Aug '08 - Jun '10
Often we think of WWII disfiguring cities through destruction: Hiroshima, Dresden, Rotterdam, Berlin, etc. But what about cities disfigured by addition in wartime? Such was the case for St. Nazaire when it was converted into one of five U-boat bases on the Atlantic coast of France.
A former Trans-Atlantic hub, this port town was forever transformed by the German occupation. In 1941, 300 meters of prime port frontage was obliterated when the Germans built a massive bunker to house up to 19 U-boats. When I arrived I couldn't believe the size of this thing. It's a bunker on some serious steroids, way bigger than any of the now puny bunkers I've been looking at over the past two weeks.
Let's get a hang of the scale here. It's 300 meters long by 180 meters wide by 18 meters tall, and in volume, 480,000 cubic meters of concrete. It was essentially a naval dockyard under an impenetrable shell of concrete. The roof is five meters thick, and in some places, with a gap for scattering the bomb blast, an effective roof thickness of 8 meters. That's nearly three stories of affordable housing to fit in the roof. And you thought the Berkeley Art Museum was a waste of concrete...
Well what can you do with 480,000 cubic meters of concrete? You're gonna call Bunker Recycling Services, that's what.
It seems St. Nazaire has already been visited by BRS.
In the former U-boat pens you can find the Base Bar, the tourist information center for St. Nazaire, a theatre, exhibition space, a museum of Trans-Atlantic ship travel, a night club/performance space, and just some kick-ass concrete caverns. It makes under-the-freeway spaces look pretty tame.
And then you get up to the roof. Access is achieved in three ways. The obvious way up is via a public ramp that is partially built on top of a supermarket. This ramp is like an extension of the surface of the city, vaulting up to the plateau on top of the bunker. There is an elevator to the top with a glass window that lets you scan the five-meter thick cut through the roof. There is also a metal stair punching through the roof, which resonates as your feet pound on the treads.
Curiosities abound on the roofscape. First, take note of the concrete lattice that was designed to scatter the bomb blasts. The space beneath is beautiful… the French term is chambres d'eclatement, which I think means "rooms of shattering".