After a week of perfect weather, another glorious morning fueled our footsteps as we made our way beneath the Porte de Bourgogne to catch a northbound tram. It was our last day in Bordeaux, a city of 250,000 residents with an enviable transportation network comprised of 4 tram lines, 80 bus routes, a water taxi, and 2000 self-service bicycles. We were headed to a WWII submarine bunker that is now home to a spectacular sound and light show, Les Bassins des Lumières.
Once seated on the tram, my gaze alternated between the brackish mix of salt and fresh water flowing in the Garonne over my right shoulder and in front of me, a lighthearted band of adolescent passengers, staring into their smartphones and congruously swaying atop fashionable sneakers. When we reached the Place des Quinconces, the line turned away from the river. Gradually, the municipal flowers, ancient architecture, alluring storefronts, and stone-paved streets of the centre-ville faded behind us. After a 15-minute ride, we descended into the sterile, impersonal setting of an office park.
From there, our mile-long walk to La Base Sous-Marine provided an oddly comforting reminder that not every landscape in France is picturesque or even well-planned. The Boulevard Alfred Daney is tree-lined and equipped with a bike lane but the development beyond the easement is much like any industrial park in the United States: sprawling and haphazard; largely paved, with windowless rectangular buildings covered by aluminum siding; some properties fenced with gated entries; the area devoid of spots for humans to gather aside from a McDonald’s.
Out of the Daylight and Into the Dark
I no longer recall what I was expecting, but when we reached the bunker, my heart sank a little. The structure was so imposing and so unsightly, that all anticipation of artistry or amusement evaporated, eroded by skepticism. I had an urge to ask Andy if he still wanted to see the exhibit, but turning toward him I could see that he was characteristically unfazed.
Well ahead of our scheduled arrival time, we proceeded through an empty queue of roped-off switchbacks. Despite our earliness, a welcoming guide ushered us into the building and gave us a quick rundown of what to expect. She explained that 2 shows were perpetually looping, one featuring the art and architecture of Venice, the other works of Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla. The immersive exhibit stretched across 4 former submarine basins and we could walk wherever we wanted for as long as we wanted.
She led us to a short hallway, traversed by a series of thick black curtains that hung like wavering mud flaps, impenetrable by light. In short order, we found ourselves stepping inside the first basin where Byzantine art, accompanied by percussive strings of Vivaldi, danced on every visible vertical surface of a massive space. Despite the explosion of color and melody, the sensation that predominated was the smell of water and dank concrete. Having exited bright sunshine just a few minutes earlier, I carefully advanced each footstep, half expecting to fall into the black pool that reflected the animated walls.
A Marvelous Transformation
I hadn’t anticipated the water and initially, I couldn’t discern where the pool began nor the guardrails surrounding it. At the time, I had no idea that the water was 40 feet deep. My growing fascination with the setting was heightened by the overpowering smell of corrosion and intense pitch blackness engulfing the shimmering surfaces. I scanned in all directions for other people and saw a handful of silhouettes at the opposite end of the 360-foot-long chamber. Greedily pleased to know that we nearly had the place to ourselves, I removed my face mask and began to relax as I took in the beauty of the dazzling images that floated past.
For the next 30 minutes, we basked in an illuminated history of Venetian art à la best-animated-screen-saver-imaginable. As we moved along the edges of the digitized gallery, we could see that 2 parallel corridors intersected each end of the basin. Standing at the end of one of these corridors yielded a view that bisected 3 additional submarine pens. Simply experiencing the sheer size of these 4 imposing cells seemed almost worth the 14-euro ticket price.
The Wonders of Technology
By the time we’d wandered through each of the basins the novelty had worn off and we started to contemplate the technology at play. It was apparent that multiple projectors must be highlighting many of the surfaces. There seemed to be no shadows from people walking around the galleries, even on the floors. The crispness of the display meant that the projectors had to be precisely synchronized and aimed. Some of the basin’s long walls were lined with large openings. Yet, we could see no trace of vagrant light escaping into the black recesses within these gaps.
I’ve since learned that over 100 projectors are used to bring the grey, cadaverous walls to life. Andy and I have laughed about the synchronization of these projectors. This is the kind of application that might have given us a slight appreciation for the mandatory linear algebra class—universally despised by all engineering majors—at the University of Michigan where we met. But, I doubt it. Only later did we come to appreciate the usefulness of what at the time seemed like arbitrary ways of manipulating matrices of numbers. The coordination of Les Bassins’s projectors, however, likely relies on such calculations.
Le Cube at Les Bassins des Lumières
After an hour, we realized that the show had cycled to the point where we entered. Andy had noticed a doorway leading to a second exhibit called Le Cube which he wanted to check out. Still spellbound, I settled onto a bench to watch the entirety of the two main attractions a second time. After 20 minutes, Andy was back at my side. “Carol, you’ve got to see the cube!”
When satisfied that I’d experienced enough of the basins, I headed to Le Cube, a large sound-proof and light-proof room featuring the innovations of contemporary filmmakers working in immersive art. Inside, the 8-meter high walls and floor appear to be seamlessly coated with highly polished black polyurethane. The floor dimensions are roughly 15 x 15 meters. The best way I can think of to describe Le Cube is to say that I’ve never dropped acid but after watching the 3-surreal films that whirled, mushroomed, and pulsated across the room’s surfaces, I feel like I have. Below is a short excerpt from Recoding Entropia by François Vautier.
My phone’s camera doesn’t do it justice but hopefully you get the idea.
Humankind’s Troubled Existence
In total, we spent around two and a half hours at Les Bassins des Lumières. I left somewhat reluctantly, knowing that repeated viewings would undoubtedly reveal new angles and images that I’d thus far failed to notice. But, it was time to move on. Outside, the 90-degree heat, bright sunlight, and industrial setting contrasted sharply with the dark, cool basins, that had immersed us in color. We walked to the other side of the port and looked back at the ominous structure.
I doubt that I’ll ever again gaze upon a space so full of contradiction: one moment horrified by the evil minds that ordered its construction, the next in awe of the artisans and technologists behind the scenes—those that made the building possible and those responsible for its modern-day transformation.
As we walked back toward the Garonne along the Quai des Caps, my thoughts staggered precariously along an internal mental tightrope. On one side lay despair and hopelessness, on the other side enlightenment and promise. How is it possible to recover from the countless atrocities that humankind seems destined to repeat? I wondered. Yet, somehow we manage to do it. Our penchant for innovation and compassion seems to be as well-ingrained as our destructive and egocentric impulses. And, thank goodness for the obliviousness of sunshine, and rivers, and bands of carefree teens.
For more on the history of the U-boat bunkers that Nazi Germany stationed along the coast of France, see The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Germany’s Massive U-Boat Bunkers.