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.

 
 
 
 

So what was actually in Grant Shapps’ latest transport masterplan?

A tram in Manchester. Image: Getty.

Poor Grant Shapps. This weekend, the UK’s transport secretary unveiled a fairly extensive package of measures intended to make sure Britons can keep moving about during the Covid-19 crisis. On Saturday, he fronted the government’s daily afternoon press briefing; on Sunday, he did the rounds of the morning political shows. 

And were those nasty mean journalists interested in his plans for bicycle repair vouchers, or the doubling of the A66? No they were not: all they wanted to ask about was reports that the Prime Minister’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings had breached the lockdown he himself had helped draw up. The rotten lot.

This is, from some perspectives a shame, because some of the plans aren’t bad. Here’s a quick run down. 

  • The government is releasing a total of £283m to increase frequencies on bus (£254m) and light rail (£29m) networks, enabling more people to travel while maintaining social distancing. 

  • It’s deploying 3,400 people – British Transport Police officers; staff from train operators and Network Rail – to stations, to advise passengers on how to travel safely.

  • It’s promising to amend planning laws to enable councils to reallocate road space and create emergency cycle lanes, using a £225m pot of funding announced earlier this month. 

  • It’s also spending £25m on half a million £50 bike repair vouchers, and £2.5m on adding 1,180 bike parking spaces at 30 railway stations.

All this sounds lovely, but announcements of this sort tend to throw up a few questions, and this is no exception. The UK is home to over 2,500 railway stations, which must raise doubts about whether a few extra bike parking spaces at 30 of them is going to be enough to spark a cycling revolution. And councillors say that £225m for new cycle lanes has been slow to materialise in council bank accounts.

As to the money for public transport: that £29m will be shared between tram networks in five English conurbations (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Tyne & Wear, Nottingham, Sheffield). Just under £6m each doesn’t sound like the big bucks.

Then there’s the fact that all of these pots of money are dwarfed by the £1bn the government is planning to spend on turning the A66 Transpennine route across the north of England, from Workington to Middlesbrough, into a dual carriageway. Which puts the money allocated to cycling into perspective.

That said, it is refreshing to see the government taking an interest in cycling at all. Also, Grant Shapps genuinely tried to distract the nation from a huge political scandal by talking about bike repair vouchers, and you’ve got to give him credit for that.

More details of the plan on gov.uk here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.