For more than 35 years, arguably the most prominent of Bordeaux’s waterfront buildings was to be found in the Bacalan district to the north ...

What remains today of la Cité Lumineuse?

For more than 35 years, arguably the most prominent of Bordeaux’s waterfront buildings was to be found in the Bacalan district to the north of the city. This was the massive Cité Lumineuse apartment block, which stood around the spot where the Brandenburg bus and tram interchange station can be found today. How did it come about and why is it no longer there? 

The surrounding area was once the Claveau winegrowing domain, but as the city of Bordeaux expanded northwards throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Bacalan district took shape, and was mainly made up of low-rise residential streets. By the 1950s though, city mayor Jacques Chaban-Delmas had other ideas and, at a time when France was experiencing a housing shortage, regarded the urban future as being synonymous with the age of high-rise buildings. This is what resulted in social housing complexes such as Grand-Parc, Cité de la Benauge, and les Aubiers, along with the complete overhaul of the Mériadeck quarter in the city centre.

The city council-owned Cité Lumineuse was the most impressive standalone project of them all. Designed by architects André Conte, Paul Daurel, and Jean-Jacques Prévot, it was 200 metres long, 11 metres wide, 15 storeys high, and comprised 360 apartments that were labelled as being “LOGECO”, for “logements économiques et familiaux”, i.e. affordable accommodation aimed at low-income families. Much like the course of the Garonne river, the Cité was gently curved inwards, with its eastern flank enjoying an ideal vantage point to view the rising sun… while the sunsets were obviously best viewed from the concave western side! 

Aerial photos down the years. Top row: 1950 before the Cité was built, and in all its glory in 1976. Bottom row: shortly before demolition in 1994 (note the football pitch between the building and the river), and the GoogleEarth view today. Archive shots downloaded from the IGN Remonter le Temps website.

In fact, the block’s larger apartments (so-called F4 and F5 layouts, i.e. three- and four-bedroom flats), of which there were 240, enjoyed the relative luxury of looking out on both sides, a sunlight-guided architectural principle (which was first promoted by Adolphe Augustin-Rey as “l’axe heliothermique”) that had previously been applied by the influential architect Le Corbusier at the Cité Radieuse in Marseille. The re-use of that concept in all likelihood inspired the eerily similar name of Cité Lumineuse; there is no hard evidence to back this up but it is a credible theory that local authority Marc Saboya puts forward in his book ‘Chaban le bâtisseur’.     

La Cité Lumineuse welcomed its first residents in 1960 and, over the years, became a cherished home to thousands of people in spite of its many shortcomings, such as the lack of balconies (which were never part of the masterplan in order to keep down costs) and the fact that – again, according to Saboya – the kitchens and bathrooms were tiny and the elevators only stopped every three floors! It was also a lively community hub. Between the building and the river, a sandy football pitch with full-size goals was the focal point of many a local youth’s downtime. Meanwhile, the older generations would meet to play pétanque on the neighbouring boules pitches. And the surrounding greenery was an idyllic spot for outdoor events such as residents’ picnics and parties. Over on the other side, from 1981 onwards, the forecourt of the residence became home to the weekly Marché de la Lumineuse market, which started out with just four vendors but soon grew and became a popular draw.

Sud Ouest archive shot of the market as it was, and the view from more or less the same vantage point today.

Sud Ouest archive shots of the football and pétanque pitches in use, and the same view today.

However, the 1980s were not kind to la Cité Lumineuse. The building was rapidly deteriorating, and it got to the stage where local authorities considered repair and renovation work would prove more costly than just demolishing the place and starting anew. Although the decision to demolish the building would not be officially finalised for a number of years, from the mid-1980s onwards whenever residents departed, they were not replaced and the apartments they vacated were bricked up. 

The dwindling number of residents who remained come the early 1990s were actively encouraged to look elsewhere, the local council facilitating moves to new developments in the Cité Claveau estate nearby or over in the right bank districts of the city. By this time, the residence was already a ghost of its former self, with the notoriously windy ground floor concourse becoming the territory of local drug dealers. To say the building had become inhospitable would be an understatement, and in the summer of 1996 la Cité Lumineuse’s final surviving resident, an 83-year-old gentleman by the name of Mr San José, departed for good.

In its latter years, the trials and tribulations of la Cité Lumineuse became a recurring subject in local newspaper Sud Ouest. 

In September of that year demolition work began, although progress was hampered and delayed by the presence of asbestos. The task was also rendered particularly difficult by having to remove one by one the tops of the 622 piles that had been used for the building’s foundations in an area which was inevitably humid and prone to flooding. But by February 1997 the apartment block was no more, and the local authorities began looking forward to the future and the new development that would take its place, comprising 116 homes within a 2.5-hectare landscaped environment.

The demise of la Cité Lumineuse had inspired a number of creative projects at the time, such as songs written by the local rap collective Génération Posse, and a book, ‘La Lumineuse, cite habitée’, compiling the writings of a number of local youths conducted under the guidance of the bestselling author Hervé Le Corre, who had previously spent 17 years in the Bacalan district of Bordeaux and retained strong ties with the neighbourhood and its people… so much so that Bacalan and the Cité Lumineuse often feature extensively in his fictional work.

Rewinding – or rather fast-forwarding – back to 2021, other than individual memories and a helping or two of nostalgia, what remains of la Cité Lumineuse? Well, the answer is next to nothing. Taking up position opposite the local post office and annex of the city hall with a view to reproducing a photo spotted in a 2013 issue of a local magazine, what is most striking is the sheer void where the building used to be.

Slightly blurred archive photo of la Cité Lumineuse with the post office and Mairie de Quartier in the foreground, as credited to Labarthe and featured in a 2013 issue of 'Bacalan' magazine. And, once again, the same view today. 
Behind the tram and bus stops, a modern residential complex - along with a Lidl supermarket - is tucked away behind the trees. Alongside the Garonne, where the pétanque and football pitches once were, pleasant tree-lined paths are dotted with benches, and sided by just enough greenery to keep dogwalkers satisfied.

But a couple of traces of the Lumineuse era are still forthcoming, even 25 years on. The first is a few blocks away on Place Muscaillet, which is now home to the Marché de la Lumineuse and its vendors every Friday morning. Despite the passage of time and a couple of relocations, the market has symbolically retained its name.

The Lumineuse flag is still flying on Place Muscaillet.
The other is to be spotted in an alleyway that runs between two blocks of housing that now stand where the Cité once was. Encased by one of the modern constructions is a high voltage transformer station, which clearly predates its imposing neighbour by some years. On the panel affixed to the door, just above the reminder of the imminent risk of death, is the code name of the station. In black typeface on a yellow background, the letters spell out the name “Lumineuse”. The luminous building discreetly shines on...  

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Cité Lumineuse, Rue Achard, Bordeaux.

> Cet article est également disponible en français !

> Source of lead photo:

> Thanks to my good friend Laurent B. for tips and stories!

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