Biarritz is France’s surf capital. Located on the Atlantic coast of the French Basque region, it’s long held a pull for visitors seeking its bracing ocean air and cresting waves. It’s also home to France’s newest museum, the Cité de l’Océan et du Surf which opened this week.
Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the New York/Beijing practice collaborated with Brazilian architect Solange Fabião to realise the design for the museum that addresses scientific issues of oceanography and tidal systems. The underlying concept behind the master plan was to create a space in which notions of life beneath the sky and life beneath the sea are intimated through the respective grand concave and convex curves of the building. Merging seamlessly with the surrounding landscape, the concave space of the exterior plaza creates a natural outdoor meeting place and communal area. Its perimeter walls that take their cue from ocean waves subtly encourage a sense of shelter, drawing passers by to congregate within the enclosing space that will also be used for outdoor festivals and events on a regular basis. The underlying concave form also acts as a framing device, emphasising notions of the horizon, clearly visible where the sea meets the sky in the distance.
Yet, the curving walls of the external spaces are something of a mixed metaphor. They quite intentionally evoke waves and the sea, but their surfaces have been lined with Portuguese cobble intentionally encouraging grass to grow between the cracks. Here and there these lines of green merge into twists of vegetation that are part of the carefully planned landscaping. Viewed from certain angles, for example, the overall effect is one that merges seamlessly with the coastal landscape beyond. Similarly the main vertical aspects of the museum, the glass blocks that house exhibition spaces and other facilities, mimic the natural form of great boulders in the beach landscape beyond, visible from the sloping site.
The grand gesture of the convex ceiling in the main hall at the entrance to the elements that house the exhibition spaces immediately gives the sense of being enclosed beneath a great inner space of water, something that is emphasised through the use of audiovisual presentations on the curving walls.
At a time when many museums are questioning how they can maintain their relevance to the broader public, the Cité de l’Océan et du Surf has a number of included features that are intended to particularly make it relevant to those who are visiting Biarritz for reasons other than worthy education. The building houses a surfers’ kiosk in addition to a café and one area of the of the outdoor plaza has been created knowingly aware of its inevitable attraction to skateboarders. Apparently, Steven Holl Architects realised one form in the south-western corner of the external plaza as a reference to skate park architecture, reinforcing the connection between skateboarding and surfing.