This year's annual RIAI jaunt to somewhere trendy has given Frank McDonald another opportunity to extol the virtues of a tram system over a metro. I'd be interested to here the informed views on this subject of anyone who trampled their carbon footprints all over Bordeaux last weekend.
For what it's worth, and not having had the inclination, or the credid card capacity, to slip over to Bordeaux, I think McDonald makes a good case.
Bordeaux's tram system puts city on the right trackÂ« Prev 1/2 Next Â»
Bordeaux's tram network really does knit the city together - including new areas like La Bastide, (other picture) - while its design involved teams of engineers, architects, urban designers and experts on street furniture to produce a total network packageUnlike Dublin's 'modest' Luas network, a much more comprehensive approach to designing its tram system has utterly changed Bordeaux for the better, writes Frank McDonald Environment Editor
IF IRISH architects learned anything from a very pleasant sojourn in Bordeaux last week, it was about how a city can be transformed by the installation of a street-running tramway - not two free-standing lines that don't connect, as Dublin has, but a 44kms network that really does knit the city together.
"Making cities work" was the theme of this year's RIAI annual conference and, although numbers were way down to just 130 due to the onset of the recession at home, the educational value of the trip to Bordeaux - "the Cork of France", as someone call it - was incomparable and couldn't have come at a better time.
As RIAI president SeÃ¡n Ã“ Laoire noted, Dublin and Bordeaux have approximately the same population in quite sprawling conurbations.
They also have historical links, particularly through the "Wild Geese" who fled to Bordeaux after the Treaty of Limerick and put names like Lynch and Phelan on some of its best chateaux.
And at a time when the idea of a directly-elected mayor with executive power has been mooted for Dublin, it is instructive to see what one French mayor - Alain JuppÃ© - has managed to deliver in a remarkably short time, turning Bordeaux into "an exemplar of a historic city that has been positively transformed", as Ã“ Laoire said.
It might have been very different. JuppÃ©'s predecessor, Jacques Chaban Delmas, who (like him) had also been prime minister of France, had plans for years to give Bordeaux an underground metro. Worse still, he wanted to install a 12-lane freeway along the Garonne estuary, which would have severed the city and its river.
Fortunately, neither of these plans were implemented and when JuppÃ© took over as mayor in 1995, he initiated a public discourse (limited to nine months, incidentally) on what should be done. The outcome was that the hoary old Gaullist's plans were scrapped, and Bordeaux set off in a quite different direction.
The key thing to its success was that the tramway wasn't treated merely as a transport project, to be implemented by engineers. As Mission Tramway's Claude Mandrau explained, its designers were obliged to deal with the entire surface of every street on which the trams would run - from building line to building line.
There were engineers involved, of course, but also teams of architects from Bordeaux, urban designers from Paris and experts on street furniture from other places. And they all worked together to produce a piece of total design, using the tramway as a sort of Trojan horse to transform the city's streets and squares.
There were several design competitions, including one to find the best design for a new riverside park on the left bank of the Garonne, where the historic core of Bordeaux is concentrated. This led to such wildly popular attractions as the Miroir d'Eau, an extensive sheet of water in front of the great set-piece of Place de la Bourse.
Designed by Michel Corajoud, it does everything but sing and dance - draining away and filling up again, spouting little fountains and sending up jets of water or spraying mist as dense as fog on hot summer days. A huge hit with kids, it is the centrepiece of a new waterfront promenade, with the sleek trams gliding past in the background. Francine Fort, who runs Bordeaux's Arc en RÃªve architecture centre, says many people now come in from the suburbs "just to walk along the quays", as if this was a Mediterranean city like Barcelona. Most of the 18th century buildings have had their faÃ§ades cleaned, and the light, honey-coloured limestone seems almost edible.
During the disruptive tramway works, with three lines all under construction at the same time, Arc en RÃªve put up billboards featuring some of the designers in words and pictures, talking about their visions for the new Bordeaux. It spends most of its time educating children (and even taxi drivers) about architecture.
Last Sunday was "car-free day" in Bordeaux, but then most days are - at least in the historic core. In Place de la ComÃ©die, the equivalent of Dublin's College Green, architects looked out in awe from the swanky Regent Hotel towards the magnificent Grand Theatre and heard nothing but the noise of people talking or laughing.
The quality of the paving and street furniture is superb throughout, with none of the clutter that we take for granted at home. The main reason, of course, is that everything has been carefully considered, from the modern lamp standards to the glass monoliths displaying an easy-to-read tramway network map and plan de quartier.
None of this has happened by accident. According to Tom Gray, an Irish architect-engineer who has been working in Paris since 1992, the transformation of Bordeaux has been wrought by a political determination to do things right, supported by the high level of technical expertise one finds in the French public sector.
Like Bordeaux's Le Cub, Luas was envisaged as a three-branch light rail network with lines to Ballymun, Dundrum and Tallaght. But then Ballymun was dropped (to cut costs) and the two remaining bits were delivered as free-standing lines because our politicians couldn't bring themselves to seize roadspace from cars in the city.
Oddly enough, Bordeaux airport is not served by Le Cub; a cost-benefit analysis (plus opposition from local taxi drivers) put paid to plans to extend it as far as Merignac. But trams glide through the entire historic core - now a designated World Heritage Site - without having to use overhead cables. It's magical, like the city itself.
Social integration was also a major objective. Thus, instead of being left high-and-dry, areas with social profiles like Ballymun were physically integrated with other parts of the city. "It was the project we needed to do that," says Francine Fort. "Suddenly, people in poorer communes felt they were being treated like other bordelais." This is evident in the design of new housing in La Bastide, a one- time swampy industrial zone on the right bank of the Garonne. With no class distinction, it is being developed as a pleasant residential area, with medium-density apartment blocks, lots of green open space (including new botanic gardens) and a wooded riverside walk.
Irish architects made a pilgrimage to Pessac, south of the city, to see Le Corbusier's "workers' housing" - a little estate of 51 homes from the mid-1920s, built by French industrialist Henri Fruges for his employees. Although some are defaced by crude alterations, this remarkably humane experimental housing may soon be listed.
A slab block of flats, overlooking Bordeaux's earliest and very elegant bridge (1824), has been spared thanks to a campaign by modernist architects. Designed by Claude Ferret in a form that Corb would have wholly endorsed, it sits on top of the main fire station and was built in the 1960s to house firemen and their families.
Other extraordinary sights included the Law Courts, by Richard Rogers, with the courts contained in tapering cedar pods within a glazed enclosure that also includes an atrium and five floors of office space. Completed in 2000, the Tribunal de Grande Instance is clearly an allegory about justice being seen to be done.
But a city's choice of public transport system is more critical than any piece of architecture. Bordeaux's tramway, which carries more than 250,000 passengers per day, cost â‚¬1.25 billion - less than a quarter of what Dublin plans to squander on Metro North, which (in effect) will put Luas in a tunnel without in any way civilising the streets.
Â© 2008 The Irish Times