Romance of History

Role: Landscape Architect 

Status: 2014 Harvard Graduate School of Design Option Studio

Location: Caen, France 

Romance of History is a project based in Caen, a small city in northern France. The city bore heavy destruction during World War II. By celebrating the reconstructing of the city post-war and rebuilding its image or modernity, the project aims to celebrate the city's history through the elements of the landscape. The goal is to create a cultural landscape (memorial) within a newly introduced natural landscape (urban forest), preserving the city's intangibles with productive sceneries. that will benefit the locals and attract visitors.

Caen is the capital of Northern Normandy, a city of 100,000 inhabitants. Today the city holds lofty architectural ambitions. The Caen Presque Ile, an industrial peninsula defined by canals and rivers, is in the midst of an urban massive transformation. The island is an extraordinary prototype that concentrates and miniaturizes an exceptional sampling of urban situations and diverse typologies of public space - esplanade, plaza, quay, courtyard, roads, gardens, and large meadows. There is a great potential for future development on this site.  

By examining the site context and its relationship with the city, I am extremely interested in the destruction and the reconstruction of the city during and after World War II. The city was in ruins after the war and it took 14 years for the city to be rebuilt to what it looks like today (1948 – 1962). I think the site is a great location to celebrate this significant part of Caen’s history. By using landscape elements in a modernist design language, I want to create a memorial on site, serving both as a reminiscence for the past and also a public space for the locals and tourists to enjoy.

Through the design of the site, I emphasized on 3 major design languages: the use of water, the strong geometry and the capturing of views. By using the New Library as a focal point and its complex geometry as an initiation point, the design framed views towards the waterfront on both the north and the west side. Two plazas with different characters are then being created, one urban sharing similarities with the library and the other pastoral, dedicated to productive landscapes.

The memorial is the centerpiece of the design. It is constructed of 14 consecutive successional pools rising from the lower south corner of the site to the far north. The pools are not connected and rise in height from the south side towards the city, with the water from the last pool cascading into the canal. This symbolizes the 14 years of reconstruction of the city. The lowest pool is -0.6m below ground and the highest is 0.6m above ground. Together they act as the of the edge of the plaza, softly transition and blend in with the orchard. 

 

The urban woods is also another important design feature. There are 3 canopy masses on-site, with the largest being the orchard. The apple orchard is planted on an 8mx8m grid, next to the library plaza with the memorial pool framing the N-S axis. It is covered with mixed meadow planting as groundcover with movable seating loosely placed underneath. The most west two rows of the orchard and the groundcover penetrate into the urban plaza creating a smoother transition.

 

The other two tree groves are framing the lawn plaza on the north side, planted with the Purple Leaved Plums on the west corner and Gingkos on the east. They are both created on the 6mx6m grid, with hardscape groundcovers creating a more urban atmosphere. The changes in hues of the leaves will bring seasonal interests to the city. On the eastern tip of the islands, an informal grass terrace frames of the harbor view, creating seating steps for people to enjoy sunrise and sunset.

Trees add immersive value to a city. By using harvestable plants in the site (apple, plum, and Gingko’s leaves for its tea), the site will be transformed into a productive urban forest, celebrating the agrarian transition in the area with species grown locally. We will not only benefit from the canopies but also their fruits and leaves which creates seasonal attractions and activates local communities. 

 

Lastly, many buildings will be taken down on site due to aging, and the demolished material will be broken into small slates or aggregates and reused as paving materials for urban plazas. 

 

I hope through these thoughtfully designed and curated spaces, history with its untold stories can be interpreted in a romantic and gentle manner, and people can feel a sense of belonging, that their memories can live on forever like the vigorous landscapes. 

 © 2023 by Wendy Yifei Wang.