In Pessac’s Bersol industrial estate, in the space of land flanked by the Rocade ring-road to the east, and the A63 motorway to the south, n...

What signals can be picked up today at Pessac’s radar test tower?

In Pessac’s Bersol industrial estate, in the space of land flanked by the Rocade ring-road to the east, and the A63 motorway to the south, new, modern office developments are currently taking shape… although a lone air control tower-like structure remains from the previous incarnation of the area. What is the tower, why is it still standing, and what is it set to become? 

The tower is in fact a remnant of the time when the plot was home to the radar capabilities of Thomson-CSF, now known as Thales. The electronics systems group had opened the Pessac facility in 1974, around the same time as an aircraft electronics branch was also founded in Le Haillan. Teams from the two plants eventually relocated to a new facility in Mérignac in 2016, a modern campus-like setting which now provides a state-of-the-art working environment to some 2,800 people (myself included). 

The area which had therefore been vacated in Pessac became a core part of Bordeaux Métropole’s ‘Bordeaux Innocampus’ priority area for development (along with the zone neighbouring the airport and the area now known as Euratlantique near Saint-Jean railway station). As such, the former Thales site was demolished, the plot was acquired by a “Société d’économie mixte locale” known as Route des Lasers, and this resulted in the ‘Amperis’ project which is currently taking shape, aimed at providing offices and laboratories for innovative start-ups in the fields of cybersecurity, materials chemistry and biotechnologies. 

Construction work on the tower circa 1974 (photo courtesy Thales).

Initially, the tower too should have been demolished, but instead the Pessac town council and Bordeaux Métropole decided to retain it. In 2018, a call for projects was issued and the winning bid was that submitted by Legendre Immobilier to convert the tower into a panoramic restaurant, currently to be known as La Canopée, developed in association with one Jean-François Tastet, the owner of the popular Canopée Café in nearby Mérignac. Theoretically, the new office spaces and restaurant should have opened in 2021 but, as with so many other projects right now, everything has been pushed back. The most recent reports in Sud Ouest now earmark the first semester of 2023 for delivery.  

The way it was in 1973 (source: IGN Remonter Le Temps).

1976: the tower can be seen sandwiched by Thomson-CSF's two long, brand new buildings. 

The picture in 1989.

Less greenery still in 2012.
How the area currently looks on GoogleEarth; the buildings have gone but the tower remains.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the Bordeaux Innocampus zone was an integral part of the annual heritage days weekend, and a video presentation showcased on site provided an interesting, concise history of the reinforced concrete tower, explaining that it really came into its own in the early 1980s when series production began on the airborne radar for the Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft. The dedicated structure was more generally designed for the open-field testing procedures carried out on antennas and radars. 

Ten flights of twelve stairs (and an elevator) led up to the structure’s two hexagonal 300-square-metre platforms. A dozen or so people were permanently stationed on the lower storey, situated 21 metres above ground level. It was made up of six partitioned units, designed as anechoic chambers with walls that absorbed electromagnetic waves, making it possible to reproduce free-field conditions without causing echoes which could disturb measurements. Measurement beacons could also be positioned around the platform to receive signals emitted by pylons towards the tower. 

The top floor, 25 metres up, was used to test radars, and would only be used by groups of two people at a time. Unlike the first, this level was not split into individual units but was a fully open-plan space. Tests were conducted by liaising with ground-level transponder beacons placed around the tower. 

Heading there recently to check out the work in progress, it was relatively easy to approach the tower (I certainly wasn’t the first and probably not the last to creep through a gaping hole in the fence). The tarmac surrounding the structure has been broken up, no doubt to prevent the travelling community from setting up shop on the resulting wasteland. I did harbour vague hopes of accessing the tower itself, but the ground level entrance has been totally bricked up to thwart trespassing bloggers. 

While on the other side of a tall fence, the Amperis office developments are clearly taking shape, at this point in time nothing very much appears to be happening to the tower, which still sports its original mustard and beige stripes, along with a little bit of low-lying graffiti – but actually not that much. It clearly hasn’t become a massive spot for urbex enthusiasts or graffiti artists. The architects’ impressions of how it will look in the future suggest the tower is set to be painted white. 

So, how desirable a destination will the panoramic restaurant be? Well, given that you tend to dine in a panoramic restaurant to enjoy the view, the hopes can’t be that high. Other than looking out over office blocks and treetops, there can’t be much to see from up there (although it could be a good vantage point to check out the traffic situation on the A63). But as the surrounding area fills up with suitably upwardly-mobile engineers and executives, there will undoubtedly be a receptive audience for lunchtime dates – I’m just not so sure it’s the kind of place you’d head to for a romantic evening meal. 

Whatever, it will in time be fascinating to see what becomes of this vestige of the past. Perhaps the next time I return, in 2023, instead of being greeted by a brick wall, a maître d’ will be there to welcome me!

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Radar test tower, avenue Gustave-Eiffel, Pessac

> Cet article est également disponible en français ! 

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