written by:
photos by:
March 23, 2009
Originally published in Before & After

Classical yet current, Bordeaux is a city that celebrates the details that comprise the whole. Architect Oliver Brochet guides our tour around the accessible tram system, the historic women, and of course, the wine.

The Water Mirror, a rectangle of half-inch-deep water created by landscape architects Claire and Michel Corajoud, expresses the modern face of a city known for its historic architecture.
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The Romanesque Église Sainte-Croix, constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries, was substantially renovated in the late 19th century, when its southern bell tower was added.
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The lightness and transparency of Richard Rogers’s 1998 law courts, in the city’s historic center, are meant to emphasize the openness of the French judicial system.
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The elegant Place Georges de Porto-Riche.
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The new Seeko’o Hotel, the world’s first building clad entirely in DuPont Corian.
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The functionalist Caserne des Pompiers, a 1954 firehouse by the architects Claude Ferret, Adrien Courtois, and Yves Salier.
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The city’s architectural masterwork, Victor Louis’s Grand-Théâtre, completed in 1780, is home to the city’s National Opera.
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The massive concrete Base Sous-Marine was built during World War II to house German submarines but has become a popular and singularly dramatic venue for exhibitions and performances.
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Brochet recommends the restaurant Le Bouchon Bordelais or both the cuisine and its view of “the oldest prostitutes in Bordeaux.”
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water mirror bordeaux france detour
The Water Mirror, a rectangle of half-inch-deep water created by landscape architects Claire and Michel Corajoud, expresses the modern face of a city known for its historic architecture.

The capital of the Aquitaine region is renowned for its architectural patri-mony: Half the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As I stroll the greatest-hits route, past Victor Louis’s 1780 masterwork Grand-Théâtre, the Gothic Cathédrale Saint-André, and the medieval Grosse Cloche; consider later achievements, from La Caserne des Pompiers, the city’s 1954 functionalist firehouse, to the new Seeko’o Hotel, an iceberglike volume clad entirely in white Corian; and laze in the public spaces, from the diminutive Place du Parlement to the massive Esplanade des Quinconces, refinement and elegance meet me at every scale.

Yet rather than feeling like a fossilized flaneur, I am surprisingly vitalized by the changes instituted by Bordeaux’s mayor, Alain Juppé, since his 1995 election. Major streets have been pedestrianized, leaving the city cleaner, quieter, and filled with moments of ripe human narrative. (The ripest: I step in what I think is merde de chien. It proves to be foie gras.) Juppé commissioned a surpassingly elegant 27-mile tram system, which has united the historic center and outlying districts into a single metropolis. And he’s overseen the renovation of the left bank of the Garonne River, removing most of the ghost town of empty industrial buildings and replacing it with a waterside esplanade.

“We have no Bilbao,” architect Olivier Brochet tells me when we meet. “Bordeaux is about little things, very well done, respectful of the urban context.” In thrall to the city’s classical physiognomy and leading-edge
urbanity, I can only think: Ça suffit.
 

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