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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Half Dose #44: Saint- Nazaire Alvéole 14

This is my kinda project. A renovation of a submarine bunker in Saint- Nazaire, France by German office LIN Finn Geipel + Giulia Andi transforms the hulking concrete shell into a cultural center for the city, in the process restitching the city to the waterfront that the bunker disconnected it from.

[aerial view looking east | photo by Dominique Macel - Ville de Saint-Nazaire]

Instead of destroying the massive building (300m x 130m; 985' x 425') and building anew, the city held a competition for reusing the structure. The winning entry envisioned a design in four parts: International Center for New Art Forms (LIFE), a contemporary music venue (VIP), an internal street, and a rooftop cupola with no apparent function.

[site plan and plan diagram]

What strikes me most about the project is the way the architects handled the existing. While others may have opted to cover-up the structure -- in effect concealing the difficult past of the German-built, WWII-era home for submarines -- the designers instead keep the existing roughness exposed, so the past is not forgotten or glossed over.

[rendering (above) by architects and "finished" view of the rooftop by Christian Richters]

To complicate matters of memory, the architects saved a dome from a radar system at an airport in Berlin to be lifted onto the roof. As mentioned, this space is not assigned a function, but is seen as a destination for visitors and an inspiration for artists, musicians, and others for future scenarios.

[looking perpendicular to the internal street | photo by Jan-Oliver Kunze, LIN]

The greatest contrast between old and new occurs in the internal street, where nearly 400 LED lamps are suspended from above in a regular grid. While obviously helping in navigation, these pinpoints of light exhibit the subtlety of the intervention. What is perhaps the most important new element doesn't really "touch" the existing, as if the concrete structure looks strong, but it is in fact fragile.

[new stair to the roof | photo by Christian Richters]

The project is a good example of how cities can reinvigorate their industrial waterfronts, making them a part of the city as opposed to voids in the urban fabric. The bunker in Saint-Nazaire is more complicated than most, considering its past and the difficult decision in keeping the structure and then what to do with its physical appearance. But it appears the project is a successful one that should give notice to cities all too willing to demolish the demons from their past.

[view from the entry | photo by Jan-Oliver Kunze, LIN]

:: LIN Finn Geipel + Giulia Andi
:: Domusweb feature
:: Pavilion Arsenal (PDF - images culled from this document)


  1. So what is it that the architects added to the structure, besides cupola (which is really neat)? Since there are no "before" photos, looks like to me that they added the LED lights... not much of architecture I'd say? And it still looks like a pretty uninviting place...

  2. St. Nazaire originally wished to demolish the structure but the costs were prohibitive. The allied bombs that hit the building in WWII barely made a dent in the roof, which is incredibly deep. It would take something on the order of an atomic bomb to demolish this super structure. Back in 1999 there were plans to build a commercial mall on the roof...hopefully the city keeps working on it.

  3. Thanks for the info, anon. I'm guessing the city's far from finished with the retrofit.

  4. I'm a German and I live in Saint-Nazaire since quiet a while. Besides the architectual ( did I sad architectual ? ) changes which are made by some wanna-be masson's, the building cost every year millions of EURO in maintaining and still the Germans get a profit out of it.

  5. I'm French, Architect AND Party Guy , and I'm really surprised to read these comments... In fact I think this place (alveole14 in the heart of this stunning "refurbished" UBoot base) is the best venue in France especialy for electronic music show and stuff like that. ( "La condition publique" is great aswell)
    the architectural work done there is very clever. it may seem to be minimalistic but in fact it combines horizontal and vertical spaces (throught the 5meter deep reinforced concrete roof). On one side you have a great huge "room" for big parties, exhibitions etc in the UBoot alveole (water is still here under the slim concrete ground and they can open the main door on the harbor side) and on the other side you get a nice set of stacked rooms: concert room, bar, recording studio etc. The LED light patern is a great whole signaletic device, requalifying the huge corridor between the two main spaces. I could speak a lot about this place, it's mutation between day and night etc It's an impressive place in many ways.
    If I was a german, I would be very proud of it, ad it's fun that is a german architect who did the job, and did it so well (another fn detail: the luminous dome on the roof is a "refurbished" radar dome from a Berlin airport ;p )
    So, as for many other architectural works, the best way to understand it is to see and experiment it in real before posting stupid comments like te Eduard one.
    And I'm not a IIIReich fan or something: my own grandfather "worked" as a prisonner in the building site of the Brest Uboot base.. and it was quite a pain in the ass..

    signé: Ben


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