Grenoble University is situated between four mountain ranges through which the Isère flows. The violence of the water, the landslides and the width of the sky accentuate the sublimity of the landscape. The dramatic loss of biodiversity and the increased risk of flooding inspired the artist collective Observatorium and the landscape designers at Arpentère to design a river of life from the remains of a tarmac road.

According to Observatorium, the artistic highlight of the campus is a central square designed by architect C.O. Cacoub and landscape architect Hatashita, created in the 1960s. It’s a work of art in itself, allegorically reflecting the surrounding mountain ranges visible from the campus. Place du Torrent is the counterpart to Place Centrale. While the Place Centrale can be imagined as a site where rocks have fallen from the mountains, the Place du Torrent is reminiscent of the Isère and its bridges. Firmly rooted in the tradition of the campus that can be called a park (180 ha), the Place du Torrent is a garden-art work combining sculpture, architecture and landscaping. The garden art responds to the need for a generous place, a place for intimate and informal meetings for thousands of users.

Curator David Moinard, Atelier Delta, asked Observatorium to create a work of art on the occasion of the construction of a second central square that, along with restaurants, a theatre and a student association, was to become the social heart of campus life. The campus needed a square that was more welcoming.

The Avenue Centrale of the campus and the parking spaces were removed and the asphalt chunks were used to create a winding mountain river, the Torrent, planted with trees and bushes from the Alpine biotope. The green river is an elongated rockery that emphasizes the length of the torrent square. Of course there is plenty of room for a spontaneous biotope of grasses, herbs and flowers. In a few years’ time, the square and the sculpture will feel like a garden. Enhanced by simple means, the material forms a singular, almost mountainous topography; between the interstices that has been rendered waterproof, a variety of plants have been planted, free of any constraints.

A giant, openwork tree trunk that looked like it had fallen across the river. This actually happened at the spot. A large, fallen tree trunk caused the river to find a new course and made room for the campus. This little-known piece of history (or legend?) is ideal to fire the imagination about the untamed forces of the river that surrounds the campus on three sides. The poured concrete of the tree trunk links up with the architectural tradition of Grenoble, where poured concrete was invented. The tree is the focal point, linking the two banks in a playful way. It allows people to cross the river, creating a sense of curiosity. It is a poetic gesture that formalizes the connection between students, university staff and the site. River and tree trunk both offer many different ways of meeting, staging, sitting and observing.

The Covid-19 pandemic prevented the artists from attending the construction, but digital consultation and examples of Observatorium’s earlier use of asphalt chunks meant that the construction workers, led by Jean-Francois Vaillant, head of the preservation operation, were able to build the square under their own steam.

The title of the sculpture and garden Place du Torrent became the new name of the Avenue Centrale/ Place Diderot which now is not a road anymore, but the main square of the vast campus for meetings, demo’s, concerts and student life after courses.

The art and architecture of Observatorium is that of gardens: pavilions, bridges, pergolas, stairs, sculptures, gates and vantage points. Structures with an open character that give a site a face, lend atmosphere and make ideas or history visible, always as part of a larger whole. Is there a name for this? The Institut du Patrimoine Français, which falls under the Ministry of Culture, has catalogued French artistic heritage into several sections. Observatorium’s work is found in the Garden section, in the category ‘architecture associée avec jardins’.

Other landscape architecture offices involved in the design of landscape: Arpentère, Paris

Publicly accessible Location: Place du Torrent, Université Grenoble-Alpes, Saint Martin-D’Hères

Design year: 2020

Year Completed: 2022


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