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Heady Mix: Cité du Vin in Bordeaux by XTU Architects

Architect of the Year shortlist: the swirling form of the Cité du Vin looks to reflect the brio of wine

‘I’ve said on several occasions, this will be my Guggenheim!’, declared Bordeaux mayor and former presidential hopeful Alain Juppé on the opening of the city’s €81-million Cité du Vin last June. Which says a lot about the ambitions for this new institution, intended as a place where wine-trail tourists can almost literally immerse themselves in the Bacchic fluid, buying, tasting and consuming it of course, but also learning about the culture and civilisation associated with this most venerable of potations. Located by the turbid River Garonne on a prominent site – but far enough upstream to minimise the eventual ire of UNESCO, who granted Bordeaux World Heritage status in 2007 – the building is the work of French architects XTU, who won the 2010 design competition (114 entrants, whittled down to five finalists), in collaboration with British firm Casson Mann, who designed the interior exhibition displays. 

After first founding their office in 1994 (‘X stands for the unknown mathematic variable and TU for the suffix in situ’, explains their website), husband-and-wife team Nicolas Desmazières and Anouk Legendre made a name for themselves designing public-sector buildings and university facilities, such as their clever, cheeky chemistry faculty in Paris (2008). In the early 2000s, when it became clear that public funds were drying up, the couple began to change tack, and reached a turning point in 2005 when they entered the international, open competition for the Jeongok Prehistory Museum in Korea. ‘We never thought we’d win,’ says Legendre, and consequently, freed from the fear of failure and the constraints of a predefined budget, ‘we let loose, producing a free-form building full of curves.’ Completed in 2011, the Prehistory Museum represented a total break with their previous orthogonality, expressing a new-found passion for flows, flux and currents that had been triggered by a visit to an exhibition on fluids and a summer holiday in Iceland.

Site plan

Site plan

Flows and fluids, it turns out, also played a big part in the design of the Cité du Vin. ‘The first time we visited the site,’ recalls Legendre, ‘was on a very cold January day. There was mist, and the lapping of the river. A very liquid environment. We’re always very marked by first impressions. And we were working on a liquid theme – wine. Our design for the Cité was based on the expression of flows, which are always turning, be it water, glaciers, lava, incense …’ In built form, this translates into something resembling a giant wine decanter (not their conscious intention, say the architects), a glass-and-aluminium-clad blob that swirls around and upwards to form a 35m-high tower at the rear, thereby fulfilling the brief’s stipulation that the Cité should mark the landscape vertically and provide panoramic views for visitors. This latter requirement posed a problem with respect to the fire regulations, which forbade public access any higher than 28m, and led XTU to include a 10m-high ramp that hugs the rear of the building, up which firemen can directly drive. There was also the question of where to site the tower – on the river? at the rear? – it being decided that the latter solution was the better, since it allows the building to be seen from the quayside tramway, via which most visitors will arrive.

‘An imposing, shiny, ‘look-at-me’ UFO, it breaks completely with the restrained limestone classicism of old Bordeaux’

If the jury, headed by Juppé, chose XTU’s scheme over the other finalists’ decidedly more sober projects (pun intended, for the Cité’s swirling form is also meant to express something of the headiness of wine), it was clearly because it was by far the most ‘Guggenheim’ of the five. An imposing, shiny, ‘look-at-me’ UFO, it breaks completely with the restrained limestone classicism of old Bordeaux. But while the city’s mayor clearly wanted the ‘Bilbao effect’, both to attract international (and particularly Chinese) tourists and as a piece of personal bling for his presidential campaign, he couldn’t, in the context of post-2008 austerity, be seen to be spending the usual pharaonic sums that complex blobs require. Another architect known for her interest in flows, fluids and swirls is Zaha Hadid, but her buildings don’t come cheap: Rome’s MAXXI (AR June 2010) set Italy back €150 million, while the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku (AR January 2014) reportedly cost Azerbaijan $250 million. In France, no one knows how far Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton (AR November 2014) exceeded the initial €100 million allocated to it, while the city of Lyon is still reeling from the €304-million bill for Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Musée des Confluences (AR September 2015). Bordeaux wanted its ‘Guggenheim’ on the cheap, initially allocating a mere €55 million – an unrealistically low estimate, no doubt on purpose to ensure local politicians wouldn’t block the project. Of the final €81 million that were spent, construction costs accounted for €49 million, and the visitor experience €6 million, in a building of just under 13,000 square metres.

Cite du vin plan

Cite du vin plan

So how do you build a bargain blob? The answer is with a couple of expedients and some clever sleights of hand. ‘Since we only had a budget for a rectangular building, we needed all our ingenuity to keep within costs’,’ laughs Legendre. XTU’s initial idea was to construct the Cité entirely from wood, on the basis that not only is it a natural, renewable material, but one that is also essential to wine production. Cost cutting, however, saw them turn to that old French staple, concrete. Those who imagine that the building is as swirling inside as out will be disappointed, for as one discovers on entering, the tower, the ground floor and the first floor are all part of a classic, horizontal, pillar-and-slab construction, over which sits a wooden superstructure that gives the edifice its distinctive form and provides the second-floor exhibition space with architectonically interesting volumes. By playing with the superstructure’s geometry, XTU was able to ensure that nearly all of the wooden members are flat, radiating out like spokes, with only very few requiring double curvature. This made them less expensive to produce, and costs were further reduced by spacing them further apart than originally planned, which meant that fewer were required. The cladding was also modified in the interests of cost: where XTU initially wanted all glass, the Cité as built uses a lot of aluminium. And once again the geometry was manipulated, this time to allow the majority of the glass panels to be flat rather than curved, making them considerably cheaper to manufacture. The building’s colour also changed along the way, although not due to budget but because UNESCO objected to the boozy red tints initially planned. Today’s yellow-grey-gold palette is intended to evoke the sandy silt-filled Garonne and to reflect and harmonise with the sparkling Aquitaine sky.

Visitors enter the Cité du Vin under the firemen’s ramp, arriving in a ground-floor ‘wine cellar’ of black-lacquered concrete, a deliberate ploy to plunge them into darkness so as to wow them with light and architectonics as they ascend. And light is what entices you to move through the space, brought in thanks to the building’s ‘navel’, a small, glazed circular patio at its heart. The dark interior surfaces are all slightly shiny, and a lot of glass is deployed to divide up the ground floor, making the environment difficult to grasp or understand, and slightly troubling to negotiate – a deliberate blurring of boundaries à la Jean Nouvel amplified by XTU’s trademark ceiling perforations.

‘There’s a certain retro-futurist feel to it all, as though expressing nostalgia for the white-heat technocracy of 1970s France, the era that gave us Concorde, the TGV, Pierre Paulin’ 

Open-tread staircases wrap the navel’s glazing and lead visitors to the next level, to the main entrance of the auditorium and private wine-tasting spaces. Here airport white dominates, although there’s just as much glass, frequently serigraphed with dots and blobs, often in bright colours. What with this and the ceiling perforations, it sometimes feels as though Yayoi Kusama has been let loose in the building, perhaps in an attempt to express something of the wooziness brought on by alcohol consumption. There’s also a certain retro-futurist feel to it all, as though expressing nostalgia for the white-heat technocracy of 1970s France, the era that gave us Concorde, the TGV, Pierre Paulin … Indeed the navel is even reminiscent of Jean Willerval’s 1983 pavilions at Les Halles, which were unceremoniously demolished a few years ago to make way for today’s controversial Canopée.

There’s something of Les Halles upstairs too, on the third level, where the exhibition spaces are located. Here the wooden structure that forms the bulbous exterior is entirely exposed, cadencing the arched space in the manner of Willerval’s white-metal umbrellas or the timbers of a ship, with three massive concrete structures (one containing the auditorium, the others housing technical equipment) providing seismic stability. On our visit to the Cité, Legendre expressed regret for the space when empty, before Casson Mann’s rather voluminous exhibition display was installed, and explained that she’d wanted something strong that would survive in time, unlike the displays which will inevitably be changed. ‘A structure like a cathedral, since in Bordeaux wine is almost a religion.’ Given that XTU sought out Casson Mann before the competition and worked hand-in-hand with them throughout, it seems rather odd that container and content aren’t better matched. When working on Jeongok, Legendre and Desmazières had noticed that Koreans seem to prefer what they describe as Anglo-Saxon-style exhibition displays (immersive, interactive, multimedia) over the French type (pedagogical, display cases, labels) and, since Asian tourists were the Cité’s prime target, looked for a firm capable of delivering the right kind of show. And there are indeed no labels anywhere, visitors being guided via headphones (10 hours of recordings, no less) round a series of 3D multimedia installations that tell the story of wine in relation to themes such as poetry, literature, geography and even love. And once they’re done, their visit culminates with a glass of wine in the top-floor panoramic space (which isn’t linked to the exhibition halls, and to be reached requires going down in the lift and then up again), where they can admire a splendid view over old Bordeaux, and prolong their visit, if they feel so inclined, in the gastronomic restaurant on the floor just below.

Cite du vin section

Cite du vin section

Desmazières and Legendre describe their building as an example of phenomenological architecture, ‘a single gesture that would express at once the place and the subject’. ‘Wine is always variable,’ continues Legendre, ‘you never perceive it twice in the same way. The idea was to produce an elusive and constantly changing architectural object, almost an anti-form.’ And while it certainly never looks the same from any two angles, there’s rather a cartoon aspect to this building that belies the architects’ stated intentions, something of the cheap and cheerful that is at odds with the baroque merveilleux they seemingly wanted to achieve. A lot of this can be put down to the cost cutting, which forced them to adopt a bricolage aesthetic (of which there’s no trace at the Prehistory Museum) that permeates the whole in myriad details: the mediocre-quality lacquered concrete, for example, or the standard greenhouse-frame elements that have been sawn up to make the tower cladding, or the rather cheesy wine bottles that hang from the ceiling of the panoramic space, turning into night-time fairy lights thanks to fibre optics dangling inside them. Not to mention the extraordinarily inelegant ‘rear’ facade, the blind northern face of the tower where the goods entrance is located, the one that turns its back on the city and appears like a slightly effete cooling tower (if only, one thinks, they’d pushed this brut ugliness a whole lot further). 

Indeed, given its asperities, you might almost say that this was a people’s blob, if it weren’t for the €20 entrance fee, which makes it clear what this is all about. For the Cité du Vin is nothing more nor less than an oenological theme park for tourists. And it’s this disparity between its highbrow aims – ‘the defence, promotion and dissemination of the cultural and intellectual dimensions of wine’ – and its rather more mercantile means that explains how this distinctly odd building came about.

Cité du Vin

Architect: XTU Architects

Architects in charge: Anouk Legendre, Nicolas Desmazières 

Project leaders: Mathias Lukacs, Dominique Zentelin

Exhibition space design: Casson Mann

Photographs: David Helman / Hans Lucas

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