When Architecture and Tourism Meet: La Grande Motte’s Pyramids by the Seaside


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Given a chance to realize the architect’s dream of creating his own utopian city from a blank slate, French architect Jean Balladur was inspired by lost civilizations of the past. His designs recall the architecture of grand Mayan ruins with some added flair from the 1960s, all in the form of a seaside resort village in southern France, La Grande Motte. Balladur devoted nearly 30 years to his life’s work, which today welcomes over 2 million tourists annually.


"La Grande Pyramide". Image © <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grande_motte_02.jpg'>Wikimedia user Alain Caraco</a> licensed under <a href='http://https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en'>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>

"La Grande Pyramide". Image © <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grande_motte_02.jpg'>Wikimedia user Alain Caraco</a> licensed under <a href='http://https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en'>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>

La Grande Motte was constructed as part of the Racine Project; Balladur was chosen by General de Gaulle to develop one of five “tourist units” along France’s Mediterranean coastline to increase tourism in the region. The Project as a whole was given 3 billion francs and an objective to create 500,000 new tourist beds among the five locations to draw tourists from throughout France and northern Europe.


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Jean Balladur was a philosopher as well as an architect and his philosophical interests shine through in La Grande Motte. Balladur’s buildings relate to the human scale, full of small details that illustrate his interest in his guests’ well-being. Using human measurements and the golden ratio to derive dimensions, Balladur ensured that spaces would be comfortable to inhabit. Also integral to comfort, the layout of the buildings themselves was arranged to control the (sometimes harsh) winds, blocking them and providing more sheltered areas. Balladur prioritized pedestrians and cyclists by providing large, shaded lanes protected from cars.


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But Balladur didn’t have grandiose ideas. He knew the challenge he was facing, once writing, “[t]here is no dreamer crazy enough to try to believe he can build a city,” when that was precisely the assignment he was undertaking. Balladur also felt strongly that the city needed to relate to history, that it would not be successful if he imagined it from nothing, with no ties to the rest of humanity. This belief is what led to La Grande Motte’s distinctive, homogenous aesthetic.


Public domain image <a href='https://pixabay.com/en/modern-architecture-france-beach-620035/'>via Pixabay user Jackmac34</a>

Public domain image <a href='https://pixabay.com/en/modern-architecture-france-beach-620035/'>via Pixabay user Jackmac34</a>

A few months before being hired to design La Grande Motte, Balladur had taken a trip to Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city near modern day Mexico City. Teotihuacan was once the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, and many truncated pyramids remain today. Impressed by the vast scale of the archeological site, Balladur later drew inspiration from Teotihuacan for the vast landscape awaiting him at La Grand Motte, eventually creating an architecturally cohesive whole that spans over 400 hectares (almost 1,000 acres).


Teotihuacan. Image public domain <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SSA41434.JPG'>via Wikimedia user BrCG2007</a>

Teotihuacan. Image public domain <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SSA41434.JPG'>via Wikimedia user BrCG2007</a>

The style of La Grand Motte’s buildings directly recalls the truncated pyramidal forms of Teotihuacan, mixed in with the optimistic futurism of the 1960s and ‘70s. The shape of the buildings is advantageous, providing the opportunity for large terraces, giving as many visitors as possible access to sunlight and views, as well as helping control the winds mentioned earlier. Balladur designed every detail at La Grande Motte, even including the urban furniture, the electrical transformers, traffic lights, light fixtures, and signage; his goal was to create a complete aesthetic work, wholly unified.


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Balladur’s master plan for La Grande Motte included zones for camping, a town center, a marina, and a city park. Envisioning a green city, he collaborated with landscape architect Pierre Pillet to choose plant species that would tolerate the marine climate and held development back from the beach (while keeping the beach a walkable distance from apartments) to protect the natural landscape while also creating a pleasurable experience for visitors. Large open spaces surround the main buildings and the city also includes public squares and parks, sports and leisure services, a marina, and water sports facilities. Balladur made a distinct effort to celebrate and safeguard nature while also harnessing the region’s natural resources just enough to enhance visitors’ enjoyment.


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