Inside Antigone, Montpellier’s postmodern dystopia

Ancient Greece, 1980s style. Image: author provided.

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.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.