Bordeaux - large and complex

26 May 2016

The Architects Company is a relatively modern City livery company; it is peripatetic which has the added advantage of accessing many of the magnificent Livery halls in the City of London. Peter Murray is the current Master and to mark this he organised a weekend visit to Bordeaux, a City of 700,000 people in the South West corner of France, known principally for its legendry Claret, but also a place that cradles some very fine architecture both old and new.

Alain Juppe first became the mayor of the city in 1995 and is still incumbent.  His legacy is engrained in what we see today, most of the old buildings have been cleaned exposing the beautiful pale cream limestone of the region, the wharves on the river front have been torn down and replaced with a broad sweeping riverside park, a tram system has been installed and the dockland redevelopment is well underway. The city centre is remarkably well preserved and the scale and material palette create a homogenous environment that is a delight to wander around. 

Bordeaux - large and complex
Bordeaux City Centre

There is plenty of good modern architecture as well, Foster, Rogers, Nouvel, Herzog de Meuron and Le Corbusier to mention a few. With the exception of Rogers’ Law Courts most of these works are outside the historic core.

Herzog de Meuron’s Stade Matmut Atlantique is a masterclass in economy of budget, thinking and detail. It is a beautifully executed stadium that, unlike most new stadia, has an understated air of calm. The building was not expensive and time was clearly spent making sure that the details were minimised, refined and delivered beautifully. The seated area is column free, the structure pushed to the circulation zones behind, giving the building its distinctive forest of columns, reminiscent of the pine trees that line the coast of the Landes region.  

Bordeaux - large and complex
Stade Matmut Atlantique

If that is a discrete metaphor, the same cannot be said for the Cité du Vin, about to open in the Bassins a Flot district to the north east of the town centre. 

Bordeaux - large and complex
La Cité du Vin

Designed by Parisians X-TU architects, it lacks all of the subtlety of metaphor and craft that the Stade Matmut Atlantique displays. The clumsy blobby form is metaphorically the swirl of wine in a glass, but up close it is poorly put together a mish mash of timber, glass and aluminium. 

The exhibition inside is very good, Casson Mann have excelled at making what is quite a “dry” topic interesting and interactive, not a museum for the purists, it is an entertaining way for novices or children to learn about the regions principle export. If the massing does not inspire, the top floor restaurant fails to deliver too. There is so much structure, four layers of façade, that the views out are almost non-existent.  The detailing is very much on display here, and it is best not to look too closely. 

At Châteaux Margaux the opposite is true, Fosters have delivered a beautifully crafted sequence of buildings and spaces that makes the process look effortless, as architects we know how hard that is to achieve. 

Bordeaux - large and complex
Fosters Châteaux Margaux

Rem Koolhaas’s Maison de Bordeaux is only 18 years old, yet it seems to hark back to an earlier era. A house that was built on a hilly semi rural site for a wheelchair bound client, the three levels are linked by a hydraulic floor that moves through the building, a clever idea that adds much needed volume to the layered section. It is structurally complex, creating a gravity defying concrete box for the bedrooms that hovers over the living area and deck. It lacks dexterity, and feels a bit overwrought, too many ideas at the expense of quality space. 

Bordeaux - large and complex
Rem Koolhaas’s Maison de Bordeaux

In contrast Le Corbusier’s 1926 project at Pessac is a surprising joy. Known as a modernist failure that was modified by its original tenants, pitched roofs were added, strip windows reduced, and cornicing installed, recent years have been far kinder. New owners have continued the work started by the local authority and most of the 51 dwellings have been stripped back, and restored to the original Polychromie colour scheme. It is now possible to see what it should have been. They are simple and well proportioned volumetrically clever houses that provide a calm backdrop to everyday life. It is interesting to note that the project was instigated after WWI, which devastated the rural communities of France, many of whom still lived in primitive agricultural dwellings. Le Corbusier used the mass production techniques that were honed on the battlefields of Flanders to make the new homes. 

Bordeaux - large and complex

A final visit to the Nazi submarine base in the docks of Bordeaux showed just how far concrete architecture developed in the next 20 years. The concrete walls and roofs are so dense and impenetrable that demolition is out of the question. It is an eerie place, imbued with its murky past, and soon to be converted to an arts centre, part of the large-scale redevelopment of the Bassins a Flot that is now underway.

Bordeaux - large and complex
Nazi Submarine Base