Nuage port marianne Montpellier © editions Chabot

Montpellier, the capital of design

For many years now Montpellier has regarded itself as a centre of architecture and design. In 1977, the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill was entrusted with the titanic realisation of the Antigone.

Inspired by the world of the ancient Greeks and inaugurated by the then President, François Mitterrand, the area remains, after almost forty years, a potent symbol of successful urban architecture and the opening chapter of a love story between the Hérault’s capital, architecture and design. 

zoom in

  • Zaha Hadid
  • Pierresvives
  • "nuage"
  • rbc
  • Christian Lacroix
  • design
  • Philippe Starck
  • Port marianne
  • François Fontès
  • Jean Nouvel
  • Fuksas

Our tour of 'Montpellier design' starts at dusk when the lights of Port Marianne are illuminated. 

A few miles from the sea, this area has become the architectural ambassador of the capital of Hérault.

Look upwards: on both sides of avenue Raymond-Dugrand (one of the builders of the city) magnificent buildings have sprung up. Most designed by great names in architecture.

Firstly, the town hall; this ‘blue ship’ prompted journalists from the New York Times to place it, in 2012, among the 45 best things to see in the world... 

Designed by François Fontès and Jean Nouvel, the building overlooks the townscape along the river Lez. Every evening when the sun goes down it puts on a dazzling show with the last rays of sunlight reflecting off the building to emphasise the magnificent architectural work. 

We pass across the basin of Jacques-Coeur.

A strange building, which changes colour and dominates the area is just a few yards from the water that mirrors it, the ‘Nuage’ (cloud).

Designed by the French artist Philippe Starck, the building houses a restaurant and fitness centre.

This was one of the first inflatable constructions in Europe: around the concrete structure, a bubble-shaped membrane is inflated under 700 millibars of pressure.

“A polyethylene sheet one tenth of a millimeter thick, held in tension by what is creating the very breath of life, the wind and the air”, says Philippe Starck.

The Nuage must be one of the pioneering structures in this field and was extraordinarily difficult to put in place because of the advanced techniques involved.

The building, seemingly halfway between being completely transparent and translucent, stimulates some motorists passing on the main road to speak of “seeing people moving and colours stirring...”

Across from the mirror of water and its multi-coloured fountain jets, the Cloud faces the RBC Design Centre, an impressive design and contemporary furniture store.

Its interior, metallic and light, is as surprising as its outer layer, comprised of large letters and designed by Jean Nouvel, who imposed his style throughout Port-Marianne.

A few hundred yards away, on the other side of the Charpak park and featuring geometric delusions of Massimiliano Fuksas, stands the Georges Frêche school: the flowing and elegant curves of this structure, covered with thousands of small triangles, make it a resolutely singular work. 

RBC Montpellier

RBC Montpellier

Pierresvives Montpellier  © Editions Chabot

Whilst strolling through the streets we see amazing works testifying to its rich architectural past.

The sun rises in Montpellier.

In the Hospitals-Faculties area, there is, as most inhabitants of Montpellier call it, ‘the doughnut and sausage roundabout’, but it doesn't really have any name.

Or rather… yes, 'Homage to Confucius'; that’s what Alain Jacquet, its creator called it in the early 2000s. This artistic structure near the Faculty of Science, serves as point of rendezvous for students.

"We’ve never really understood just what it represents, but what is certain is that it’s an essential part of the landscape!", said Doria, a student.

And… "Without it, we’d be lost!” joked Pierre, next to her and late for his class.

A little further north, another strange roundabout, designed by Chinese artist Chen Zhen, appears to show two huge satellite dishes topped with seventy chairs 'The human constellation' is the gateway to the district of La Paillade.

It’s also in this area of Montpellier that a huge concrete vessel arose in 2012 — Pierresvives, home of the departmental archives of Hérault and also a media library.

"The composition of Pierresvives is absolutely unique'', confided Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect who designed the building, “It is part of a long, French architectural tradition”

It certainly is a fantastic building with a majestic air, and well worth a look.

But it would be foolish to evoke the fine aspects of Montpellier without considering a thing of beauty that has wound through the city centre and into the suburbs for fifteen years now, the tramway. Often presented as ‘the most beautiful in the world’, the Montpellier tramway was inspired by famous names, including the fashion designer, Christian Lacroix.

It’s a practical but beautiful design that runs over the city’s hills and dales, a colourful centipede that inspires other world capitals.