The university of Bordeaux is spread across buildings in the city centre, and throughout a massive campus that stretches from Talence t...

Exploring unusual sights on the Bordeaux University campus in Talence and Pessac

The university of Bordeaux is spread across buildings in the city centre, and throughout a massive campus that stretches from Talence to Gradignan via Pessac. On that sprawling suburban campus, in amongst the various faculties and the inevitable classrooms, lecture theatres, laboratories, offices and halls of residence, there are a number of surprising sights to enjoy, from little-known chapels to examples of unusual public artwork. 

This appeared to be an interesting angle for exploring the campus, and to guide me on my way on this low-key adventure, I had two expert sources of information: a concise information leaflet entitled “Promenades Universitaires” produced by the University, detailing the locations of the different examples of public art (mostly the products of the “1 % artistique” policy obliging public construction projects to commit 1% of their value to artistic creations); and, above all, my travelling companion for the day, Harvey Morgan, Talence-based US expat, long-time follower of the blog and a fountain of wisdom about local history and heritage (particularly places of worship throughout la Gironde). 

After a few e-mail exchanges about what we could see, Harvey conceived an interesting itinerary which started out with something that has surely become one of France’s great specialities in recent years: a roundabout with something built in the middle. In this case, the scenic addition to the roundabout is reminiscent of a carrelet fishing hut, although I may be missing something. Upon closer inspection, it turned out there was no raised floor inside, just an open space littered with empty bottles. The hut has obviously become an unusual spot for communal drinking… 

From there we moved on to the grounds of the Arts & Métiers engineering school and three unexpected additions to the landscape. First, we viewed a tall sculpture by the Argentina-born Alicia Penalba (1913-1982): one of her “Grand Double” creations and inspired by Native American totems. This one was produced in 1974. 

Then, a little closer to the buildings we studied a “Smartflower”, a small-scale photovoltaic system which rotates according to the position of the sun, or can simply fold away if the winds get too strong. How is the power harnessed by the Smartflower used on site? This remains an open question although information available online suggests the €23,000 installation can generate between 3,400 and 6,200 kWh per annum, which is presumably enough to perform quite a few primary functions.  

Harvey Morgan inspecting the Smartflower.
We finished off in front of an impressive L-G 500 die-forging press (or marteau-pilon à planche in French) as produced in the mid-20th century by the French company Société de Construction de Montbard. Needless to say, it is no longer in use! 

Our next stop was the CREPS sports education facility where we viewed one of Harvey’s favourite finds in the area: the remains of Chapelle Roul, a chapel built in 1849 by François Roul (1782-1864), mayor of Talence and owner of the nearby château and surrounding land, Domaine Monadey. Roul’s wish was to be buried in the chapel but this was not authorized by the local council. Over the years the property changed hands and fell under State ownership from 1942 onwards, but the chapel has more or less survived. 


It was in extremely poor condition until a few years ago when an association of students, in partnership with the municipality and local historians, sought to clean up and restore what remains of the chapel. It makes for a surprising sight full of contrast – the four roofless walls of this religious edifice frozen in time, surrounded on all sides by modern sporting facilities.

Moving on from the CREPS we made our way to the monumental art deco gates delivered by the renowned French ironworks specialist Raymond Subes (1893-1970) in 1950. The spectacular gates, which comprise multiple rows of tree-like designs, are topped off by the inscription “Université de Bordeaux. Faculté des Sciences.” 

As the gates were conveniently open on this Saturday morning, we made our way inside and Harvey guided me to another of his treasured spots:  Castel Terrefort, a mansion house which was the centrepiece of the land here until the city of Bordeaux purchased this and the neighbouring Château Bonnefont to transform it into part of the modern-day university campus (we would later view Château Bonnefont from afar – it also has been incorporated into the university setup, comprising offices and the renowned Agora lecture theatre). While at Castel Terrefort we admired the peaceful courtyard and its decorative mural features, and Harvey recounted his visits to the property’s underground chapel which, sadly, we weren’t able to view together.

After what had been a somewhat winding start to our university stroll, we were now committed to an increasingly linear course, more or less following the path of tram line B through Talence and into Pessac. The next point of interest we aimed to take in was just out-of-bounds, inside the ground-floor lobby area of national research institute INRIA: a modern art installation by Nathalie Talec (1960-...) entitled The Third Hemisphere. First unveiled in March 2012, the piece is a large-scale neon-and-metal representation of the contours of the human brain.  

Moving further west, we came across an unexpected spiral formation of rocks, each of which is labelled according to its place of origin (Pyrenees, Cantal, Corrèze, Haute-Garonne, etc.). It reminded Harvey somewhat of the megalithic sites in Brittany.

We then reached the first of three pieces produced in the 1960s by the sculptor Jean Bertoux (1923-…), the so-called “Mur mosaïque” comprising a number of mosaic-covered “u” and “n”-shaped blocks resting on each other. One side is distinctly prettier than the other and, in places, the work seems to be in a state of neglect with bits gradually falling off. Though tempted to take a bit of 1960s artwork home with us, we left the broken bits of mosaic tiles where they were… 

The following two Bertoux productions are low-rise steel structures made up of combinations of triangles and circles. Again, in places it was clear that the artwork had seen better days… 

Our final stops were by the main buildings of what is now Université Montaigne, encompassing the Faculté de Droit et des Sciences Economiques and the Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines. This is where the stone structure entitled "Jet d'eau pétrifié", produced around 1968 by Yasuo Mizui (1925-2008), can be spotted. It was reportedly originally positioned in the middle of an actual water feature where the reflections of the sculpture’s shapes and patterns added a further dimension to the piece. In its current position it feels far more static and seems strangely out of place. 

We finished off on the esplanade located across from the Mizui fountain, viewing an area referred to as “Espace aménagé Bissière” after its creator Roger Bissière (1886-1964). By the university buildings, this comprises a number of small blocks of stone which may or may not make for comfortable seats for students out enjoying the fresh air, coupled with ground-level slate portrayals of birds in flight (or something).  The second component is a long decorative wall (which was relocated away from the concourse to a bucolic spot beneath some trees) with patterns made out of stones, slate and fragments of brick, as originally designed by Bissière but executed by his son Marc-Antoine Loutre. 


Before heading back towards our starting point by tram (along with dozens of foreign students, the sole inhabitants of the university campus whenever weekends come round), we admired some walls which have been given a serious street-art makeover. Will those spray-paint productions prove to be as durable as the campus’s official artwork heritage? 

All in all, it made for a fascinating morning spent seeing the university campus in a whole new light. Thinking back though, the only artwork which was accompanied by an information panel was the INRIA Third Hemisphere piece which, you may remember, we only got to see through a window! Other than that, piecing together this account has all been about guesswork, gleaning bits of information from the “Promenades Universitaires” leaflet and doing some full-on retroactive googling. So, my concluding note to the good people of the University of Bordeaux is a request to add information panels to better promote the wealth of unexpected things there are to see, and to make the various sights that little bit more accessible to students and visitors alike. Plus, it’s only fair that we, the general public, should give the university some homework for a change! 

> The "Promenades Universitaires" leaflet can be found online here:
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !
> Here are the various sights layered onto GoogleEarth data: 
> Big thanks to Harvey Morgan for being my active travelling companion on this adventure, and do check out, the website where he and his counterparts detail religious heritage in Gironde. To sign off, here's a shot of Harvey captured in the reflection of the Smartflower solar power panel system outside the Arts & Métiers buildings! 

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