The Bassins de Lumières

The Bassins de 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

1940

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.

The construction of the submarine base

The port district of Bacalan, north of Bordeaux, was chosen for the constructionas of 1 September 1940of an initial base for Italian submarines: the Betasom base. Camouflage nets were placed along the quays to conceal the 32 submarines from allied aircraft.

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. 

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.

Key figures

Key figures

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:

45,000

metres
Square metres for total surface area

235

metres
for total length

60,000

cubic metres
of concrete was used for the entire construction

11

submarine pens
comprising 4 wet docks, and 7 dry docks

15

U-boats (large submarines) could be docked in the base
1943: the base’s active period of operations

1943

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.

1943: the base’s active period of operations

The arrival of the first German submarines, in January 1943, marked a change in the port’s status, which was then a shipyardit became a Kriegsmarinearsenal (naval arms depot). Every time the U-boats returned from their missions they docked in the base for servicing and repairs. 

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

1944

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.

The post-war period

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.

In summer 1999, the new submarine base opened with a multi-disciplinary programme orientated towards the arts (photography exhibitions, musical events, immersive shows, etc.).

The post-war period

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

2020

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 de Lumières’, this part of the base comprises 4 wet docks. The Bassins de Lumières is the largest digital art centre in the world.

The Bassins de Lumières

The Bassins de 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.

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.

The Bassins de Lumières

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 de 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

The Bassins de Lumières