During the Second World War, a huge submarine base was built by the occupying forces in the city of Saint-Nazaire on the French Atlantic coast. When the city was flattened towards the end of the war, the base was the only building left standing. During reconstruction, the demolition of the base was considered multiple times, but the idea was ultimately abandoned because of the sheer size of the building and the cost of the works.
Even as an infrastructure that seems impossible to manage and psychologically hard to process, its indestructibility turned it into a de facto monument. As a consequence, some 20 years ago, the city changed its strategy: instead of trying to get rid of the base, the decision was made to appropriate it, along with all of its difficulties. Gradually, it started to host various functions: a restaurant, a public space, an experience centre for (former) transatlantic travel, a roof garden, a concert hall and a venue for experimental art. In all its incongruity, it gradually became a multiple destination, turning its awkwardness into its main asset.
When confronted with the question of relocating the popular Jacques Brel hall inside the submarine base, the time was ripe to use this addition as a pretext to re-evaluate the functioning of the whole. Possibly being the ‘central piece of the puzzle’, the design of the hall had the potential to tie everything together. From an architectural project, it therefore turned into a strategic operation, which made it necessarily a design process aimed at questioning every action’s ability to activate the site as an urban (or even metropolitan) destination.
Bringing the Jacques Brel hall into the submarine base generates an urban destination on three scales. Firstly, it creates ‘a culture and leisure machine’ conceived in synergy with the VIP and LIFE events halls, which pre-existed in the base. Secondly, it activates the bunker as a public space by drawing crowds all the way into the heart of the base and the harbour basin on the other side, experiencing the hall and its inner façade on the way as covered public space. Thirdly, it reinforces the seafront as a cultural destination on the regional and even international scale.
The result is a deliberately simple project that works more as an urban district than a single building: a device with potential, an infrastructure activating a broad range of possibilities for various future users. The architecture of the project is basic but offers a strong physical impact: an architecture referring to the context of the bunker and of the water, not only to be admired, but first of all to be used intensely as part of the everyday life of the city.