original design (and perhaps more interestingly the commissioning process) played in its eventual decline. An article in the Boston Herald had a very good line on this. It said that “Citroën — for better or for worse — represents high-concept triumphant over public participation.” The article postulated that a project such as this could never have happened in Boston (and by extension I would say in the UK). The combination of vision, funding and single-minded project management meant the French Government was able to drive this project through with great speed and force. The piece went on to point out that there were good and bad sides to this. Interestingly, it was written shortly after the park’s opening, but the central point becomes even more strongly reinforced as time passes.

The design relies heavily on vast water features for much of its impact and structure. As landscape professionals, we all know what the implications in maintenance terms are for such features. How could the designers be sure that the funds would always be there to maintain and refurbish these features? The running costs alone are significant, but when the annualised costs of pump replacement, relining, etc. are taken into account, the bill becomes pretty much unsustainable in the longer term. Parc Citroën remains a great achievement and an exciting space. It is a reminder of what can be achieved by single minded vision. But clearly there is another lesson here. Perhaps we should all take more care to consider both the cash and skill resources that are likely to be (realistically) available for the future maintenance and management of a project before we let our imaginations (or should that be our egos) run wild.

6 responses on “The whole life cost of a Citroën (or why to think twice about water features)

  1. Wayne

    I had the pleasure of my late father telling me of his visit to the Citroen factory many years ago as we ran 2 Citroen dealerships,
    As a factory is was fascinating that in the middle of one of the largest cities in Europe there was a car manufacturing plant.
    The thing that sticks in my memory most was a metal boot which was used to kick the front bonnets of all 2cvs so the catch would line up!
    When the original owner of the boot died they replicated his kicking motion!

    I now own a company that utilizes car tyres to make porous paving!

    1. John Wyer Post author

      That’s fascinating Wayne, thanks for sharing your memories. I think it is interesting that two of the huge plots of land to come available in inner Paris in the last twenty years have been turned into parks. I cannot imagine the same happening in London. The land would be too ‘valuable’. I suppose it is all a case of how value is measured…

  2. John Davies

    I don’t know if they fixed it for the Olympics but there have been comparable issues at the Thames Barrier Park, designed by the same team of landscape architects I believe? There is a water field there and I used to take my children there in the summer to cool off. Only the last few times we went the water fountains were never working. On inquiring, I was told that the issue wasn’t cost of maintenance but theft of expensive pumping gear. Perhaps a particularly easy target due to proximity to the main road? I was also told that there hadn’t ever been a proper budget for maintenance. It’s a fantastic piece of landscape architecture but walking around, I’ve always felt that whoever has been charged with maintaining the space has been overstretched. Have you been there recently? Perhaps they pulled all the stops out for the Olympics – I certainly hope so as it’s a piece of work that has inspired since discovery while at college.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Hi John. Alain Provost was certainly involved heavily in both projects; I am not sure whether Giles Clement had any involvement in the Thames Barrier Park, I think probably not. Although from what I understand, much of the structure of the design (including the water features) at Parc Citroen we designed by Provost. I have not been to the TBP recently – sounds like I need to make another visit! I am delivering a paper on ‘A designer’s view of maintenance’ at the Society of Garden Designers Spring Conference in April at Imperial College, London. I think that the Barrier Park may find its way in there, so thanks for that!

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