Postcard from Bordeaux, France: Blending touches of modernity in with the old

Above: The view from our bedroom window in our rental in Bordeaux

Mysterious mushrooms appeared popping up from the traditional tile rooftops surrounding our temporary headquarters in the midst of the historic center of Bordeaux. And tucked behind the residential building next door was a contemporary adaptation of space for brightening up offices – most likely for attorneys, as shingles on first floors all around us seemed to have as primary occupants.

As we explored, we found the mushrooms sprout up from a major ultra-modern addition behind the 1846 Palais de Justice fronting Place de Republique. Architect Joseph Adolphe Thiac (1800-1865) drew his inspiration for the impressive façade of the original structure from the Parthenon. Not visible from the square, the new construction does not intrude upon the classical majesty of Thiac’s design.

Bordeaux conducted an international competition to select architects for the new center to house its law courts, with the chosen firm being Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. In addition to its attachment to the historic palace of justice, the site was surrounded by historic structures. A decision was made to abut it directly to the sidewalk by the vehicular traffic carried on Cours d’Albert. This action would free up space for a plaza-like entrance for the public on the side immediately adjacent to remnants of the city’s ancient ramparts and leading to the Saint Andre Cathedral.

As we were in Bordeaux while many COVID restrictions were still in place, we could only walk around the outside of the addition. We felt somewhat stumped by the functions of the visible elements viewed through the glass exterior and sheltered by the undulating copper roof.

So what are these cedar-planked pods that resemble country water tanks? Self-contained courtrooms.

An architect’s rendering on the left sketches out the interior layout of the courtroom-containing vessels. While they appear somewhat whimsical, they are part of an extremely complex system of passive control: “The flask-like volumes allow daylight deep into the court rooms and, through their height, ensure temperature control through stratification.”


The pods are shaded by the great roof, and manually-operated brise-soleil windows along the western façade reduce solar gain…. The glazed box wrapping around the chambers, with its sun-screening and ventilation systems incorporated within the roof, functions as a breathing container….

The design team was committed to embracing a passive energy strategy, without conventional air-conditioning, which would none-the-less provide comfortable working spaces and low running costs.The atrium acts as a buffer to the noise and poor air quality of the surrounding urban environment. This stable reservoir of clean air is supplied via a specially designed waterfall that cools and humidifies the air….On the facades, opening windows and manually operated aluminium louvres provide shade and limit the ingress of unwanted solar gain to the office spaces.

The contained courtrooms add to the security of the judicial process expected by the project’s clients. “Corridors of power” provide segregated circulation routes:

At third-floor level, an elevated walkway provides access for defendants and plaintiffs. Judges have a separate and secure circulation system via bridges across the void, while members of the public enter via a raised walkway along the courtyard. Public space flows around the ‘vessels’ containing the courtrooms which sit on a plinth of two levels of offices.

The significance of large dollar figures somewhat eludes me. A project budget of $30 million seemed enormous to me, until I compared it to the Congressional allocation of $135 million for the new federal courthouse in downtown San Antonio – granted the federal courthouse appears much larger in size.

There is little contemporary construction in the heart of Bordeaux. Most new development, both residential and commercial, is in the area of the old wharves and warehouses along the Garonne and on the right bank of the river (See earlier posts: “A pair of bridges spanning the Garonne” and “A revolutionary evolution of responsible development.”)

La Meca, a stunning sculptural cultural center on the river’s banks designed by BIG+Freaks, was closed to us as well. It had the misfortune to be completed in 2019, meaning it probably shut down because of COVID restrictions almost immediately. I believe it has reopened now.

The new construction I questioned is a rather stark building with only the front of the one preceding it preserved at the edge of the popular Chartrons District. The sturdy neighboring buildings all appear ideal candidates for adaptive reuse; why not this one? Am hoping that for some reason the old building was beyond repair, maybe damaged by bombs trying to strike the German submarine base nearby during World War II. At any rate, at least preserving the façade did keep the streetscape pedestrian-friendly and in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.

Bordeaux appears well committed to preserving its past yet unafraid of embracing the contemporary.

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