Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban, the great French military engineer of the seventeenth century is not a figure commonly associated with golf. But Vauban's innovative forts, designed to provide protection to the borders of France, have now provided the inspiration for a new course by France's most iconoclastic golf architect, Robert Berthet.
Berthet, whose other courses include Golf du Chateau de la Salle in Burgundy, where all the features are modelled after parts of a woman's body, has recently completed a new nine holes at the Dunkerque public golf course in the far north of France. The course, which has been built in stages since 1983, and is located on a former rubbish dump, is now a 27 hole facility.
"In the 1980s, Dunkerque was quite an economically disadvantaged area, and it wasn't easy to build a golf course there," says Berthet. "We built the first 18 holes in stages from 1983-1990 – the practice facility and three holes, then six more, then the second nine. Now we have been able to build another nine, because the rubbish dump closed in 1999. Close cooperation between French administrations, the city council, the company operating the dump and the architect allowed us to adapt the final dump's shaping to the golf course project."
A key part of the project related to the 30 year period of maintenance required on the dump after its closure.Waste liquid and gas networks were designed in order to permit this maintenance without interfering with the golf course landscape.
Berthet says that he came up with the concept of a Vauban-inspired golf course back in the 1980s, when he was first asked to build in Dunkirk – the town was the site of some of Vauban's most spectacular fortifications, and he worked there throughout his life.
"In 1984, I told myself 'Vauban worked a lot in this part of France'," he says. "And I made an analogy between the state of mind of golfers, and of military men. As we know, golfers are attacking greens, defended by bunkers, from which they explode. Their utmost target is a green, where a flag reminds us the banners of the old fortified castles.Many a golfer uses a Big Bertha, which before being a driver was a monstrous gun, employed to destroy Paris, during the first world war. So golfers use military terminology a great deal, so to design a golf course using the vocabulary of military vocabulary is only natural."
"When it came to build the new nine holes, I decided to take the military idea further," Berthet explains. "It was important to me that this should not be a gimmick, so I studied Vauban's fortifications in detail and travelled widely in France to see them." The result is a course with greens protected by bastions and fairways running along escarpments, with groups of trees planted in strict patterns, on elevated and geometrically contoured areas. Each of them is planted with one type of tree, such as maple, poplar or willow. "Standing on their elevated positions, those groups of trees look like battalions overlooking the battlefield," says Berthet.
At a strategic point he built an artillery tower and filled the moat, surrounding bastions with water. "I think Vauban would have approved of such a design and perhaps even prescribed golf lessons for soldiers' education!" says Berthet. "But obviously, the game of golf is strictly respected in the Dunkerque project – it is no gimmick."
But is it golf as golf should be? Shouldn't a golf course appear to be a natural landscape, not one that has been imposed on its environment? Berthet, controversially, says no, or at least not necessarily. "This site was a rubbish dump – it was not a natural landscape," he explains. "In my opinion a golf course is never totally natural. Even St Andrews has been shaped and developed over hundreds of years. Perhaps we cannot name the architects, but it has still been changed."
"That doesn't mean our landscaping shouldn't respect the environment," he continues. "But we must be brave enough to say 'It is not natural'. When we do golf course architecture, we should be proud of our ability to create an interesting landscape where it previously didn't exist. Besides, so much golf architecture shows a lack of imagination – thinking in these ways at least ensures originality.When I first come to a new site, it's like a new relationship. I have to discuss my ideas with the site as I might talk to new people. So I won't do another course like this, because there won't be another site like this."
This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.