The first time I ever heard or saw anything about La Grande Motte, France was in the April/May 2016 issue of a French magazine called Maisons Côté Sud. I was literally floored by the images and the idea that such a utopia of modern architecture was so close to home. Well, by close, I mean a seven hour drive…but I quickly realized that my plans to go camping would fit in perfectly for a trip to check it out. Located in the south of France, and just about an hour drive from where we were camping in Portiragnes. Bingo.
La Grande Motte is the brainchild of architect Jean Balladur. Astoundingly, there isn’t a Wikipedia page for him in English, so I’m providing a hyperlink in German. If you’re interested, copy & paste it into Google Translate and see what you get! There are some other sites with short bios available, but here is basically the deal:
Jean Balladur was born in Turkey in 1924. At some point he immigrated to France, and completed secondary school in the outskirts of Paris. Afterwards, he went on to study literature and philosophy at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, where he was a student of Jean-Paul Sartre. This was in the early forties, the middle of the Second World War, and he was likely forced to put a halt to his studies because of it. In 1945, after a short break, laden with a deep desire to contribute to rebuilding post-war France, he took a courageous change of course and began studying architecture.
Coinciding with the post-war changes was the modification of the French paid vacation laws (Congés annuels) which went from a mandatory 2 weeks up to 3 weeks in 1956, with a second modification in 1968 from 3 to 4 weeks (These days it’s 5 weeks – Read it and weep my dear American friends). The problem was that there wasn’t enough infrastructure ready for the population, and so there was the launch of a master plan to transform the mosquito infested, rugged coastal region of Languedoc-Roussillon into a beautiful paradise resort for the masses. And the perfect person for the job was visionary Jean Balladur.
Jean Balladur was greatly influenced and inspired by the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico, Brasilia by Oscar Niemeyer, and Chandigarh by Le Corbusier. In fact, the most prominent and symbolic building in town is called “La grande pyramide”, and the highest peak of the building is crowned with a symbol representing Quetzalcoatl‘s beak. All of the buildings have imaginative names such as Poseidon, Bali, Calypso, and Paradise of the sun (translated from French).
Although he was the mastermind, there were about 60 architects involved in the building and creation of the city. There were also various artists, namely sculptors such as Michèle Goalard, Albert Marchais, that helped to carve out stunning details all over town.
Another important choice they made at the time was to stay true to a mediterranean planting concept, instead of planting a bunch of palm trees for example. The result is that there are tons of beautiful cedar and plane trees that line the roadways, paths, and parks, functioning as perfect sunshade throughout town.
Also lavender, thyme, rosmary and rhododendron are sprinkled all over the place. The smells are divine, and the constant singing of cicadas in the south of France always me feel like I’m being granted some kind of trance meditation soundtrack for my trip courtesy of nature itself.
I found a great place to stay called La Plage hotel & spa, housed in a really cool building and right on the boardwalk. My room looked exactly like that which they advertise on their website, and the service was great. The bell boy even offered to wash my car for me despite the fact that it was completely covered in bird shit and slaughtered bugs by the time I got there. Big points for that one! He did get a good tip though :).
I only stayed one night in La Grande Motte and took full advantage of the beautiful weather and scenery by walking around exploring, snap-happy shooting pics like I hadn’t done since my trip to Cuba last year. I didn’t go to any shops, nor any restaurants outside of my hotel. In fact I was so pleased to be on my own after a whole week camping with my boyfriend & his family, that in the evening I just sat on my ocean view balcony after a long ballade around town, taking in all of the sounds and scents of the sea while eating cashews and polishing off a half-bottle of Rosé from the mini-bar. From what I saw along the boardwalk, the restaurants actually looked a little bit on the touristy-kitschy side, but if you’re really interested in the architecture, there’s probably nothing that will let you down in this beautiful beach resort.
What struck me as especially fascinating and extraordinary from the get-go, was the fact that so much of what was so imaginatively planned was able to come to realization. That an urban planning project could be so wonderfully playful and creative, bursting with visionary and symbolic details. And that now, more than 50 years later, the buildings and sculptures and infrastructure of the city are still in such good condition, and the theme of La Grande Motte has not been broken – it lives on.
I take my hat off to the creators and keepers of La Grande Motte. It is indeed an awe-inspiring concrete utopia by the sea, and I look forward to experience it all over again someday.
All photos (with the exception of the likeness of Jean Balladur) were taken by June Liechti-Adamson
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