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Mériadeck, the transformation of a Bordeaux neighbourhood

Mériadeck has been subject to some dramatic metamorphoses. Those of recent decades have been spectacular. But were the changes appropriate and suitable for purpose? Whatever the verdict, Mériadeck is a living experiment in urban planning that is definitely worth a trip to see.

The case of Mériadeck, in Bordeaux, is quite an unusual one: the entire neighbourhood was raised to the ground in 1971 and replaced by an architectural ensemble that, though intended to be innovative and groundbreaking, turned out to be somewhat utopian in the end. Over the space of just a few years, a site of around 75 acres underwent a complete change of use. Planted right in the middle of the city-centre’s middle-class neighbourhoods and with its badly maintained buildings and deprived population, it stood out like a sore thumb.

Residing on the outskirts of Mériadeck myself, though in a more privileged neighbourhood, I got to witness this transformation at first hand. As a young girl I would accompany my mother on bargain-hunting trips to its central square, where scrap dealers and rag-and-bone men would set out their wares. I used to fantasise about the bright, gleaming lights of the local bar “Chez Etienne”, though I never actually set foot in the place. The fact that my mother would even take me to this ill-reputed district, home to prostitutes and people who were not exactly on good terms with the law, was already a daring enough exploit in itself.

The neighbourhood was parcelled into separate lots by the Archbishop of Bordeaux Ferdinand Maximilen Mériadec de Rohan (1738-1813) in order to finance the construction of the nearby Palais Rohan, which today serves as Bordeaux’s town Hall. It was another occupant of Palais Rohan, Jacques Chaban Delmas (1915-2000), Mayor of Bordeaux (1947-1995), who was responsible for completely rebuilding Mériadeck in concrete using a raised walkway-based approach to urban planning, separating the pedestrians from the cars on the roadways below.

Mériadeck’s high-rise residential blocks are constructed in the shapes of crosses. The rest of the ensemble is made up of Mériadeck shopping centre, which opened in 1980 and is where I always do my food shopping, and the offices of various administrative departments, namely the Regional Council, the Departmental Council and Bordeaux Métropole (an intercommunal body serving the greater Bordeaux region). I have often visited Mériadeck and these buildings in the course of carrying out my work as a journalist. The neighbourhood is also home to a library, an ice skating rink and various hotels. Additionally, the former building of French savings bank Caisse d’Epargne can be found here. It was designed by the architect Edmond Lay and construction was completed in 1977.

I used to have an account at that branch of Caisse d’Epargne, which meant I was able to go inside the building. I particularly like its rounded forms and out-of-sync main structures, which remind me of a snail. When Caisse d’Epargne decided to relocate, there were some who wanted to see the building demolished. Fortunately, it has been officially listed as a historic building since 2014. But what will become of it in the future?

Of the former Mériadeck, all that still remains is the drinking fountain, which has now been reinstalled in a position in front of the fine art gallery. Though educational in terms of what it can teach us about the history of urban planning, the original concept behind the new Mériadeck neighbourhood is beginning to show its age. Did the graft take? Not entirely perhaps. When they need to get together, local politicians go to the restaurants located just on the outskirts of Mériadeck, such as the Vachetnous and the Bistrot du Sommelier, thus allowing them to get out from this world of concrete.

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