Like many landscape designers today, I’m a big fan of using grasses of all kinds in the landscape. Whether tucked among other plants or grouped in large swaths, I love grasses’ simple grace and the magic they create when they sway in the wind or are backlit by the sun.
But I hadn’t thought much about the symbolic statement grasses can make until I visited the Pointe du Hoc Visitor Center on France’s rugged Normandy coast last month. As explained through a variety of interpretive exhibits in the Center, on June 6, 1944, a heroic group of U.S. Rangers scaled the 100-foot cliffs at the Pointe and seized German artillery pieces that could have been used to fire on American troops landing on nearby beaches. Despite plans that went awry and heavy German resistance, the Rangers remained resourceful and resilient, achieving their objective and playing a critical role in the Allied Forces’ D-Day operations.
The Visitor Center, designed by Nicolas Kelemen Architecture and opened to the public in March 2014, is a study in simplicity – a low, soft grey building that serves as a contemplative gateway to the broader site. The broader site has its own powerful simplicity: a matrix of paths winds through a windswept meadow pockmarked by bomb craters and the remains of concrete bunkers and barbed wire.
And perhaps simplest of all are the long strips of tall grasses that connect the Center to the site and help the building blend seamlessly into its surroundings:
I thought the grass strips served as a subtle and effective way of calming our minds and centering our thoughts as we entered the battlefield and walked to the Pointe. And I particularly loved the symbolism of planting grasses to help commemorate the many American soldiers from all walks of life who were part of the D-Day invasion.
The code names for the U.S. landing beaches – Omaha and Utah – conjure up the great American prairie with its vast grasslands. Like the D-Day American soldiers, prairie grasses are simple, humble and strong. They bend but don’t break. They can adapt to virtually any growing condition and survive in even the most adverse of environments.
By incorporating a variety of tall grasses into the plantings, Thalweg Paysage, the landscape architects for the Pointe du Hoc Visitor Center, drew a beautiful connection between the designed landscape and the courageous American soldiers who fought nearby. It’s a great example of just how moving a simple but deeply thoughtful landscape can be.
Photos of Pointe du Hoc Bunkers by Mark EdwardsTags: gardening with grasses ornamental grasses Pointe du Hoc Visitors Center