La Grande Motte Revisited

I first saw La Grande Motte in the summer of 1978, more than a decade before I would graduate from architecture school. Back then, the town left an impression on me for its large pyramid-shaped concrete buildings, and for the fact that the beaches had scores of young women who went topless; a bit of an eye-opener for a 14 year-old male just landed from North America.

In retrospect, I must have been very distracted by the peaches on the beaches, because more recently, upon revisiting La Grande Motte (this time accompanied by a female architect-friend), the place looked completely different to me, even though, at its core, it has changed little during that period. Clearly, what seduced me this time around was the architecture.

I mean, here we have an example of a late 20th-century new town with public spaces that are civic, dignified and human life-affirming and whose buildings are designed to contribute to an overall harmony; to something greater than the mere sum of the parts. La Grande Motte is living proof that it is possible to design a humanly-scaled, walkable, cyclable, and architecturally sophisticated new town without resorting to, say, the pre-industrial nostalgia of so-called New Urbanism. (Perhaps I’m being nostalgic too, but at least it’s nostalgia for a period I have lived through.)

Architect Jean Balladur master-planned La Grande Motte in the mid-1960s as a place where the Northern European middle-class, which at that time was beginning to frequent Spanish destinations like Torremolinos or Benidorm en masse, could vacation closer to home, and in an architecturally more sophisticated setting. Emphasis was clearly placed on creating an overall sense of harmony akin to that of traditional vernacular architecture, but with modern materials and expression.

A small civic square on one side…
…on the other side, a courtyard garden

La Grande Motte does not banish commerce, signage, sun shades, or Hello Kitty beach towels hung to dry over a balcony handrail. This is no Communist vacation camp. Rather, these kinds of elements of “individuality” are subtly veiled behind differently patterned perforated concrete screen-façades, which vary playfully but also consistently from building to building.

Ah, yes, that age-old conundrum of finding a balance between overall urban identity and individual architectural identity. Interestingly, no building is privileged over any other at La Grande Motte. There are no singular “landmark” buildings by famous architects whose task is to somehow compensate for a sea of surrounding mediocrity. A similar lack of hierarchy occurs in the urban plan: No rows of sea-fronting buildings blocking second-rate buildings in-behind.

Since 2010, La Grande Motte has been officially recognized as French 20th-century patrimôine. But it deserves to be celebrated outside of France too, because I doubt many other examples of new-town urbanism from the last half-century are this successful still to this day.


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