MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The gardens of Versailles are almost as famous as the palace itself and this year, France is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of Andre Le Notre, the gardener who designed them. His work was so influential, experts say it continues to have an impact on urban architecture. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Versailles has pulled out all the stops for one of its favorite sons. In the gardens, several fountains are being restored and an exhibit on Andre Le Notre runs through February 2014 inside the chateau.
BEATRIX SAULE: (Speaking foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: Versailles curator, Beatrix Saule, tells visitors about the man who left an indelible imprint on this palace and influenced the way outdoor space has been thought about ever since. Andre Le Notre was born in 1613 into a family of royal gardeners, but he would take the profession way beyond a trade, says Jacques Moulin.
Moulin is Versailles' gardener or architect today, the 30th since Le Nôtre.
JACQUES MOULIN: (Through interpreter) Le Notre transformed the profession of gardener into a high-level royal service and he turned his trade into a grand art. He became the interlocutor of kings and princes across Europe and built a huge art collection.
BEARDSLEY: Le Notre was 25 years old when Louis XIV was born. Despite the generation gap, the two men would work together to transform Versailles and Paris, where Le Notre designed the Champs-Élysées and the Tuileries Garden. Architect Georges Farhat helped put together Versailles' Le Notre exhibit.
GEORGES FARHAT: This was the time when, at an unprecedented scale, planning was addressed in royal and manorial domains. People were trying to address issues such as how to cope with long distances and extensive surfaces when you want to deliver a coherent spatial composition.
BEARDSLEY: To do that, Le Notre developed new solutions, such as anamorphosis and collimation, an optical principal that plays on relationships between levels, heights and distances. We'll let Farhat explain.
FARHAT: On a very flat terrain, such as what we have at Versailles, if you want to show something along a 3-km-long axis, you have to find optical solutions in order to compensate for the shortening of the different elements in the sequence. So the farther they will be, the larger and longer you will have to make them. But you need a rule for this. Anamorphosis and collimation is a very good device for this.
BEARDSLEY: Fahrat says the roots of modern urban planning can be found in the gardens of Versailles, with its avenues and allies radiating to infinity. To see Le Notre's genius for yourself, you can board a small train from the palace.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We will be making three stops.
BEARDSLEY: It makes stops deep within the grounds at the two mini palaces where French kings kept their mistresses. Versailles guide Pamela Grant says this was all marshland until Le Notre got hold of it.
PAMELA GRANT: He actually made a name for himself at a very famous chateau called Vaux le Vicomte. Louis XIV saw the magnificence, the clarity and the perspective there, and he said, I'm taking this old hunting lodge, Versailles, and I want you to beautify it.
BEARDSLEY: Our last stop is the Grand Canal. Here, Le Notre created it by pumping water from the Seine River for King Luis (unintelligible).
GRANT: There was a mini fleet of ships. It was his own navy. He wanted to show how powerful he was and it was almost like Disneyland. You could take a little ride.
BEARDSLEY: The final room of the Le Notre exhibit has examples of the 17th-century gardener's impact on modern architecture. There's a photo of the Washington, D.C. Mall and a model of New York's Sept. 11 memorial. Curator Beatrix Saule says architect, Peter Walker, was deeply influenced by Le Nôtre.
SAULE: (Speaking foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: Walker wrote about how haunted he was by the void evoked in Le Notre's waterfalls at the far end of the garden's grand axis at Vaux le Vicomte, she says. Saule says that void inspired Walker's waterfall memorial, emphasizing the void that used to be the twin towers. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.