The second chapter to Jean Balladur’s beachfront resort town La Grande-Motte.
The history of La Grande-Motte mirrors the tale of the Ugly Duckling. For a long time decried as a symbol of the degradation of the French coastline, the seaside resort has transitioned from being wittily labelled “la Grande Moche” (greatly unattractive) to “la Grande Mode” (greatly fashionable) in the space of 50 years.
The brainchild of French architect Jean Balladur is now regarded as a model of success, laying the foundations for a future that goes beyond summer holidays and puts to question the widely proclaimed failure of the ‘villes nouvelles’ (planned cities). French architect agency Leclercq Associés is continuing this success story by taking on the extension of the resort, encompassing an enlarged pedestrian seawall, an extended harbour with a promenade and new family accommodations.
In the early 60s, the French Languedoc coast was but an austere landscape of marshlands and vineyards, attracting only rich hunters and hungry mosquitoes. Holidaymakers preferred to hit the road and travel to the thriving Spanish Costa Brava. This summer exodus was unacceptable to famed General de Gaulle. Unwilling to stand by the wayside, he decided to take action and provide the French middle class with their very own summer holiday destinations. The government-led development of the holiday resort emerged from the same Colbertist and interven-tionist spirit of the fifth Republic on which the ambitious French business district ‘La Défense’ was built. Six seaside resorts, joined by a coastline motorway, were drawn onto the previously untouched coastal land of the Languedoc. Jean Balladur inherited la Grande-Motte, a location named after a hill of grapevines rising high above the surrounding landscape. The thick swamp area was drained and reforested with over 30,000 pine trees to stabilise the soil, making the dune the starting point of an architectural adventure that was driven by the vision to create a green pedestrian haven. As Jean Balladur put it back in the 1960s: “the survival of plant life goes hand in hand with the survival of man, doesn’t it? When man dreamt of an enchanting place, a heaven on earth, he didn’t place it within a sumptuous palace but within a garden”.
Balladur was dissuaded by the failures of megalomaniac architectural projects such as Versailles, Brasilia and Chandigarh and dismayed by the large complexes and soulless planned cities that prioritised motorised over pedestrian mobility. Instead he imagined an animated city – a city that grew in myths and legend, gradually making up for its lack of history. His vision was made to human scale and the shapes he drew were organic and sensual. In his eyes, “high rise parallel-piped blocks plant their walls perpendicularly into the ground. Their tall vertical lines and right angles violently and disdainfully stab both the ground and the sky.” Instead, he turned his attention to geometrical forms, designing pyramidal buildings, as these “pyramidal shapes raise the earth in a wave-like motion. They gently leave the horizontal ground through the movement of rising slopes before returning to earth through their counterparts. Their movements are very natural, like mounds, devoid of brutality”.
Balladur found inspiration in the great Aztec pyramidal structures erected some 2000 years ago in what today is Mexico City, which payed homage to the belt of inactive volcanoes that surrounded this site of former lakes and dried out marshes. Adopting the same geomorphic principles, Balladur assembled a concrete landscape that mimics the topography of the Cevennes. His pyramids are imbedded in the coastline to “comb the wind” and provide shelter to vegetation. The curvature of his buildings protect large private seawards-facing gardens while tracing the lines of a green resort, offering numerous pathways through pine, cypress, and tamarix trees.
La Grande-Motte is composed of two neighbourhoods: The Levant lies to the east, with its pyramidal and masculine features. The conch of Venus lies to the west, with curved low-lying architecture. These two famous neighbourhoods frame the town’s heart, the harbour and dockyard. “It is this hole in the landscape and its dockyard that we are transforming with the extension of the seawall and the harbour, as well as the construction of 500 large-scale accommodations to cater to the growing number of families permanently residing in the town” explains François Leclercq. “La Grande-Motte has become an integral and active part of the larger zone of Montpellier. People live and work here, yet the majority of the housing available was originally designed as studios fit to summer holiday makers. Suitable a accommodation was clearly missing for the new permanent residents. Additionally, in order to accommodate the ever-growing number of boats using the harbour, we are installing 400 new anchors."
Honouring Jean Balladur’s pedestrian and laidback vision for the town, François Leclerq’s architectural development features a promenade of 1,5km joining the beaches of Levant and Couchant through the new harbour. Named “Ball*ade”, a play on words combining the French word for promenade and Balladur’s name, its construction began with the extension of the seawall in 2019. Ultimately, “more space will be given to pedestrians and non-motorized transport, as well as to new plots of vegetation at the front of the sea facing buildings”, explains the urban architect.
Once the dockyard has been disassembled, the construction of a dozen buildings will begin with one masterful architectural stroke: a new hill will bring together both neighbourhoods, the masculine and the feminine. “This hill will not be made of one block like the existing Balladur buildings, but a grouping of a dozen buildings, each silhouette sculpted to follow the flow of the winds, the sunshine, and the views. Seen from the sea, this ensemble of buildings will converge into a soft, single three dimensional lens shape, bridging and connecting the two neighbourhoods”. This composition pays a tribute to the relationship between full and empty space, which was dear to Balladur. Reflecting on the subject, Balladur once advised not to “be misguided by the material that installs the thought of architecture within lived space. In reality, this material is neither cement, nor stone, nor steel, nor wood. It is just empty space. The fullness of material fulfils no other function than to render visible the body of empty space. Solid material plays the same role as the bandages worn by H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man: making visible the gesture of the invisible.” This large-scale project is envisioned to be completed within 10 years. François Leclercq concludes: “The building site is evidently fascinating for its scale, but also and foremost for the resident’s architectural culture. In La Grande-Motte no one wants to return to the Provençal style. People continue to imagine ways of how to best pursue Jean Balladur’s concrete work of art."
About Leclercq Associés
Leclercq Associés have been developing a transversal approach combining architecture, urbanism and landscape for over thirty years. Their projects, all of which are unique, encompass contextual analysis, formal design, a sense of uses, an original approach to materials, pleasure in construction, new itineraries in the city, and a reinvention of urban situations. Originality of approaches to construction, functional innovations, user comfort, and environmental design, have gained Leclercq Associés’ projects regular attention, they are published in the press, and have, on several occasions, been rewarded with regional and national prizes.