Guest Post: The Man who Reshaped Bordeaux

By William Barbosa

On October 29th 2014 the French landscape architect Michel Corajoud died. During his professional career, he aimed at reconnecting natural forms within the built environment, and he restructured the french landscape architecture. Because of that he was often considered as the co-founder of the new french urbanism. Corajoud was known for transforming many public spaces in Paris (For instance, the Jardin d'Eole  and Saint-Paul’s quarter), however one of his biggest successes is the way he reshaped the city of Bordeaux (south-western France).

Since the 1990s, Bordeaux has been experiencing heavy and deep urban transformations, with the help of Michel Corajoud. Nowadays, according to a survey, Bordeaux is the most attractive city in France, and an appealing travel destinations for tourists.That makes it hard to imagine that the ‘World Capital of Wine’ was the most disgusting city in France twenty years ago.

In 1995, Bordeaux’s mayor, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, left the city disorganised and corrupted, after 48 years of uninterrupted reign (!). The city spread alarmingly, congested by car traffic jam. The facades of the empty city center were black-covered. The waterfront along the Garonne-river was dominated by industrial wastelands, and was the headquarters of illegal activity. The city declined in population. It was evident that Bordeaux missed the economic prosperity of the 1950s-1970s, and was called ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

A shift occurred in 1995, when a new major, Alain Juppé (also French Prime Minister at the same time), was elected. Alain Juppé, who still runs the city government, made a new city planning document that aimed at reorganising the city center. The document  aimed especially at regenerating the riverside, and Corajoud would eventually lead the project. In addition, three tramway lines were planned, as well as the cleaning and  reshaping of the city center.

The plan of Corajoud was to create a 4 kilometer long ‘green belt’ that followed the river. His main idea was to upgrade the 18th century buildings of the waterfront by introducing green areas. The first step was the destruction of the main parts of the wastelands (only a few remain today, located at the north side of the city), after that he created new designs for the parks. Corajoud thought a lot about the accessibility of these parks, resulting in environments with: open, good-connections to the tramway, and large and comfortable pathways along the river.

But the main element of Corajoud's project was the so-called Water Mirror (Miroir d'eau), designed to beautify Bordeaux's most famous and most beautiful square, the ‘Place de la Bourse’ (Stock-Exchange Square). The idea was to design a water area that reflects the 18th century square as well as the tramway. But the water is not still. Every twenty minutes, mist comes from the ground and covers the waterfront. This creates a mysterious and exciting public space.

The project was, however, highly criticized by the population. One asserted that this would become ‘a nest for mosquitoes’. Despite this criticism, work on the project started,and was completed in 2009. Today, the new riverside and the new Stock-Exchange Square are the symbols of Bordeaux, in France, as well as internationally. Tourists come to admire the water mirror that becomes  the city's swimming pool in summertime. The inhabitants rediscovered the ‘urban promenade’. The riverside became a real public space where uses are diverse. When I jog along the riverside, I often see other joggers, full café terrasses, friends meeting, inline skaters, bikers, children playing, photographers and artists... all in front of a unique urban environment protected by UNESCO.

There's no denying that Michel Corajoud contributed to the rebirth of Bordeaux, making the old ‘Sleeping Beauty’ an appealing and exciting place to live, for both the French and foreigners. although, sometimes I wonder what Corajoud's opinion would be on the current projects going on in Bordeaux. What what would he think about the new wine museum and the current dismantlement of the Harbour (Bassins à Flot) ? sometimes I wonder if the city government really learned from his projects. Nature shouldn't be against the city, as it should be a part of the built environment.