Invisible Bordeaux recently came across one of the city’s most unusual – and, it turns out, c...

Invisible Bordeaux recently came across one of the city’s most unusual – and, it turns out, controversial – permanent art installations: a house located on a traffic island near to the Pellegrin general hospital, sandwiched on all sides by streets and the tram A line. Welcome to “la Maison aux personnages”.

The exhibit is the work of Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and was unveiled in October 2009: it consists of a two-storey house comprising a number of rooms, each of which has been designed and filled with scenery and accessories to look like it is inhabited by an imaginary character. Visitors can tour the exterior of the house, peek in through the windows (including the upstairs room which can be reached via an outdoor staircase), and take in the various still-life scenes, with poetically-worded panels about the associated characters there to provide additional context and pointers. 

This is la Maison aux personnages, although at first glance there is nothing to suggest the house is a permanent artistic installation. Pellegrin hospital can be seen to the left.
Much like the outsize tracksuit trouser sculpture covered in the previous Invisible Bordeaux item, la Maison aux personnages was commissioned as part of a campaign to install modern public artwork at various points along the metropole’s tram network. The house and its surrounding square were arguably the most ambitious of the resulting pieces. Ahead of the official inauguration (in the presence of the artists, city mayor Alain Juppé, France’s then culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand, and the then president of the metropole, Vincent Feltesse), the area was a building site over a seven-month period.

All of which leads us on to one of the most surprising aspects of the installation: remarkably, the 148-square-metre air-conditioned house and its garden were purpose-built to become this artistic exhibit. Working to the designs drawn up by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov themselves (some of the original sketches can be viewed here) and inspired by the characteristics of Bordeaux’s échoppes and townhouses, the building was conceived by the architects Samira Aït-Mehdi and Sylvain Latizeau, and delivered by the contractors DV Construction.

Given the expense involved (somewhere in the region of 500 to 600,000 euros), the project has proved controversial. The politician Emmanuelle Ajon, a Bordeaux city councillor and Gironde department vice-president, condemned the venture by writing that it was “indecent to let homeless people look in on what it is like to have a roof, and to spend 560,000 euros on a house which will only ever be exhibited and never occupied”.

Peering inside.
A Direct Matin Bordeaux7 report collected opinion among locals who were dubious about the exhibit “which nobody ever visits”, “blocks the view” and is, in terms which echoed those of Emmanuelle Ajon, “a house that cannot be entered while there are homeless people sleeping rough nearby”. Finally, the associated Yelp page includes a comment from somebody who lives across the road, and who mentions the incessant traffic which isn’t exactly conducive to people reaching the house, let alone taking time out there to rest and reflect on its meaning. The writer signs off by saying “the work might be interesting but it remains invisible”.

Which, appropriately enough, is where Invisible Bordeaux steps in: I braved the elements to plot my way through the traffic across to the house, in order to report back on what there is to see through the windows. So here goes: I think the most interesting rooms to view were those entitled “En barque sous les voiles” (which includes a pretty wooden sailboat), “La soif d’inventions” (which appears to be a mad professor’s workshop, complete with illuminated fairy lights and a lot of work in progress) and “Ne jamais rien jeter” (with its collection of collections, i.e. hundreds of labelled items, along with a number of suspended objects and little cards with open questions to the viewer written on them). Of the others, “Le paradis sous le plafond”, in the upstairs room, featured little more than an armchair and a ladder to nowhere – it felt a bit overly minimalist and underwhelming. Most of the remaining rooms were more conventional living and sleeping quarters, and looking inside did feel a little voyeuristic, if you can picture a voyeur also standing there scratching his head about the meaning of it all.

Four of the rooms: "En barque sous les voiles", "La soif d'inventions", "Ne jamais rien jeter" and "Le paradis sous le plafond".
Anyway, having written all of the above, it turns out I’ve almost forgotten to acknowledge the Soviet Union-raised, New York-based artists themselves; just who are they? Ilya Kabakov was born in 1933 in what is now Ukraine’s fourth largest city, Dnepropetrovsk. For much of his life, his main activity
The Kabakovs,
picture source:
was that of an illustrator for children’s books, but from 1980 onwards he became well-established as a painter and writer. In 1988, he began collaborating with his future wife, Emilia (née Lekach), born in 1945 also in Dnepropetrovsk, who studied Music and Spanish in Moscow before moving to Israel then New York, where she became a curator and art dealer.

The couple have worked together ever since and have earned distinctions including France’s Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1995 and Austria’s Oskar Kokoschka Preis in 2002. Their work, which “fuses elements of the everyday with those of the conceptual” (according to, has been exhibited in venues including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The Bordeaux installation is just one of many public commissions delivered throughout Europe and elsewhere

So, how can Bordeaux’s Maison aux personnages be defined? If you extract adjectives from this article you’ll find words such as invisible, controversial, indecent, but also unusual, imaginary, poetic and interesting. As with all forms of artwork, there are as many definitions as there are people viewing the piece. If you haven’t witnessed the house yet, perhaps your time has come.

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: La Maison aux personnages, place Amélie Raba Léon, Bordeaux.

We’re in Mérignac, between the Pin Galant concert hall and its associated tram stop and, yes, t...

We’re in Mérignac, between the Pin Galant concert hall and its associated tram stop and, yes, that might just be a massive sculpture representing a gentleman's legs and feet, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and wearing a pair of tassel loafers. Er, hello?

This unusual public artwork is entitled, aptly enough, "Pantalon de jogging et mocassins à pampilles". It was officially unveiled on July 12th 2014 and was produced by the artistic duo Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel. It was commissioned as part of a programme to install art pieces at points alongside Bordeaux metropole’s tramway network, within the wider framework of an initiative coordinated by France’s culture ministry and the Aquitaine region’s departments for artistic creation and cultural affairs. So there. 

The piece is a good four metres tall (yes, the artists opted for a grand 4:1 scale). Working our way up from the bottom, at its base is a 90-centimetre plinth made out of black granite from Lanhélin in Brittany. The tasteful leather-like moccasins and their tassels are made out of polished ochre-red marble, specifically Caunes-Minervois marble from the Languedoc region. They are topped off by the elegant tracksuit bottoms, complete with practical tie-up waist belt and handy back pocket, carved from a block of grey granite from the Côtes d’Armor area of Brittany. 

Details from the piece. You have to admit that both the loafers and trousers do look extremely comfortable and practical.
Who are the two artists responsible for the piece? Daniel Dewar, originally from the Forest of Dean region in south-western England, was born in 1976, and met Grégory Gicquel, one year his senior and from Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, when the two were studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Rennes. The pair graduated in 2000 and have collaborated ever since, operating out of Paris.

Grégory Gicquel and Daniel Dewar,
picture source:
The fruitful creative partnership has become firmly established on the international art scene and produced artwork that is mainly inspired by and depicts everyday icons of popular culture (including bathtubs, sinks and bidets), mixing styles, periods and techniques; Dewar & Gicquel are equally at home whether carving wood, cutting stone, moulding clay or weaving huge tapestries. A subtle touch of humour is a virtual constant in their work, and recognition by the artistic community includes being awarded the prestigious Marcel Duchamp prize in 2012.

There is definitely a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour in Dewar & Gicquel’s portrayal of the functional tracksuit bottoms and moccasins, both of which are items of clothing that manage to be seemingly timeless while simultaneously drifting in and out of fashion. The morning I was there was the day that Cuban leader Fidel Castro died, so viewing a gigantic pair of tracksuit trousers seemed to be a highly appropriate way to spend some time. Whatever, the piece is an oddball and surprising addition to the Mérignac landscape, so look out for it the next time you’re in the area!  

The trouser-shaped sculpture is clearly visible from line A trams.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Pantalon de jogging et mocassins à pampilles, avenue Dorgelès, Mérignac.
> An impressive 17-page press package was produced to tie in with the work being unveiled in 2014 and features full biographical information about Dewar & Gicquel, an interpretation of the work that is far more poetic and wordier than anything Invisible Bordeaux could ever manage, and some interesting work-in-progress photos including those featured below. You'll find it here (the workshop photo has been borrowed from 

It's been another interesting twelve months feeding the beast that is Invisible Bordeaux, wit...

It's been another interesting twelve months feeding the beast that is Invisible Bordeaux, with highlights including some memorable evenings performing The Shuman Show (the first instance of a blog item being turned into a full-on live music extravaganza), and a bizarre afternoon spent monitoring the progress of my "Welcome Arthur 2016 remake" video as it rose to number 13 in the Youtube France trending chart, courtesy mainly of a nice plug on the Sud Ouest website

But to sign off for this year, we give you this traditional festive season rundown of 2016's most popular articles. Have you read them all? Click on the titles or associated pictures to check them out!
The resident astrophysics research unit has since moved out, but much of the legacy equipment remains on site at what was the Observatory of Bordeaux, the various components of which I was able to examine during the final open day to be held there.
A reader told me about an unusual hôtel particulier in the city's Saint-Seurin district. Heading over there, it was obvious that the house deserved not only its own article, but also the enviable unofficial "Bordeaux's coolest house" accolade. Unless you can think of one that is even cooler...
With the valuable support of archivists at Sud Ouest, I ploughed through old newspaper cuttings with a view to reconstructing one of the most raucous nights in the city's recent history, during the tumultuous month of May 1968. The most pleasing end-product of the exercise was when Sud Ouest themselves reported on the research in a new newspaper article looking back on the events that took place 48 years ago. Things had come full circle.
The story of the Alhambra brought back a lot of memories for a lot of people in Bordeaux and beyond, all of whom seemed to cherish the concert hall and the eclectic range of shows it put on. This piece also led to a collaboration with local music authority Philippe Serra, who selflessly shared tales of events he had attended there in a sister article.
This was a job that somebody had to do, so I took it on: to collect the good, the not-so-good and the sometimes astounding names of hairdressing salons in and around Bordeaux. Beware, the piece contains lots of "hair" and "tifs". And, despite that (or perhaps it's the reason why!), this was the year's most-read Invisible Bordeaux item.

And now, roll on 2017!

Every day, thousands of vehicles drive along Quai de Paludate and past Château Descas, which is ...

Every day, thousands of vehicles drive along Quai de Paludate and past Château Descas, which is simultaneously one of the most spectacular and one of the most mysterious buildings in central Bordeaux. I thought it might be interesting to investigate the subject!

Although the central section of the building currently lies empty, it is best known as having been the eponymous offices and wine cellar of the wine merchants Descas, whose founder Jean Descas (1834-1895), an Entre-Deux-Mers wine barrel manufacturer turned trader (and also the mayor of his hometown Camiran), first installed his then 20-year-old company here in 1881. The location was strategically close to Saint-Jean train station, giving him easy access to the burgeoning railway delivery network, and thus an extra edge over his counterparts who were traditionally positioned further north in the Chartrons district. This decision was also compounded by Descas’s focus on supplying affordable wine to customers in France, while the Chartrons players built their wealth on the high-end export market.

The property acquired at an auction by Jean Descas had, since 1661, been home to the city’s first general hospital, Hôpital de la Manufacture, the ancestor of today’s “CHU” (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire). For many years the establishment also provided a safe haven for abandoned children, with a peak of just under 900 being accommodated around the time of the French Revolution in 1789.

The way it was: Hôpital de la Manufacture in an 1830 portrayal by the lithographer Légé; picture borrowed from, the website which was expertly curated by the late, great Hervé Guichoux.
Jean Descas called on the architect Alphonse Ricard to transform the place into a grandiose celebration of Descas’s nouveau riche wealth and success, resulting in the fascinating exterior which can still be admired today. Features include countless mascarons, sculpted figures that represent Mercury and vines, dragon-shaped bas-reliefs, Jean Descas’s initials above the main entrance, chimneys that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional, a number of tiny balconies and, topping off the edifice in style, a vertigo-inducing lookout tower.

Plenty to spot, from the lookout tower to Jean Descas's initials, and the face of a man who appears to be surrounded by a full year's supply of grapes.
During the wine trading years, the building was reportedly as impressive inside as it was from the outside. Throughout the 10,000-square-metre warehouse, which was accessed from behind the building via the former hospital courtyard, Descas could store up to 1.5 million bottles. A then-ultramodern system of elevators and wagons made it easy to handle and manoeuvre stocks whenever necessary, something which had been a constant challenge for Chartrons-district counterparts in their more conventional facilities.

The company and its château warehouse continued to go from strength to strength for the best part of a century, until they were taken over by the Merlaut family in 1979. Descas’s assets were relocated to the right bank of the Garonne and a modern-day warehouse just off Quai de Brazza. This remains Descas’s head office and is where its director Denis Merlaut monitors the group’s many contemporary business interests, which range from wine production and trading to the ownership and rental of business units.

Mercury and Vine.
Château Descas still belongs to them (the actual storage warehouse was demolished in 1984), but to many it is now synonymous with fading memories of Bordelais night-life! For, in 2001, the château was transformed into a cabaret-nightclub, le Caesar’s, newly evicted from a quayside warehouse that was about to be demolished. Le Caesar’s wanted to become a direct tenant but Denis Merlaut didn’t believe this to be a viable option. Instead, the city council - who were keeping a close eye on le Caesar’s predicament, possibly because the manager was a close friend of several councillors - came to the rescue and rented the building, subletting it on to the nightclub throughout the duration of a two-year lease.

Then the château was turned into a short-lived disco known as le Rikiki Palace, which hosted DJs including Bob Sinclair. The following, final nocturnal incarnation was le Mystic, a “restaurant-club” described by observers as a “haunted venue” where little people manned the door and, even more bizarrely, a gigantic animated mask served as master of ceremonies. Business ceased in 2007.

And, ever since then, an ugly legal battle has been underway between Descas and Bordeaux city council over unauthorised structural work carried out inside the building (which included the complete gutting and removal of the third floor), as noted when the municipality’s lease expired in 2003. Descas are claiming damages of 6 million euros to get the premises back into shape, although the ongoing legal efforts have been undermined by the use of the building beyond 2003 to house Rikiki Palace and le Mystic.

Which brings us to the present day’s empty shell, albeit one which is flanked by two wings which are occupied by various companies, associations and even a bar, le Point Rouge, not to mention the swish old people’s residence which has gone up behind the château, sandwiching what GoogleEarth would suggest is a pleasantly symmetrical garden/square.

The current view from GoogleEarth. The next time I go back I'll try heading round the back via rue... Jean Descas! 
This aerial view from sometime between 1950 and 1965, as featured on the fantastic website, clearly shows the extensive warehouses behind the château.
Back in front, to add to the haunted nature of the building, a long-disused “restaurant club” sign still hangs above the main entrance, and many of the “windows” (across the whole of the first floor and much of the ground floor) are actually wooden panels that have been painted to look like panes of glass; they are in fact convincing “trompe-l’oeils”!

Ground-floor trompe-l'oeils: Ceci n'est pas une fenêtre. Et ceci n'est plus un restaurant club.
But perhaps everything is not lost: peering through one of the (real) ground floor windows, lights were on, and low-key renovation or maintenance work was in progress. It will be interesting to keep track of what happens to the building; perhaps the legal wrangling will soon be in the past and, once again, Château Descas will come back to life.

A naughty look at the inside view where work appears to be in progress in between the marble columns.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Château Descas, quai de Paludate, Bordeaux
> When I went to view Château Descas (on what happened to be the coldest morning of 2016), I was accompanied by the delightful Noémie and Sarah, students at the IJBA school of journalism in Bordeaux. Thank you both for coming along and for filming a report about Invisible Bordeaux, which went something like this:
> Finally, Château Descas is a subject that was suggested to me by a number of readers, including Byron Sharp and Karen Ransom, both of whom are based in Australia. I hope you have enjoyed the read, Byron and Karen!  
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

One sight which is visible from most points along the waterfront in central Bordeaux is the Bou...

One sight which is visible from most points along the waterfront in central Bordeaux is the Bouliac radio mast, the tallest man-made structure in Gironde and the 20th tallest structure in France. Why is it there and what purpose does it serve?

The mast goes by a number of names according to where you look: antenne TDF (which originally stood for TéléDiffusion de France), pylône TDF or pylône de Bouliac. You might think that one thing that cannot be disputed is its height, but even that information differs in places! Most sources record it as measuring 252 metres, some round it down to 250 metres while others downgrade it to a lowly 232 metres. Whichever figure it might be, if you can picture the Eiffel Tower, the Bouliac mast tops out at the equivalent of a bit above mid-way between the second and third platforms.

This is kind of how things would look if the Bouliac mast was in central Paris.
(Eiffel Tower picture source: Wikipedia.)
Whatever, weighing in at 700 tons and positioned on a concrete base which is four metres thick, the mast is definitely an imposing beast. Perched as it is on the 80-metre-high mound that has earned the town of Bouliac the nickname “le balcon de Bordeaux”, the tip of the mast is actually the highest point in the département. And, as you can probably imagine, the mast emits signals beamed in via satellite by nationwide FM radio stations, digital TV channels and telecoms operators.

The mast was first installed in 1957 and was soon ranked as one of TDF’s seven main transmission masts; illustrious counterparts on that list include the aforementioned Eiffel Tower and the Pic du Midi in the Pyrenees. The pylon was replaced in 1988 but, that short overhaul period aside, the antenna has been a permanent fixture on the Bordeaux skyline for almost 60 years. Around 1 million people are served by the signals it emits, either directly or via one of six relay antennae that are strategically positioned throughout Gironde (Arcachon, Bordeaux Caudéran, Langoiran-Portets, Latresne, Lesparre and Soulac).

Close-up views of parts of the mast including the tip and the base.
There is more to the facility than simply broadcasting though. In 2013, buildings at the base of the mast were converted into TDF’s first ultra-modern datacenter (codename: le ProxiCenter de Bordeaux Bouliac) used by telecoms operators, service providers and local councils as a hyper-safe and secure place to store their digital assets. The online presentation of this offering is particularly impressive, with much talk of sustainable development, the “free cooling” air conditioning systems used in the computer rooms, biometric access control systems and the like. Oh, and the fact that it would take a long time for floodwaters to reach Bouliac, which also enjoys the added advantage of not exactly being a seismic hazard zone. So if you too have valuable data that you would like to store elsewhere than on your external hard drive, look no further.

Anyway, as you gaze upstream along the Garonne river taking in the waterfront, the Miroir d'Eau, the buildings and the bridges, do not forget to gaze upwards towards Bouliac, the balcony of Bordeaux and the TDF mast!

Yes, that's our pylon over there on the left, beyond the Miroir d'Eau and the Pont de Pierre.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Pylône de Bouliac, route Bleue, Bouliac
> Clicking here will take you through to Wikipedia's guide to the tallest structures in France
> Cet article est également disponible en français !
> And if you want some mystifying information about what can be found in the "ProxiCenter", then check out this video clip:

Congratulations Charlotte Grandjean, who is the winner of the competition which ran on social m...

Congratulations Charlotte Grandjean, who is the winner of the competition which ran on social media to celebrate Invisible Bordeaux's fifth anniversary! 

Charlotte, a Dane living in Marseille who took part in the competition on Facebook, wins two nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation for two people at Novotel Bordeaux Lac, along with two 2-day Bordeaux Metropole CityPass tickets, offering unlimited travel on public transport and reduced rates for guided tours and admission to museums.

Big thanks to everyone who took part in the competition on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and extra special thanks to the good people of Novotel Bordeaux Lac and the Bordeaux Tourism & Conventions for partnering with the blog. 

Charlotte, see you in Bordeaux!