Bordeaux puts wine at heart of revival strategy

The French "wine capital" of Bordeaux hopes a dramatic new cultural centre dedicated to its best known export can set the seal on this once decaying port's ambitious renewal programme.

The voluptuously rounded structure, dominated by glass and wood, will evoke gigantic drops of wine as they are swirled in a glass and transform the skyline of the historic city from its formerly shabby quayside site.

"It's what we've been waiting for," said Sophie Gaillard, from the Bordeaux tourist office, presenting the blueprints of the 55-million-euro ($78 million) project, due to open in 2014.

Explaining an ambitious design that mimics both wine drops and the swirling Garonne river below, lead architect Anouk Legendre said: "It will be seen from all over the city so it's round, opulent from all sides."

Just the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, south of Bordeaux over the border in Spain's Basque Country, transformed the image of one rundown Atlantic port, hopes are high that the wine centre will become a municipal icon.

Both the city and struggling winegrowers should benefit from a project that mayor Alain Juppe's office hopes will generate 750 new jobs, 40 million euros in annual revenue and 400,000 visitors a year.

At the same time, he hopes it will put an end to his city's reputation as a staid and traditional bourgeois provincial town and boost his drive to turn it into a European commercial and cultural capital.

The plans are by Parisian architects X-Tu and London design agency Casson Mann, who aim to transcend Bordeaux in time, geography and terroir - tracing the history of wine through ancient civilisations and far-flung regions.

"Most of the work we do is with existing buildings, this is a fantastic opportunity to work with an architect to make the installation and the buildings a seamless experience," said Roger Mann, co-director of Casson Mann.

"It will be a multi-sensory journey," added co-director Dinah Casson.

Visitors will flow in a route that curves like the Garonne through themed modules, beginning in the subterranean "archaeological level" and winding to an observation level with a panoramic view of the city.

It's seen as fitting that the river has influenced the design, not only because of the Garonn's historical role in the wine trade, but because the waterfront is integral to the urban revitalisation begun by Juppe in 1995.

"The city had lost its role as the locomotive for the region, and it no longer had the political weight to compete with other French or European cities," said Michel Duchene, city council deputy for urban strategy.

"Bordeaux was often referred to as a sleeping beauty."

Dilapidated warehouses and sleazy nightspots lined historic quays. Traffic clogged the streets and 18th century stone facades were black with pollution.

Businesses and the middle class fled the city centre for the unsightly suburban sprawl leaching into the surrounding vineyards, threatening the rural landscape and diluting the city's vitality and purpose.

Juppe undertook a vast public works project to "re-centre" the city around both banks of the Garonne.

Thirteen years and two billion euros later, Bordeaux has undergone a soft revolution, "pleasant and friendly, but rather radical," said Duchene.

The 4.5-kilometre (2.8-mile) quay has become a park with pedestrian and cycle paths, reflecting pool, skate park, sports facilities, shops, trendy restaurants, a farmer's market, gardens and landing dock for cruise ships.

Scrubbed facades give the limestone buildings an elegant, golden hue. A tramway, fewer cars, bike sharing, pedestrian-only zones and redesigned plazas have created a greener, cleaner city.

An EU study found that Bordeaux's bike traffic increased from two to nine percent in the last two years.

"That's the highest increase of any European city," said Duchene.

City gardeners are busy planting a 90-hectare (222-acre) park along the Bastide riverfront opposite the historical quays.

A modern drawbridge whose middle raises like an elevator, currently under construction, will link the new park to the city, just steps from the future site of the wine culture centre.

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