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.

 
 
 
 

TfL is offering you the chance to stop two proposed Bakerloo line stations from having stupid names

Bakerloo line trains at London Road depot, mournfully wishing they could continue their journey to the south. Image: Getty.

Ever wanted to name a tube station? Well boy is this your lucky week. The latest round of Transport for London's interminable consultation on the proposed extension of the Bakerloo line from Elephant & Castle to Lewisham, hopefully due to arrive at some point in the early 2030s, is asking your input into names.

Necessary background blah blah blah. The most efficient way of running a metro line is to have it cross the city. The Central Line, for example, doesn't just allow west Londoners to get into the city centre: it allows east Londoners to do the same, and for everyone to get about within the city centre to boot. All that and it's only one line. Amazing really, isn't it?

But the Bakerloo line, unusually, isn't doing all this, because it gets to the south-eastern-most edge of the city centre and then gives up. That doesn't just mean that south east London remains the bit of the capital most poorly served by TfL's rail network, although it does mean that – there are no stations inside the yellow box here, look:

The tube/rail desert, with the rough location of the proposed new stations marked. Image: Google Maps.

It also means that the line through the centre isn't pulling its weight compared to every other line, because it's a lot more useful to commuters coming from the north west than from the south east. That's great if you want to get a seat for the six minutes it takes to get from Elephant to Embankment. It's not great if you're, say, in charge of London's transport network and want to sweat your assets.

Anyway, the plan for some time has been to extend the line under New and Old Kent Roads, down to New Cross Gate and Lewisham. A later phase may see it take over the Hayes branch of the South Eastern Rail network, but one thing at a time. The official map of the proposal looks like this:

Ooooh. Image: TfL.

Old Kent Road 1 and Old Kent Road 2 are obviously rubbish names for stations, so the latest round of consultation suggests some alternatives: Old Kent Road or Burgess Park for the northern one, Old Kent Road or Asylum for the southern.

CityMetric has long argued that naming stations after roads is stupid: either the road is long enough that it's not a useful name because who knows if you’re at the right end or not, or short enough that it's only useful to people who already know an area. The fact that two different stations might revel in the name Old Kent Road seems to me to prove this point pretty nicely – so if I had my way TfL would go with Burgess Park and Asylum. The latter, named for both Asylum Road and, well, what used to be an asylum, seems particularly cool to me.

Alternatively, buses terminating at the former have sometimes said "Old Kent Road Dun Cow" after a long dead pub, and naming a tube station after some livestock is amusing too, so, Dun Cow, why not?


Meanwhile the latter site, next to the junction between Asylum Road and the Old Kent Road, is sometimes known as Canal Bridge, because it used to be where the Old Kent Road crossed the Surrey Canal. The latter is long gone – although more bridges across it remain in Burgess Park, which is nicely surreal – but naming tube stations after two things that aren't there any more would be amusing too.

Anyway, the point is: please don't call either of these stations Old Kent Road, the world is confusing enough as it is. Now go vote.

Incidentally, one thing TfL has already decided is that there won't be a third Old Kent Road station, at its northernmost point, the Bricklayers Arms junction. This seems a shame to me, but I suppose they know what they're doing.

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

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