Reflecting on the MSc Urban Planning fieldtrip to Nantes…

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Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse

By MSc Transport Planning student Marcus Merry….

On the Monday we met outside the castle in Nantes at 10.  We milled about the l’office du tourisme, picking up maps, discussing our various experiences of travel and accommodation.  I had journeyed to Nantes over four days by train to Plymouth, ferry to Roscoff, and bicycle via the Brest-Nantes Canal, arriving the previous evening at 10pm soaked to the skin.  Most others had come by plane.

We had a brief look inside the castle grounds.  Stephen reminded me that the Plantagenet kings of England hailed from nearby Angers, and I began to regard the fortification with a proprietorial eye.  The keep, however, was closed on Mondays.  Through the spitting rain we made our way to a monument to slavery, a practice in which Nantes was historically involved.  This was actually very interesting: we wandered along a cavernous underground exhibition which visually displayed the origins and destinations of the many millions of slaves transported in the slave trade, the appalling conditions they experienced, and a timeline of laws passed across the world to abolish it.  I was shocked to learn that some countries had not abolished slavery until late in the 20th century, and indeed we discussed the extent to which modern slavery continues still.

The monument to slavery

Coming back into the light, we went on to visit the resplendent cathedral then to Vincent Gache on the Ile de Nantes (a large island in the Loire River in the middle of the city).  Biblical rain and hail descended as we sheltered in an alcove of a random building.  Eventually judging the worst had passed, we walked to the nearby School of Architecture.  Here Laurent Devisme gave us an engaging talk.  I remember him saying that instead of only focusing on best practice, we should also study failures.  As a case in point he referred to a 50-year debate about a new Nantes airport, which had been recently ended in rejection.  We went onto the roof, and looked out at the city from the smooth, block-like concrete structure.  The adjacent quirky buildings and arty local students gave the Ile de Nantes a trendy feel, almost like East London or Berlin.

Ile de Nantes

On Tuesday afternoon we took a train to Angers, another city with a decent tram system, where we disaggregated to variously enjoy the local castle, art galleries and cafes.  We all met up again by the main theatre, and went for a drink together at a nearby bar.  I sampled a glass of a local vin rouge recommended by Stephen, and we headed back to Nantes.

The castle at Angers

I missed the Wednesday morning tour of U-boat pens in St Nazaire (in the rain), instead spending the time searching for a copy of an important cycling map I had managed to drop in the canal on the way from Roscoff.  Having successfully procured this at a useful bookshop, I rendezvoused with them in the afternoon at a refurbished warehouse on the Ile de Nantes.  Malo Bottani, a local student, gave us a very interesting talk about the area’s post-industrial development, referring to the different strategies and plans presented in the exhibition.  I liked the way that the plan for the area was intended to be continually evolving (avoiding a static plan which would become out of date), and that the designers in charge were changed every few years to encourage new influences and perspectives (the current design team was led by landscape architects).  That evening I watched Man United beat Paris Saint Germain with a controversial injury-time penalty, in a bar packed with locals.

On Thursday we met early to catch a ferry across to Trentmoult, a former fishing village on the south bank of the Loire.  We then walked to Cité Radieuse, one of Le Corbusier’s modernist buildings, dating from the 1950s.  We crowded into a lift and went to the roof, which was quite a height – the building is still one of the tallest in Nantes.  There was a nursery at one end with oddly shaped windows, and a narrow running track (never much used, admitted our guide) sunk into the concrete around the perimeter.  From one side there was a view over winding cul-de-sacs of detached houses, contrasting sharply with the high-density block.  Given Le Corbusier’s emphasis on light, the puzzle was how apartments looking east or west got light throughout the day; as we stood in the (deliberately) dark corridors, our guide revealed all: the apartments looked out both sides, with one floor running above or below the central ‘street’ corridor; it was very clever.  Inside the show flat, the quaint 1950s furniture was preserved.  There were rounded portholes for doors, which made one feel faintly sea-sick; most room and fixture dimensions were derived from the 182cm height of an idealised man. 

In the afternoon Patricia Saraux spoke to us about the WHO Healthy City.  In expressive French (translated by our learned professeurs) she described how both physical and mental health is important to enable people to take opportunities in life.  Patricia lamented the smoking of local young women in Nantes, which she blamed for their poor ranking on cancer league tables.  Beaming, however, she spoke about how horrible it had been made for cars to be driven into the centre of the city.  I reflected that their plans for shared spaces for cyclists and pedestrians could become problematic as they strove to increase cycling levels; echoing in my head I could hear John Parkin’s pronouncement, that cycle routes must be designed for speed.

In the evening we met in a bar at the top of the tallest building in Nantes, which offered stunning views, cocktails, and, arranged about the floor, giant lounging soft-toy birds (with children clambering over them) and broken-eggshell seating.  After some refreshment we repaired to a crepe restaurant, where I had a pomme gallette and shared a large flagon of cidre with my neighbouring diners.  Thence to a nightclub opposite, where I demonstrated my prowess at table football, had some excellent conversations about Bristol’s urban sustainability, and attempted some dancing, before quietly making my exit.

Bar at le Nid

On the final day, Friday, we met at a tram stop near the castle. We went west to the Grande Bellevue estate, where Pauline Cottier and colleague gave us an open-air talk about urban renewal.  Many of the modernist, inward-facing 1950s blocks were boarded up and due for demolition, to make way for improved units, and they spoke of the importance of concentrating retail to ensure viable places were created.  The original design of the estate contributed to the area’s social problems, and Le Corbusier’s work (which we had viewed on Thursday) could be seen as influencing this somewhat inhuman design.  Stephen, however, noted that Le Corbusier cannot be completely blamed, as such estates were constructed at low-spec compared with what he would have prescribed.

Then we went our separate ways.  I retrieved my bike from the hotel car park, hitched up my bags, tightened my brakes, and began my 3-day journey – via Rennes and St. Malo – back to England.

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