Cultural Center Alvéole 14 - Saint-Nazaire - France
The 1940s submarine bunker is opened to the public. The building’s heavy shell is designed to resist change—so everything new happens inside, except for a light structure now topping the roof. The dome, a recycled transplant from another war relic—the Tempelhof airport in Berlin—becomes a symbol for the peaceful conversion of the massive, brutalist bunker in St. Nazaire.
The massive submarine bunker, built by forced laborers in 1941 during the occupation of France as a base for German Navy, sealed the fate of Saint-Nazaire in Brittany.
The port city became a main target of Allied air raids and was largely destroyed.
The base itself remained mostly unscathed, a seemingly invincible fortress of 480,000 cubic meters of concrete lying between the harbor and the city, which subsequently had to be almost entirely rebuild around it. It took nearly forty years until Saint-Nazaire began to regard the potential of the submarine bunker in the city’s development. The transformation began in 1991 with a light installation; every night since then, the bunker and the harbor have been colorfully illuminated.
Manuel de Solà-Morales elaborated upon this in the mid-nineties when he opened up four of the bunker’s fourteen submarine cells and created a visitor terrace on the roof.
A museum on Atlantic ocean liners followed, and finally - sixty years after the end of the war - the Berlin-based architectural office LIN transformed further parts of the bunker into the Alvéole 14 Cultural Center. In light of the building’s intrinsic challenges, this last transformation reveals remarkable sensitivity.
In contrast to the museum, which implanted a whole new world into the submarine cells, the architecture of the cultural center relies on a few slight interventions -
a reinterpretation that does not overwrite the original. In cell 14, the “alvéole” (submarine pen) was converted into an event hall, some 1400 square meters large.
The architects installed a floor above the original water basin, while the concrete walls were merely cleaned - even old wall scribbles remained discernable. In the former warehouse and workshop areas in cell 13 and 14, the music venue VIP was created, along with a backstage, recording studios and administrative offices. Two related architectural interventions were crucial in order to make the new cultural center - and thus the transformation of the bunker - visible to the outside world: the new roof structures and the redevelopment of the former supply wing. The corridor between the pens was made accessible to the public. LIN preserved the old transportation rails, evening them out with asphalt. Hanging from the ceiling are now 380 points of light - LEDs suspended on cables - which extend along the length of the corridor that also leads to the roof; the ceiling, at places some four meters thick, was broken through. On top of the roof, the architects mounted a translucent plastic geodesic dome, which can be seen from afar.
The radome was brought from Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, where it served until 2004 as weather proofing for a NATO radar station. In Saint-Nazaire the dome will now house a think tank for arts and music projects. A vestige from another (cold) war thus becomes a beacon for war ruins championed by reutilization.