Can Zaha Hadid Transform Montpellier With Her Stunning New Cultural Center?

Can Zaha Hadid Transform Montpellier With Her Stunning New Cultural Center?
Pierres Vives Building, designed by Zaha Hadid
(Photo: Hélène Binet / General Council of Hérault )

Zaha Hadid’s new building Pierresvives ("Living Stones") houses the Cité des Savoirs et du Sport (Center for Knowledge and Sport) in the southern French city of Montpellier and was inaugurated last week to great fanfare. It’s the Anglo-Iraqi architect’s third building in France, after a tramway station in Strasbourg and the CMA/CGM tower in Marseille. When the red ribbon was cut, the audience held its breath, moved and impressed by this 88,000-ton, 640-foot-long behemoth.

A Three-Headed Building

A concrete and glass vessel with Hadid’s usual futuristic curves, the building holds both the archives of the department of Hérault, an 11,000-square-foot media center, and the offices of Hérault Sport, an association dedicated to encouraging athletic activity. This triple identity is visible in the architecture itself, with each function represented by a horizontal layer that can be seen from the outside: the base for the archives, the central corridor and its 54,000-square-foot glassy façade for the media center, and the top of the building for the administrative offices. The effect is of solid or transparent strata stacked one on top of the other.

The building’s interior has been designed to optimize flow between the different spaces, which are served by an escalator on the central vertical axis. Fluidity and movement are the watchwords of Hadid’s project. Emphasis is placed on the conservation of historical documents and, above all, on the accessibility of the public areas, which are on several levels and include the 215-foot high entrance hall, the media center, reading rooms for the archives, an exhibition space in the rear of the building, a 210-seat theater over the entrance hall, centers for youth and digital innovation, and a balcony. Almost 40,000 square feet of the space are open to the public, which shows the structure’s social purpose, conceived to encompass a wide range of events and activities including lectures, performances, multimedia access, outdoor sporting events, and more. Underneath the building, the cellar has a special archival function: it holds vintage wines from the region that will be preserved and analyzed over a ten-year period.

The Anti-Jean Nouvel

Located just to the west of Montpellier, the new building is part of a large development project. The aim is to “stitch” together the urban fabric of the downtown and the distant working-class neighborhood of Mosson, with Pierresvives as the nerve center of the district. Ultimately, the building will anchor a 25-acre residential and commercial zone, and it’s already a concrete sign of the government’s investment in renewing the suburbs of Montpellier.

If at first the choice of Zaha Hadid caused concern in Montpellier — such grand designs do not come cheaply — ultimately she has succeeded where Jean Nouvel failed. Nouvel built a glass and steel cube, a symbol of the triumphal power of the French republic, for the new Montpellier city hall in 2011. However, a city hall, which is after all a municipal organization, should have a more inviting and user-friendly design. For the same cost, Hadid designed a building whose great length is particularly well-suited to its public function.

The Cité des Savoirs et du Sport is a powerful architectural gesture and a future icon, but it has managed to remain humble, despite its imposing size. It’s not monumental or authoritarian, but a space of transparent movement. And its horizontal lines compensate for the artificial verticality of the nearby high-rise apartment buildings, bringing these volumes into harmony and creating comfort for the eye, which isn’t struck by anything head-on.

To see Zaha Hadid’s more images of Cité des Savoirs et du Sport, click on the slide show.