La Grande Motte - France's Modernist City


No, I didn't plan for the Deux Chevaux to pass by at that moment. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Since most people don't speak French (which is sort of a humble brag way of me saying I DO speak French, I guess), I'll go ahead and translate the name of this place straight away. La Grande Motte means "The Big Mound". Yes, the name chosen to represent France's most innovative and Modernist city is indeed "The Big Mound". I guess there's something kind of French about that. The name refers to sand dunes that were on the site before the city was established in 1958.

Big mound in the background on the left, mid 1950s.

Anyway, I'm already getting off topic and I haven't even started. Plus, I'm told nobody reads blogs these days (so 2007, right?) so people have probably already stopped reading and have either absent-mindedly started scrolling through the pictures, or have been distracted by the latest lip-synch and dance trend on TikTok. Damn... off topic again.

One of many pyramids you're about to see. But this is the only one with a bikini. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Okay, let's try this again... La Grande Motte is unique not just for France, but for the World. It's one of those rare cities that was created from scratch and was the holistic vision of a single architect. We're not just talking about planned cities in the way L'Enfant planned DC or Marion Mahoney and Walter Burley Griffin designed Canberra. Nope! Because let's be honest... those architects didn't actually design many (any?) of the actual buildings in those cities... just the city plans, for the most part... and even those have been compromised over time... So what I mean is that the architect designed every street and every building! Yes, even city utility buildings and service stations and everything!

The marina with more pyramids. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Only a few other cities like this come to mind, and they are more famous... Brasilia by Oscar Niemeyer and Chandigarh by Le Corbusier. (Oh, random trivia... did you know that the architect originally commissioned to design Chandigarh was Polish-American architect Maciej "Matthew" Nowicki? He died in a plane crash on his way to India in 1950 to visit the site. Le Corbusier was the consolation prize). Oops... off topic again. Sorry.

Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo in the 1964 film "L'Homme de Rio", which prominently features a still under-construction Brasilia, designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

Back to La Grande Motte, or LGM as the locals call it. This little town in the south of France was designed by an architect named Jean Balladur. That name may sound familiar to some. You may remember his politician cousin, Édouard Balladur, who served as Prime Minister of France during the early 90s. Cousin Jean was also well connected, politically, apparently, since he was hand-picked by President Charles de Gaulle to design LGM from scratch, and given a hefty budget to do so. I can't remember how much. I could look it up but I'm tired and sick with COVID and writing this stream-of-consciousness style so you'll just have to trust me that it was a lot.

Jean Balladur

Jean Balladur actually first studied philosophy and was a student of Jean-Paul Sartre, both at the Lycée Condorcet and for a few years afterwards. But he joined the Beaux-Arts school in Paris and got his architecture degree in the early 1950s. His first major commission came in 1958, when he designed a glass curtain-wall building called the "Caisse Centrale de Réassurance" along with Benjamin Lebeigle and Jean-Bernard Tostivint. It's still around today but I've never photographed it so here's a period view, instead.

This building still stands today, largely intact. It's located at 37, rue de la Victoire in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris. Balladur's son, Gilles, designed a restaurant and central heating for it in the 1980s.

La Grande Motte was part of de Gaulle's initiative to transform the southwest coast of France into a tourist destination. This was called "Projet Racine". This may seem strange to non-French people, who imagine the south of France as always being a tourist destination. And that is true of the eastern portion of the famed Riviera, which has been a favored destination of the moneyed classes since at least the mid-19th century, when the railroads made travel easier. But that really only applied to the eastern part of the southern Mediterranean (i.e. Monaco, Nice, Cannes, St. Tropez, etc.).


The southwest was relatively poor, with little industry, and relied mostly on wine production (but not the fancy stuff like Bordeaux and Burgundy... the wine from this region is more modest in price, meant for everyday consumption). But the wine industry had been gutted by phylloxera by the late 19th century, and the economy had never recovered... After WWII, the government was under pressure to find something economically viable for that region to do besides wine. So the "Projet Racine" was born - Create five tourist sites along the coast to encourage economic development by building ports, hotels, leisure activities, etc. La Grande Motte, situated on a sandy spit of land adjacent to the city of Montpellier, was one of those sites.

President de Gaulle giving a speech, representing his initiative with the Racine Project.

In keeping with the more democratic principles of the post-war period, these resorts would be focused on the middle classes. So unlike those famous fancy tourist destinations like Cannes and Nice, there would be no Grande Society palace style hotel where the moneyed classes use names of seasons as verbs (i.e. wintering or summering).

Grand seaside resorts in both Normandy and the French Riviera were favored by the bourgeois and aristocracy from the mid-1800s until about World War I. Their mystique is still present today in places such as Cannes, St. Tropez, and Monaco.

No, La Grande Motte would be a city-resort for the Common Man. A family destination. There would be lots of modest-sized apartments, parks, playgrounds, affordable restaurants, etc. In fact, even to this day, there are not a lot of what we would consider "luxury" apartments there, or fancy hotel suites. It's mostly studio and one-bedroom apartments and 2 star hotels.

Not exactly the Hôtel Negresco, is it? Photo ©Darren Bradley

The philosopher-architect Jean Balladur took this dream assignment seriously, of course. And for random, esoteric reasons that are probably only clear to him, he decided to reach into Mesoamerican history for inspiration: the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico. Ancient civilizations like the Mayans inspired Balladur. And the buildings often also have somewhat esoteric or mysterious names that evoke other exotic, fantastical or ancient civilizations, like Atlantis or Fiji.

The pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico.

Most of the buildings were done in pre-formed tilt-up concrete panels molded into geometric patterns. All of the buildings have different patterns and shapes, giving them unique identities. Even the pyramids in the city center are all a bit different.

You can definitely see the resemblance. Photo ©Darren Bradley

"The Incas" tower in the city centre. Photo ©Darren Bradley

These pyramids have a practical purpose, too. This place was essentially built on a giant sandbar. It was a desolate and windy place before the city was built. These buildings were intended to create barriers for that wind, and also to redirect it in ways that assisted the sailboats.

The Grand Pyramid is the tallest building in the city. Situated at the foot of the marina, it was designed with a curved structure that would channel the wind out to sea, helping the sailboats to leave port. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Here's a view of the other side. Note the interesting shade structures. This is the western elevation. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Same tower, as seen from the rear (north) elevation. Note the sculptural cap on the central chimney for the cooling vent. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Because Balladur was charged with designing every aspect of the city, it meant he also designed even the more mundane buildings that most people don't think much about, such as ventilation shafts and electricity substations.


There are several of these mini pyramids scattered throughout the city. I believe they electrical junction boxes and also provide access to other utilities under the city. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Electrical substation for the city. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Administrative building. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Yes, even the lifeguard station... Photo ©Darren Bradley

Neighborhoods


La Grande Motte is divided into five distinct districts. Point Zero (where it all started, but now fairly desolate), Centre Ville, Haute Plage (the single-family residential district), Couchant (low-lying apartments on the west, evoking the setting sun), and Petite Motte (quiet residential district with community housing).


Point Zéro

Development of the city first started here, with the creation of what would be the initial town hall, architecture and construction office, restaurant, and lodging. There is a large hotel here now, and a couple of restaurants, as well as an employment office in the old town hall. But otherwise, it feels almost abandoned.

Neglected, but still intact. It wouldn't take much to bring this back to its former glory. Photo ©Darren Bradley


Centre Ville

This is the center of the town, as you might guess. It's where most of the high-rise buildings are located - most - but not all - of them in the form of pyramids. It's a fairly bustling urban center, considering, and I was surprised by the presence of so much non-tourism activity and commerce. It felt like a real city, but just with cooler architecture.


City Center. Photo ©Darren Bradley

City Center. Photo ©Darren Bradley

More city centre. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Couchant (which means "setting" in French, as in "setting sun")

Balladur envisioned this district on the western side of the beach as a quieter neighborhood than the city center, with a more residential focus. Apartment buildings would be more low-lying, and horizontal. He saw this as the "feminine" part of the city, contrasting to the masculine "vertical" city center (is that the philosopher side of him?).

Example of "feminine" architecture in Couchant, La Grande Motte. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Another building in Couchant. Photo ©Darren Bradley

More curves in Couchant. Photo ©Darren Bradley


Haute Plage

Not really on the beach, actually, despite its name (although I guess technically it does have access at one point to a beach facing the internal waterway). This is the single-family home residential neighborhood, with mostly small bungalows. I never really visited this neighborhood so no photos for you.


Petite Motte

Not much going on out here. A cemetery and some low-lying, modest apartment buildings and a few offices. Nothing noteworthy to photograph so I didn't

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All of these neighborhoods are easily walkable. The entire city is actually designed to favor pedestrian traffic over automobiles - which was extraordinary considering it was built at a time when everyone was planning cities around cars. There are many shaded, tree-lined paths behind and between buildings, completely separated from the vehicular traffic.

One of the many tree-lined pedestrian walkways. Many were also lined with flowering hedges such as pink and white laurel. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Today, Jean Balladur gets all the credit (along with his son, Gilles, who collaborated with him from the late 70s onward). But during the 30+ years it took to build all this (the first buildings went up about 1960), he actually had a dedicated team of about 60 architects working for him, plus an army of draftsmen, engineers, and assistants. Try as I did, it was impossible to find the names of any of them, to attribute to individual projects.

Hôtel Mercure. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Landscape Architecture and Public Art


But while the building architecture IS really special, it wouldn't be what it is without the overall plan and landscape design. And I WAS able to find the landscape architect responsible for that: Pierre Pillet.

Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Fidji Tower in the background. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo ©Darren Bradley

The buildings themselves are works of art, and living sculptures, as Balladur referred to them (in fact, La Grande Motte's nickname is "The Sculptural City". But there is also lots of public art scattered around the place, by artists including Joséphine Chevry, Michèle Goalard, Albert Marchais.


Public art on the main avenue in front of the marina. Photo ©Darren Bradley

A very Noguchi-like playground structure. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Fountain in front of the city hall. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Detail from a building in the city centre. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The buildings as public art

When built, La Grande Motte was considered innovative and also scandalous. The purity of its Modernist design and the advanced building techniques were widely admired. Creating buildings with different patterned panels allowed for the buildings to feel unique while remaining largely the same to take advantage of economies of scale and techniques for construction crews. This is what led to the famous patterned facades of La Grande Motte...

Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo @Darren Bradley