I've just returned from a month in France (for places visited see 'recent posts'at page end) and as we always head for the far south of the country we cover a lot of kilometres! We tend to avoid motorways, preferring the scenic back roads, but during our infrequent use of French autoroutes we've discovered two fantastically designed service areas (or 'aires') which have now become destinations in themselves!
1st stop: Aire de la Baie de Somme
British readers could tell from this photo alone that this service area is NOT in Britain where all motorway services are diabolical - unremittingly dreary, garish, ugly and BADLY DESIGNED!! Spending more than 5 minutes in one is a grim and disheartening experience.
Inland from the coast about 60 klicks south of Boulogne in northern France (on A16) this aire is built on an a marshy wetland area alive with wild-life and flora. The round tower is a belvedere giving panoramic views oover the estuary towards the Baie de Somme and surrounding landscape.
The interior is a light and airy space with a spectacular view across the marshes and good observation point for the constantly quaking ducks and geese on the canal
There are a series of board walks criss crossing the wetlands which take you right into this atmospheric landscape.
Simple and austere, the tower dominates the flat landscape.
The plants are indigenous to this kind of environment - many species of rushes and grasses and spectacular wild flowers. How much more natural and beautiful than garishly planted flower beds.
Apart from the interesting pattern created by the narrow timber slats and boards, the colour of the timber is perfect in the setting, having been allowed to just weather to a natural wood colour. Why oh why do they sell decking stained and varnished a ghastly orangey brown?? Just let wood be wood I say.
The contrast of magentas, pale pinks and smoky greens with the washed out grey of the timber is sublime - in my view!
The texture and pattern of the grasses seems to echo the stripey slatting of the belvedere - a perfect harmony. This aire has been suberbly and simply designed to complement and contrast with the exceptional landscape it inhabits using a limited pallete of colour and materials.
You have to travel another 450 klicks down the motorway for a similar architectural experience in the world of service stations....................
Here is Aire des Jardins des Causses de Quercy (N of Cahors on A20) and guess what? I've since discovered the landscaping is by the same architects Agence HYL (I had a feeling it might be!)
The same simbiotic combination of natural and engineered materials and limited colour pallete.
The pared down concrete and reflecting glass create a perfect foil for the natural planting.
These pillars are ingeniously designed to provide a resting place for you coffee cup and plate of croissants. Such a perfect and unbelievably simple idea - interesting form plus function all in one!
The building is cantilevered out over a steep hill side.
Fantastic patterns created by sun and shadow through the pergola style roof of the terrace.
The terrace overlooks these gardens - like in the Baie de Somme the plants chosen are natural dwellers in this habitat.
The shapes and colours of the trees and shrubs contrast so well with the austerity and colour of the concrete forms.
The rail is wide enough to rest your coffee cup as you look down over the gardens to the lake below.
Allowing the creeper to clamber over the concrete pillars and pergola at once softens the building and adds an air of the exotic.
Simple repetition of one plant makes a solid, sculptural statement.
Top marks to the architects of these two aires who have transformed the rest stop experience and lifted the spirits of many weary travellers! Why, why why can't the builders of the worlds' motorways not realize that when there's good design and bad design to choose from they should JUST CHOOSE GOOD!
If readers know of other beautifully designed motorway services around the world I'd love to hear about them!