Project: Versailles water grove
Louis Benech reimagined the original water theatre of the famous French palace
The history and symbolism of Versailles are so hugely significant to the French that even the man described as France’s greatest living garden designer found working on the site daunting. “To tell the truth, I was rather scared,” says Louis Benech, who won the competition to redesign ‘Le Bosquet du Théâtre D’eau’.
In this grove, Louis XIV once enjoyed al fresco performances of music and ballet, but it had more recently been used for parking and storage. “Normally I work to enhance what is already on site, but this part of André Le Nôtre’s design was destroyed a long time ago, so I had to create something that would fill this space with enough strength and drama to please visitors, without just copying the 17th century.” His creation reopened in 2015 to critical acclaim, and continues to be hugely popular with the public.
A way with water
The element of water was central. Le Nôtre conceived this bosquet as a ‘théâtre d’eau’, and Benech decided to create a ‘water theatre’ for the 21st century when he redesigned the area. “It has always been about drama. We know that in the time of King Louis XIV there was not enough water for all the fountains to run simultaneously, so when the king walked through this area each one would be switched on just before he arrived and switched off as soon as he passed by. When we were building, we found a little underground room where the gardeners would hide to operate the fountains. It truly was a theatre of water.”
Benech centred his own design around three strikingly minimalist reflective pools. “When they saw the drawings, my team teased me that it looked like some sort of screwdriver or spanner! In fact, I felt it was important to set up a strong left-right axis, so the water acted as a mirror as you entered the garden.”
Le Nôtre made heavy use of symbolism throughout Versailles. In this area he worked in multiples of three, including three cascades, nine jets and 18 fountains. “There is an obvious symbolic link to the Holy Trinity,” says Benech. “And this was a conceit I decided to observe as well.” For this reason, he specified 90 oak trees and 18 yews around the bosquet, plus an additional three yews to be planted exactly where Le Nôtre’s three fountains had originally stood.
Benech also echoed Le Nôtre’s playful manipulation of perspective. “Throughout Versailles, he created these genius tricks, playing with levels and proportions to encourage you to walk out into this vast site – sometimes making things seem closer than they really are, at other times hiding a feature completely until you nearly fall on to it. I too wanted to use optical illusions inherited from his work, such as the oval pool that appears to be circular when you come upon it.”
Childhood and playfulness were other recurring themes at Versailles. “Louis XIV was obsessed with children. I sought to echo this interest with the joyfully playful water feature, which I invited artist Jean-Michel Othoniel to create for the site.” The three-part work is a sinuous assemblage of gilded glass balls based on an obscure system of annotating choreographed dance moves, in reference to the ballets that were once staged in this garden.