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    Inside a U-Boat Bunker

    Nick Sowers
    Sep 9, '09 12:49 PM EST

    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.

    stnazaire17 stnazaire18

    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".



    There is an installation of 107 trees by Gilles Clement, entitled Le Bois de Trembles. It's ingenious: the trees poke through the lattice, while below, the planter boxes are kept in the shade. Unfortunately you can't explore this area (yet).


    There is a radome that was lifted from a NATO air base outside Berlin and "offered" to St. Nazaire in 2004 by the German Ministry of Defense. It now functions as an "urban light-house" for the Ville-Port section of town. I gather that it hosts some performing arts events for an organization called LiFE.

    It is funny to me that this big block of post-military space functions as a collector for other post-military structures. It's an urban military magnet. Across the harbor you can even find a French cold-war submarine sitting in the lock bunker (built to protect U boats while they waited to pass through the locks). What other things might get sucked into this building?


    And this is what I think is most enlightening about this big chunk of concrete: that it is functioning as a catalyst to revitalize St. Nazaire. In the post-war years the city turned its back on the harbor, so the story goes with so many port towns now "rediscovering" their maritime past. (Walking around this place I had the funny feeling that this is the Baltimore of France... except instead of blue crab with a Natty Boh, everyone here eats moules frites, mussels with fries).

    The city has taken the big bad U boat bunker head-on, and you can still see the process of bunker recycling under way.


    There is even an informal element of reclamation in the big concrete caverns... people were just gathering there, letting their dogs run around, sitting in a circle and having some beers. All that's left to do is project Das Boot on the concrete wall!

    Next stop: Paris


    • Thanks for sharing Nick. I am surprised they didn't just tear it down, so as to "reconnect the city to the port" as urban design(ers) so often propose. But happy they didn't. Any idea why they didn't? Was it cost? Or did the French just really like their bunker..

      Sep 9, 09 1:02 pm  · 

      With all the might of the Allied war planes they couldn't put a dent in roof... so the Allies destroyed the city and train station so as to render it "uninhabitable". The U boat base persevered through that, so you can only imagine how much dynamite it would take to do the job now.

      I saw an image in a book of a 1948 proposal to build a huge garden in front with a massive ramp for cars to get on top... effectively burying the bunker beneath an expo center--or maybe it was a casino.

      I think the French do like their bunkers... it's a living part of their national landscape now.

      Sep 9, 09 1:11 pm  · 

      Manuel de Solà-Morales did a great job with the Ville Port in Saint-Nazaire; doing next-to-nothing keeping the structure as it is with just a few practical additions. Amazing spaces, seen slides when he gave a lecture, it's definitely on my to-visit list. It is great that designers and city officials are starting 'to get it' and don't erase history any more but incorporate it in every day life.

      Sep 10, 09 5:19 am  · 

      hi. i found a link here from bldgblog.

      regardless, i just finished school at ucb and enjoy this blog. (i have a lot of bunker-love myself.)

      if you ever feel stuck on a project you should head over to my boyfriend justin's desk on the 8th floor 'cause he's got a deck of oblique strategies. you will know him from his small umbrella tree plant- sits across from molly r.

      maybe i'll see you 'round. maybe i already have.


      Sep 26, 09 5:11 pm  · 

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