In central Bordeaux, three bronze orientation maps (or “ plans-reliefs ” in French) have been positioned at strategic locations. I met ...

Sculptor François Didier, the plans-reliefs of Bordeaux and Bages, and the Jardin de Casaque

In central Bordeaux, three bronze orientation maps (or “plans-reliefs” in French) have been positioned at strategic locations. I met up with François Didier, the sculptor behind these popular hands-on works of public art, to talk about the pieces, about a similar project rolled out near Pauillac and about his private sculpture garden at the northern tip of les Landes.  

The plans-reliefs project was initiated around 2007 by Philippe Prévôt, who is in charge of “patrimoine historique” (heritage sites) at Bordeaux Office de Tourisme, as well as being a renowned author of articles and books about the city’s lesser-known stories. Prévôt had been inspired by a 3-D map in Florence, Italy, and thought his friend François Didier would be the right man for the job, as the sculptor had already produced scale models of towns in the past. The idea soon gained the support of the city council who would go on to commission the works in partnership with the Office de Tourisme.

François Didier with one of the preliminary models of Porte Cailhau.
An initial plan was presented to Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé who rubberstamped the concept developed by François Didier. The sculptor thus went on to spend two years working on the project which he describes as complex: “The objective was for the sculptures to be both aesthetically appealing and informative, and to be eminently accessible. They are, after all, designed to be physically touched by the general public!”

The accessibility issue was an important one: part of the raison d’être of the maps was to provide visually-impaired or physically-disabled visitors with a feel of the sights which surround them. To obtain the best possible results, François Didier therefore worked in close conjunction with representatives of GIPHP (Groupement pour l'Insertion des Personnes Handicapées Physiques) and UNADEV (Union Nationale des Aveugles et déficients Visuels) throughout the conception phase.

The Pey-Berland plan-relief on Place Jean-Moulin, including a fine view of Fort du Hâ (bottom right). Note the small spheres used to avoid sharp points at the top of the cathedral spires and Tour Pey-Berland (top left).
François Didier experimented with different ways of presenting the districts to be portrayed on the 1-square-metre tables: “I isolated sections of a map of Bordeaux and asked the Office de Tourisme which sights they wanted to highlight. These became the focal points of the plans-reliefs so on the end-products the surrounding roads and buildings are not necessarily to scale.”

Work was carried out first on the Pey-Berland district map, followed by Place de la Comédie and Place du Palais: “The various monuments were reproduced with the use of maps, plans and the expert input of authoritative local historian Robert Coustet, but I refrained from using Google imaging which actually provides an inaccurate and distorted view of reality.”

First François Didier drew pictures of the monuments, then he went on to produce the wax models. One of the high points came at this stage when a visually-impaired person from Bordeaux was invited to touch the miniature monuments and correctly identified each one, despite having never seen them! François describes the event as “both astonishing and extremely moving”.

The Place de la Comédie plan-relief. Note the braille panels and a nice aerial view of Eglise Notre-Dame and Cour Mably (top right).
Then came a series of meetings and work sessions with the Cyclopes foundry, to identify how best to execute the final works: “As there were to be so many contrasting components to deal with, necessitating different forms of processing when producing the bronze pieces, the decision was made to generally produce the monuments separately and add them to the base. This was also the case for the names of the sights and the small braille labels.”

Once the bronze elements had been produced, François Didier’s work was still not complete as he spent around 300 hours fine-tuning the various pieces with a chisel! The patina was then applied by the foundry’s François Michel who used a process of advance oxidation aimed at durably protecting the bronze.

The Place du Palais plan-relief  is the only one to feature a "you are here" figurine (visible bottom left). The close-up shots here show Place du Parlement and Place Camille-Jullian. Yes, it was a rainy day.
By December 2009 though, the mission was truly accomplished as the three plans-reliefs were inaugurated by Alain Juppé. They have since become an integral part of the landscape in central Bordeaux: “The feedback has been great and the maps are particularly popular with children. Importantly, the sculptures have been treated with great respect and remain in good condition five years down the line.”

Since then, there have been two notable spin-offs. Firstly, since 2011 two similar plans-reliefs have been on display on the central square in Bages, a tiny hamlet just outside Pauillac which has been given a new lease of life in recent years under the impetus of Jean-Michel Cazes, the dynamic owner of Château Lynch Bages. The first map immortalises Bages as it was when Cazes was growing up there in the 1950s, while the other provides a wider bird’s eye view of the Pauillac wine-growing area.

The two plans-reliefs on the village square in Bages. The sun had finally come out the day I was there!
Secondly, the Bordeaux project also prompted François Didier to produce a series of “Caprices”, again in collaboration with Robert Coustet. The principle of a “Caprice” is that the artist incorporates different monuments of a city into a single picture, irrespective of their actual geographic location. François Didier explains that “in my Bordeaux pieces I portray monuments as seen from unusual angles, some have been destroyed, some are projects which were never completed”. This resulted in 40 pictures, 15 of which were then converted into terracotta bas reliefs. An award-winning exhibition was held at the Chartrons exhibition centre to tie in with a recent Journées du Patrimoine event.

Perhaps the best showcase for François Didier’s work though is his very own Jardin de Casaque in the village of Lugos, 56 kilometres to the south of Bordeaux. This is where the 63-year-old Normandy-born artist runs courses in sculpture for students of all levels, and carefully tends to the magnificent gardens which feature a number of his own creations: “The gardens are very much a joint project over the past 25 years with my wife Monique and the landscape gardener André Guéraux, who conceived the layout and incorporated lots of rare trees.”

The couple live on the property in a house which dates back to 1790 and which was originally home to a résinier, i.e. someone who would collect resin from the pine trees of the region. François’s workshops are in the restored wood-and-brick barn which was first built in 1905. The delightful gardens are open to the general public by appointment, via the official website: The website also features pictures of many of the sculptures on display. There certainly couldn’t have been a nicer place for my investigation into the plans-reliefs of Bordeaux to finish up!

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