Bassins des Lumières
A Place of History
Bordeaux’s submarine base was built by the Germans during the Second World War. Culturespaces is bringing the base back to life by creating the largest French digital art centre holding major immersive exhibitions.
The construction of the submarine base
Bordeaux, which was occupied by German troops at the end of June 1940, was a strategic base for the German occupying forces. Bordeaux’s location near the Atlantic Ocean, its port facilities, and its distance from the British enemy made it a very attractive choice.
Le sous-marin Luigi Torelli arrivant à la base Betasom depuis La Spezia, Museo Storico Navale, Venise
Photo © akg-images / De Agostini Picture Lib. / A. Dagli Orti
Vue aérienne de la base, 1924
Fonds La Mémoire de Bordeaux Métropole
The port district of Bacalan, north of Bordeaux, was chosen for the constructionas of 1 September 1940of an initial base for Italian submarines: the Betasom base. Camouflage nets were placed along the quays to conceal the 32 submarines from allied aircraft.
Travailleurs sur la base de Bordeaux, ciment
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MW 6183/28A photo: Andres
Travailleurs sur la base de Bordeaux, 1943
Photo © SZ Photo / Scherl / Bridgeman Images
In September 1941, work began on the construction of the fifth submarine base on France’s Atlantic coast. Nineteen months of work and a large workforce were required. Six thousand five hundred workers, of whom more than a third were Spanish Republican prisoners, were involved in the construction of the base.
Ferrailleurs sur la base de Bordeaux
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MW 6183/37A photo: Andres
Base en construction, 1942
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MW 6196/25A photo: Andres
The work began with earthworks for the construction of the units; around 2,000 reinforced concrete piles were driven into the ground to stabilise it. A nine-metre-thick roof, made of concrete poured on corrugated iron sheeting, whose top was covered by a Fangrost (screen or bomb trap) framework composed of rows of concrete beams, protected the construction from any aerial attacks.
After 19 months of work, Bordeaux’s submarine base was inaugurated on Thursday 13 May 1943. A review of a colossal construction project with several key figures:
de béton utilisé
pour la construction
4 bassins à flot et
U-Boote (grands sous-marins)
peuvent s’y amarrer
the base’s active period of operations
On 15 October 1942, the 12th Unterseeboote Flotille of U-boats was created. It was assigned to the port of Bordeaux and its U-Boat Bunker, which was under construction. During the 22 months of its existence, 43 U-boats were assigned to it in order to carry out attack missions in the Atlantic Ocean, near the American coast, and resupply missions in the Indian Ocean.
Sous-marin dans une cale-sèche de la base, 1942-1943 (Bordeaux, Saint-Nazaire ou La Rochelle)
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-027 1495/09
Retour de mission d’un sous-marin à la base de Bordeaux, non daté
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MW 4920/10A
The arrival of the first German submarines, in January 1943, marked a change in the port’s status, which was then a shipyardit became a Kriegsmarinearsenal (naval arms depot). Every time the U-boats returned from their missions they docked in the base for servicing and repairs.
Bombardement de Bordeaux, mai 1943
Photo © LAPI/Roger-Viollet
Installations allemandes dans le port : l'écluse couverte construite sur le quai du Maroc, août 1944
© Archives Bordeaux Métropole, Bordeaux 21 Fi 60
The submarine base was one of the main targets for allied aircraft. The American bombing on 17 May 1943 caused substantial material damage and the death of around 200 civilians. On 26 August 1944, the base was abandoned by the German troops.
The post-war period
Extensively damaged by the war, the district of Bacalan was in part disfigured by the creation of an anti-tank ditch. Furthermore, the access to the docks was blocked by scuttled ships, preventing any allied manoeuvres.
Vincent Olivar, Base sous-marine en friche, 1988
Fonds La Mémoire de Bordeaux Métropole / Vincent Olivar
Taken over by the French Navy, the U-Boat Bunker, which was almost intact, was entrusted to the autonomous port of Bordeaux, on 6 June 1945. From the beginning of the 1960s until the end of the 1990s, the units were partly occupied by companies, including the base’s metalworking workshops.
Georges Rousse, Bordeaux 2014 - Base sous-marine de Bordeaux, 2014 - Photo : © Georges Rousse © Adagp, Paris, 2020
Exposition "JR, Inside Out Project" à la Base sous-marine de Bordeaux, 2016
Photo : Maïté Ladrat
In summer 1999, the new submarine base opened with a multi-disciplinary programme orientated towards the arts (photography exhibitions, musical events, immersive shows, etc.).
Active for just over a year during the Occupation, Bordeaux’s submarine base still evokes the painful memories of the darkest hours of the Port de la Lune (port of the moon). However, since the 1960s, the bunker has attracted artists, filmmakers, plastic artists, and musicians, who have been fascinated by the site’s atmosphere.
Mathieu Marsan, 2011
The Bassins de Lumières
The City of Bordeaux has entrusted Culturespaces with the management of pens 1 to 4 of the submarine base. Called the ‘Bassins des Lumières’, this part of the base comprises 4 wet docks. The Bassins des Lumières is the largest digital art centre in the world.
© Culturespaces ; © akg-images / Erich Lessing ; © akg-images
© Culturespaces ; © akg-images ; © akg-images / Erich Lessing ; © Heritage Images / Fine Art Images / akg-images
The Bassins des Lumières offers visitors high-quality visual and audio experiences in exhibitions that are perfectly adapted to the spaces in which they are held, and which are devoted to the major artists in the history of art and contemporary art.
© Culturespaces ; © De Agostini Picture Library / E. Lessing / Bridgeman Images ; © akg-images / Erich Lessing
© Culturespaces ; © akg-images / Erich Lessing ; © akg-images ; © Bridgeman Images
The digital exhibitions are perfectly adapted to the monumental architecture of the submarine base and are reflected in the water of the 4 enormous basins, which are 12 metres deep, 110 metres long, and 22 metres wide, thus adding a new dimension to the immersive experience.
Following the creation of the Atelier des Lumières, we are pleased that we have created this enormous digital art centre for the City of Bordeaux. The Bassins des Lumières will offer visitors unforgettable visual and audio experiences in a unique setting, a place for sharing culture that is open to all types of visitors.
Bruno Monnier, Président de Culturespaces