Interview with Michel Farris, head gardener at Jardin Albert Kahn

Interview with Michel Farris, head gardener at Jardin Albert Kahn

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Philanthropist banker, Albert Kahn (1860-1940) invested most of his personal fortune in the service of peace and dialogue between cultures through the establishment of various foundations. His house and his four hectares of garden, located near the banks of the Seine at Boulogne-Billancourt, represent a poetic and lively synthesis that sensitizes walkers to the harmonious coexistence of diversity. It is here that Albert Kahn shaped his "garden of scenes", typical of the 19th century, maintained today by the chief gardener Michel Farris. The latter opened the doors to an extraordinary domain, which continues to surprise its visitors day after day with its soothing atmosphere, conducive to relaxation and reflection.

What was your background before your arrival at the Albert Kahn Garden?

I am from La Ciotat in the south of France, where I started my gardening activity in the 80s; I was in charge at that time of the landscaping of the city and the maintenance of the roads. In 1986, I was transferred at my request to the Hauts de Seine department, where I discovered the Albert Kahn Garden for the first time. When I arrived, the site had four employees who took care of daily gardening. Despite a minimum maintenance, the domain already had a special atmosphere ... and I quickly fell in love with the place!

What does it look like today?

The garden remained as designed by Albert Kahn, with its multiple landscape scenes, evoking the 5 continents and harmony between peoples. Visitors first discover Asia, crossing the Japanese garden, then Europe with its French garden, its English garden and the Vosges forest. America and Africa are evoked through the Atlas cedars and the Colorado spruces, which make up the blue forest and the golden forest. The walk ends with the greenhouse and its lush plants, which represent Oceania. Central point of the domain, the French garden stretches out opposite this large greenhouse, completed by an orchard and a rose garden.

You have undertaken a long renovation work since your arrival ...

Indeed, the site was vast! The various landscape scenes already existed when I took office, but the whole park had to be brought back to life. I first became interested in the character of Albert Kahn in order to better understand the symbolism of his garden. The rehabilitation of outdoor spaces started in 1988 with the renovation of the contemporary Japanese garden. In 1990, we continued to refurbish the other scenes that we recreated as they were in Kahn's time. This high-precision work required the study of numerous archival documents and dozens of autochrome photos from his personal collection. Particular work was undertaken in the Vosges forest, very damaged by the storm of 1999. In general, we are constantly changing the different plots of the garden, at the rate of plant growth. The next project concerns the restoration of the Japanese village, which consists of two traditional houses on stilts and a tea pavilion: the dwellings will be dismantled, cleaned, treated and then reconstructed identically. We will then work on the outskirts of the estate, some of which must be completely re-vegetated.

What are the maintenance constraints of such a garden?

The major difficulty in working with this type of garden is linked to its small surface… It is impossible for us to get large mechanical machines into the grounds of the estate, so we have to do all the work by hand. We make sure to adapt this "old-fashioned" garden to today's world, while respecting the original concept: it must be secure for children and accessible to people with reduced mobility. And despite its historical past, we do not forget that it is a living space, brought to evolve with the seasons.

You were very interested in Japanese gardens… How did you learn to master their layout and maintenance?

When I started working in the Albert Kahn space, I didn't know much about the art of Japanese gardens ... So I went to live in Japan for 3 months shortly after the inauguration of the Asian scene in 1990. This stay totally changed my vision of this country, and of the garden in general! I lived it as an initiatory journey, which allowed me to understand Japanese culture and its codes, but also the very advanced gardening techniques used by Japanese gardeners. Their outdoor spaces are a true reflection of spiritual life, places that invite to meditation ... Often small, they integrate the concept of emptiness and fullness which allows to evoke greatness. The symbolism there is of particular importance and allows you to imagine nature (waterfalls, mountains, rivers ...) in other forms! This immersion in traditional Japan has somehow changed my life… //