Geoff Noble joined the Urban Design Group for a three day visit to the French city.
Bordeaux is famed for the quantity and quality of its vineyards straddling the Garonne estuary and its tributaries. Less well known, perhaps, is the ancient city that grew from its wine exports and which reached its apogee in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with an outstanding ensemble of merchant houses, warehouses and public buildings. In recognition of this quality, UNESCO inscribed the centre of Bordeaux as a world heritage site in 2007.
Despite its charms the city experienced a steady decline since the Second World War. The city lost half its population over a period of 50 years, made worse by an exodus of the population from the centre to the suburbs. The historic heart was left under-used, unloved and decaying.
Since 1995 under the leadership of Mayor and former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, Bordeaux has strenuously sought to reverse this trend. Planners in the Direction Générale de l’Amenagement (DGA) are working on a long-term strategy under the banner of Bordeaux 2030 for the regeneration of the city. The transformation is already apparent.
The plan is based on a rejuvenated city centre and targeted investment in an arc of regeneration projects and including the former port and industrial lands on both sides of the River Gironde.
• providing an efficient public transport system, centred on a state of the art tram system running cable-free through the historic core
• investing in the public realm with new underground car parks, parks, high quality paving and fountains
• restoring the waterfront areas (the quais fronting the Gironde) and encouraging evening activity
• investing in the restoration of Bordeaux’s architectural heritage, including extensive stone cleaning and implementing the UNESCO World Heritage Site management plan
• reviving the fortunes of the run-down right bank
• giving priority to housing in the historic core and with high density housing elsewhere to concentrate activity
Unusually for a French city, the programme is being delivered through a number of public-private partnerships. One of the most ambitious projects is for the city’s Bassins a flôts – wet docks – to the north of the city centre, where a new urban quarter is being forged. Employment in the wine industry in the city has long been eclipsed by jobs in the defence industry but greater diversity is now being sought.
The new works have not been without controversy; the lofty pylons of a vital new bridge across the Garonne were considered by UNESCO to harm the setting of the World Heritage Site and had to be reshaped. There is continuing concern about tall buildings in this fundamentally low-rise city; the first height ordinances in Bordeaux were introduced by Louis XIV and even today the spires of the great medieval churches are the dominant features on the skyline.
The city has encouraged architectural debate. Richard Rogers’ law courts for the Ministry of Justice is a bold (and for some, strident) insertion in the townscape but most other recent work in the centre has been modest in scale and form. The 1970s deck access development at Meriadeck is being partially redeveloped and there is a keenness to learn from the mistakes of the past. An architecture centre is established in the city’s modern art museum and there is a well established Bienniale held over four days with a range of international participants.
Unquestionably Bordeaux has succeeded in arresting its decline and it is now one of France’s most prosperous cities. The challenge leading up to 2030 will be whether the city can keep the momentum and create a new architectural and planning legacy that is the equal of its eighteenth century forbears.
Geoff’s photographs from the Bordeaux visit can be viewed on Kent Architecture Centre’s Facebook page.
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