Sunday, 10 August 2008

green architecture montpelier style

evening has crept up; only the lights of the cafes and restaurants in the harbour and the lamps bobbing and swaying on neighbouring yachts break up the inkyness closing in. i have a brief wifi window so i'm jotting a few impressions down whilst they are still glowing, still vivid, excitable, jumbled and jostling for attention in my head....forgive me if they make little sense.

i'm aboard a tiny boat just outside montpelier in the heart of the languedoc. its the second week of my sojourn but its not my first visit - the region is fertile territory for the flaneur, the archaeologist, the explorer and investigator of the urban phenomena. here the city has survived it all - plague and pestilance, religion, heresy, invasion, inquisition, industrialisation, depression, rediscovery and tourism - its hide a carbuncled palimpsest of grand events and everyday lives.

the region is peppered with history with a capital h. cities like avignon, nimes, carcassonne, arles and albi reverberate with the clashes and cries of the cathars and the crusading church, the battle for hearts and minds in a bloody and relentless civil war, the rigours of the perfecti, the dictacts of popes, the flames and burning oils of orthodoxy versus heresy. the evidence is etched in the fortress cathedrals, the walled citadels, a legacy of fierce independence felt to this day, an isolation from the north and parisian influence that pervades in the dilapidated shutters and arrow slit, seige resistant battlements.

but this isn't the only side to the languedoc - more recently it has experimented with modern architecture, most noticably in nimes and montpelier, both cities that glory in their deep stratigraphy, their ancient and noisy narratives. nimes is of course famed for its venerable roman past with an amphitheatre, temple of diana and magificent aqueduct at its epicentre, whilst montpelier's medieval core and unique cathedral is undoubtedly its drawcard. but neither have been afraid to embrace and commission new architecture not without some controversy.

montpelier is infamous in the guide books for its themed new town, antigone, a sprawling urban development of planned administrative headquarters and new housing, pedestrianised and accessible by its integrated tramways and cycle routes, lush and green boulevards and river running through its middle. but its grand proportions and rather sterile neogeorgian pretensions make it inevitably rather risible in such close comparison to the 'centre historique' and i gave it little thought on my last visit.

however the urban gardening exhibition at urbis this summer alerted me to a couple of treasures lurking in the much derided antigone by the celebrated green architect edouard francois, so this week i hired a velo for the day in montpelier and cycled out in search of these vertical gardens, to see for myself his vision for urban living and the potential for the greening of the contemporary concrete jungle...

riding alongside the tram system, which has cleverly provided room for walking and cycling across 120 km of the city's neighbourhoods is a doddle, and a trick we missed when planning our own metro system. i wasnt really sure where the estate would be but i kept cycling around the vicinity until a curtain of trees and a flash of flowering shrubs and succulents high up amongst some roof tops made me suspicious. sure enough deep amidst this urban verdancy was a series of residencies not dissimiliar in size and scale to the old hulme crescents, but a world away in every other respect.

deck accessed and crescent shaped, perhaps seven stories high and enclosed within communal gardens, the blocks are literally camoflaged by the shrubs, trees and flowering plants emanating from every balcony. these balconies are the piece de resistence, designed as tree houses and wooden look outs. the walls themselves are giant boulders, netted and covered in vines and sprouting succulents, giving the impression that the whole apartment block has risen from the rocks, from nature, threatening to completely envelop it lord of the flies style...

i have taken many photos of this lush and generous vision of high rise living but until i am able to download them, here are a couple of sample snaps taken from the internet to give you an idea. the montpelier flats are now nearly 8 years old and are a riot of green and colour, a visual and olfactory treat!

'sprouting building’, montpellier, france (2000) exterior walls featuring rocks held in place by a stainless-steel net covered in plants.

‘tower flower’ paris, france, 1999, residential building disguised in bamboo trees

if like me you are intrigued by his ideas and designs and wish to know more, follow this link for a short interview and intriguing pictures of his most famous housing schemes -

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