At first glance, Montpellier seems like a typical French town: a labyrinth of medieval streets punctuated by Haussmann-inspired boulevards.
Walk through the shopping centre at the eastern side of the city, however, and you step out into a different world. You have entered the Antigone district, an ode to ancient Greece passed through the lens of 1980s postmodernism. It is a great example of an attempt to create the utopian city, which ended up resembling something out of dystopian fiction.
From Miletus to Manhattan, passing by Milton Keynes, urban planners have long been obsessed with the idea of creating the perfect city. This often means perfectly symmetrical roads, where all the amenities you could possibly ask for are just one or two right-angles away. Antigone is simply one long, symmetrical street with buildings on either side. From the sky, its shape resembles a key. There are several restaurants, hairdressers, banks, a skate park, even an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Yet there is something eerie about this. The buildings are all at least six storeys high, and several of them have overhanging roofs which loom over you as you pass. They close you in, with seemingly no way to escape. The district is bookended by the three-storey Polygone shopping centre at one end, with its imposing U-shaped entrance, and by the river Lez at the other end. It makes me wonder, are residents ever allowed to leave?
Antigone from above. Image: Google.
You pass underneath enormous archways connecting two buildings, upon which sit another two storeys. Inside, our grand overlords watch over their citizens.
This sense of dystopia is particularly disturbing, since the district is meant to imitate ancient Greece. Even its name is taken from Greek mythology. And Antigone does resemble a Greek city – If the ancient Greeks had built everything six storeys high. And created hovering walkways. And used lots and lots of glass.
In places, the dedication to the theme is remarkably detailed. For instance, there is the replica of the Winged Victory of Samothrace which, like the original Hellenistic sculpture, has no head. The original head has never been found. Yet, standing before a pristine 1980s replica, the intentional decapitation seems an odd choice.
The statue has pride of place in front of the regional council building, which can only be described as a cross between the Arc de Triomphe and the Gherkin. Like most of the buildings in the area, its frame is made of the sand-coloured stone typical of Montpellier, but it is filled in with dozens of small, rectangular windows all joined together. And then there is the large complex which resembles Bath’s Royal Crescent. But yet again, between the neoclassical pillars is nothing but glass and window frames.
Antigone was designed in 1978 by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill and the geographer Raymond Dugrand, and was built over the course of the 1980s. It was the brainchild of Georges Frêche, the mayor of Montpellier from 1977 to 2010. The socialist politician was also a professor of Roman law, with an enduring passion for antiquity – so much so that in 2004 he would try, and fail, to rename the Languedoc-Roussillon region “Septimanie”, because that was its name from the 5th to 9th centuries.
Frêche wanted to house the city’s growing population, and at the same time recreate a Greek city which would be the envy of France. From the beginning, the city decided that 20 percent of the new homes would be reserved for social housing. It was an ambitious project: house around 7,000 people across 1km2 of reclaimed land, without resorting to the standard tower blocks.
Another view of Antigone. Image: author provided.
The result of this ambition is that the district has become a tourist attraction. Yet I’m sure I’m not the only one to have come away slightly disturbed, and not just because it resembles Athens, reimagined by H G Wells.
There is another reason why we tend to be suspicious of “perfect” towns. It is the same reason so many filmmakers have enjoyed imagining the creepy truth behind suburbia. While we may strive for order, most of us live chaotic lives – and we are drawn to cities which reflect this.