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On the Breach in Biarritz with Steven Holl

On the sybaritic French Atlantic coast, a new museum, the Cité de L’Océan et du Surf, by Steven Holl Architects, evokes the power and sensual allure of the ocean

Set on the Atlantic coast where France joins Spain, Biarritz exudes an air of faded, old world grandeur overlaid with contemporary surf culture. (Imagine Point Break meets the Belle Epoque.) In the 19th century, European royalty came to take the sun and sea air, widely thought to have restorative properties. A casino opened in 1901.

Beachfront and ocean are still at the core of Biarritz’s appeal, and the resort’s major buildings − hotels, museums, casinos, even churches − form a rhythmic promenade along the sea edge. Adding to this repertoire is Steven Holl’s Cité de l’Océan et du Surf, which opened at the end of June, six years after Holl won a competition for the commission. The site lies at the southern end of the town’s main stretch of beaches, sandwiched between tracts of low-rise surburban housing and a golf course.

Topographically melding with the landscape, the Cité is a museum of oceanography, exploring themes of science, ecology and leisure that expand the remit of Biarritz’s more conventional marine life centre. The choice of the soubriquet ‘Cité’, rather than ‘Musée’, anticipates how this as yet isolated fragment in picturesque beach suburbia has the potential to set up an engagement with the town, ostensibly forming a new locus of cultural and architectural gravity. But for now you get the strong sense that the action is still elsewhere.

‘Under the sky/under the sea’ is the conceptual essence of the project, exquisitely encapsulated in Holl’s haiku-like watercolours of a concave gathering place fixed on the distant horizon (‘under the sky’). Resembling a frozen wave, this warped structure also creates a convex ceiling enclosing a series of subterranean exhibition spaces (‘under the sea’). Two thirds of the museum is, in fact, underground, a move that cultivates the necessary sense of mystique, while deferring to the modest scale of its surroundings. It also serves to reduce the building’s energy consumption, with the ground acting as a natural source of insulation and cooling.

During the project’s gestation, the exhibition content shifted from an emphasis on freewheeling surf culture to more serious aspects of marine ecology, but that energising sense of physical engagement with the sea is still palpable in the wave-like forms of the architecture. It’s an abstract seascape embedded in the landscape - a mesmeric swell of concrete surging around two glass rocks. Below ground, a huge cave is washed by soft Atlantic light captured and reflected down into the depths by the swelling undercroft. ‘Instead of a building type’, says Holl, ‘it is a place of shifting perspectives; a phenomenal platform dedicated to a feeling of oceanic space and the immeasurable’. Tapering down to the ocean, a wedge of landscaping establishes the museum’s presence in the terrain and defines a site for al fresco events and festivals.


An avid surfer, Holl understands the visceral thrill of communing with the ocean’s rollicking power. Such experiences feed through into the muscular yet sensuous architecture, which cups and cradles visitors within the concrete wave. The curved platform also acts as a belvedere rising up to address the site and frame views to the distant western horizon where sea meets sky. This sense of compression and release is intended to suggest the experience of surfing. ‘It’s analogous to being on a rolling sea,’ says Holl, ‘when you dip down in a valley of water and are spatially enclosed… then the sea lifts you up and you can see in every direction.’

Protruding from and anchoring the warped concrete structure is a pair of glazed pavilions, one containing a restaurant and the other a kiosk for the use of surfers. These glass ‘rocks’ are an abstraction of the local seascape, evoking and visually connecting with two rocky outcrops that lie just offshore Opalescent skins of glass are held in a strapping of slim steel T-sections, like anorexic half-timbering. At night these translucent pavilions are transformed into giant Japanese paper lanterns that glow with a glacial incandescence, forming radiant beacons in the landscape.

In both this and the conjunction of glass with concrete, lightness with weight, the Cité recalls Holl’s extension to the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City (AR October 2007). The new part was structured around a series of large glazed lanterns, their delicacy and irregularity counterpointing the stern stripped Classicism of the original museum. These could be read as new elements in a parkland site, while also channelling light into underground galleries.

The Cité extends Holl’s concern for exploring the nuances of materials, teasing out unexpected visual and tactile effects from ordinary substances. Tiny Portuguese cobbles line the curved belvedere, giving it a rough, mosaic-like quality, while also tactfully confining the land surfing activities of skateboarders to the smooth, indented pool specially constructed for them. The concrete walls were cast using formwork made from flakeboard panels, so their surface has a subtly variegated finish that catches the light, like some kind of ancient stone, rather than flat, unresponsive concrete. In this there are echoes of the HEART Museum in Herning (AR October 2009), where fabric-lined formwork gave the external walls the surprising texture of gently crumpled shirts.

So much for the container. The contents, however, are another matter; an unedifying mixture of municipal dreariness and Captain Nemo cheesiness that does little to bring an important subject to life in the minds of the paying public. The commodious exhibition spaces also seem curiously underpopulated, as if still awaiting the main event. The most exciting experience is architectural rather than museological, when visitors navigate the long staircase that runs from the entrance to the main exhibition floor two levels below. From here you can properly apprehend the dramatic heft and surge of the undercroft, and appreciate the changing spectacle of the softly filtered light as you slowly sink underground.

As it turns out, the exhibition tableaux were not Holl’s responsibility, but for an architect used to operating in the more simpatico world of art curation, who constantly strives to attain an intelligible unity of art and architecture, the grating disjunction between building and contents must rank as a disappointment. You have to hope that the current dispiriting scenario cannot be the final extent of what must have originally seemed like a laudable piece of civic and pedagogic ambition. But at least if circumstances and cultural proclivities do change, Holl’s Cité is more than capable of meeting higher expectations.

Architect Steven Holl Architects
Associate architect Agence d’Architecture Leibar & Seigneurin, Bordeaux
Structural engineer Betec & Vinci Construction
Services engineer Elithis
Exhibition engineer CESMA
Photographs Fernando Guerra & Roland Halbe

Readers' comments (1)

  • I really like Steven Holl's previous work - but I am not convinced by his Glasgow School of Art - and this one hasn't won me over either - are there any photographs with the lights turned off ?

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