Architectural Diplomacy - Palace of Versailles & Washington D.C.

Architectural Diplomacy - Palace of Versailles & Washington D.C.

Jordan Lachance, '16 (French and International Affairs)
Thursday, March 28, 2019

I had the incredible opportunity to travel to France as a Stanley A. Hamel fellow this year. My fellowship objectives included learning more about the role of French architecture in the urban planning and design of Washington, D.C., developing a deeper understanding of the diplomatic relationship between France and the United States, and identifying some of the cultural heritage preservation methods deemed most effective by professionals working in the field today.

While nearly all of the architectural works I observed in France bore at the very least some resemblance to D.C.’s landscape architecture, the similarities between the Gardens of Versailles in France and the National Mall in D.C. left the greatest and most lasting impression, due in large part to the relationship between Pierre l’Enfant -- President Washington’s appointed D.C. city planner -- and Andre Le Notre -- the landscape architect responsible for the design and edification of the Gardens of Versailles. L’Enfant’s incorporation of Le Notre’s landscape architectural style into the layout of the United States capital city was most palpable to me when I paid Versailles a visit. Perhaps more interesting than the original design similarities is how both outdoor spaces have grown and changed over time, independently of one other -- and yet, the likeness between the two prevails.

Modern day bird's eye views of Palace of Versailles (l., looking away from gardens) and the National Mall (r., looking upon the Mall)
Modern day bird's eye views of Palace of Versailles (l., looking away from gardens) and the National Mall (r., looking upon the Mall)

The Gardens of Versailles are actually located at the posterior of the Palace, whereas the National Mall extends anteriorly from the United States Capitol. In the above images, we see simple similarities between the diagonals Le Notre had such proclivity for, and those same diagonals mimicked with adoration and pragmatism by l’Enfant. It’s important to recognize that while Palace of Versailles was the official royal residence of France, its Gardens to be enjoyed solely by the royal family, l’Enfant ensured the Mall would be conveniently accessible to both the White House and the Capitol. The placement of the Gardens of Versailles underscored Le Notre’s loyalty to the French monarchy, while the placement of the Mall underscores l’Enfant’s loyalty to both the President and the very recently formed Congress. Both the cities of Versailles and Washington, D.C. have developed over the course of the past two centuries, populating the surrounding spaces with office buildings and suburban neighborhoods. The integrity of the original designs seems to be protected in both cases, despite the progressive and ongoing urbanization of each.

Aerial view of Versailles (l.) and the National Mall (r.)
Aerial view of Versailles (l.) and the National Mall (r.)

These images give the viewer a better idea of how the landscape designs of the Mall actually mirror those of the Gardens of Versailles. At the top center of the left photo, we have the Palace of Versailles; at the top center of the right photo, we have the U.S. Capitol. Respectively, the Gardens of Versailles and the National Mall extend forward from these buildings of national significance. While the Mall would further develop to include more details, monuments, gardens, and pathways than what we can see in this image, the foundational premise has endured decade after decade.

Place du Trocadero
Place du Trocadero

Though France and the United States at the time of l’Enfant’s appointment by President Washington did not yet have the longstanding diplomatic relationship that exists today, this gesture of trust on behalf of the President certainly served to strengthen the growing bond between the two nations, particularly considering the uneasy national political climate in play at the time.

Jordan Lachance in front of Les Deux Magots restaurant in France
Jordan Lachance in front of Les Deux Magots restaurant in France

My visit to the Paris chapter of the French Heritage Society (FHS) was just as fruitful as my travels to Le Notre’s architectural landscape works. The FHS -- which “intervenes to ensure that the treasures of our shared French architectural and cultural heritage survive to inspire future generations to build, dream and create” -- dedicates time and resources to restoring and protecting architectural works of historical significance. Structures once occupied but now uninhabited -- castles, for instance -- often receive grant funding, but the FHS allocates its resources to a variety of spaces both in France and in the United States. In meeting with staff, I learned most about the partnerships between the FHS and a number of locally- and regionally-focused organizations. These partnerships allow the FHS both to delegate on-the-ground preservation efforts to professionals with local and/or regional expertise, and to focus on educational initiatives that raise public awareness of the productivity and value of the Society’s efforts.

I’d like to thank both UNH and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation for this opportunity. Akin to the relationship between France and the United States, my curiosity endures!

Sources:

https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Notable-Graves/Prominent-Military-Figures/Pierre-Charles-LEnfant
https://tclf.org/pioneer/pierre-lenfant
http://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/great-characters/andre-notre

 

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