The History of the Submarine Base

Located in Bordeaux, the submarine base built by the Germans was one of five major structures (the others were located at Brest, Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, and La Rochelle) constructed in France during the Second World War. This massive bunker, arranged in eleven alveoli, is now an essential part of Bordeaux’s cultural landscape.

The Second World War: Bordeaux, an occupied city 

Le 25 juillet 1940, l’Allemagne et l’Italie décident de construire ensemble une base sous-marine commune pour accueillir leur flotte. The construction of the new base commenced in September 1941. The project was placed under the responsibility of the Bordeaux Oberbauleitung headed by Andreas Wagner. Around 6,500 French and foreign (Spanish, Belgian, and Italian) voluntary, contracted, and forced labourers worked on the base, which was extensive enough to accommodate fifteen large submarines. In 2012, a memorial was erected in tribute to all those who helped build the base. Finished only one and half years later, Bordeaux’s U-Boat Bunker was 235 metres long, almost 160 metres wide and on average nineteen metres high, with a total surface area of 41,000 m2. It housed electrical and thermal power plants, a technical zone, offices, storage areas, and workshops. Almost 600,000 m3 of concrete was used to build the base.

The first four—and most imposing—submarine pens, which could only be used afloat, could each house two submarines. Pens 5 to 8, with a smaller surface area, were used as dry docks that were necessary to house submarines that required major repair work. Lastly, the remaining three, smaller pens were located further back behind the eight pens. In total, fifteen submarines could be safely housed within the base for maintenance and repair work. Until August 1944, more than forty submarines used to put into port. Various resistance groups were established within the base and they kept the guérilleros (groups of Spanish resistance fighters) informed about everything that occurred on the base and all the manoeuvres of the German submarines.
The military base was frequently targeted by allied bombing raids, which only inflicted slight damage on the building. Despite the many attempts of the liberation armies, the structure was never really weakened. On 28 August 1944, the Germans finally left the City of Bordeaux and its port.

The post-war period: an artistic site 

During the Liberation, the covered lock and the torpedo storage bunker were destroyed, but the base’s principal structure was conserved. In 1945, the base was entrusted by the French Navy to the Autonomous Port of Bordeaux. The onerous maintenance and management costs were an impediment to the site’s rehabilitation by the Autonomous Port of Bordeaux. Between 1960 and 1990, the units, including the base’s metalworking workshops, were partly occupied by companies. At the same time, the base attracted and fascinated artists who soon moved into the imposing site. Certain experiments—such as the filming of the final scene of the film Le Coup de Grâce by Jean Cayrol in 1965, the performances of the Sigma Festival in 1978, the installations created by the plastic artist Sarkis in 1980, and the filming of an episode in the series Highlander in 1996— foreshadowed the site’s future cultural vocation. After the decommissioning of the Bassins à Flot (‘dock basins’) by the Autonomous Port of Bordeaux in 1982, the U-Boat-Bunker was henceforth part of an immense industrial, port, and military wasteland. The general public only began to visit the base—which was transformed into a Conservatoire International de la Plaisance (a place dedicated to yachts and pleasure boats) until 1997—in the summer of 1993.

In 1998, the base underwent major work with the aim of bringing the site into compliance with new safety standards. The submarine base was turned into a cultural centre run by the City of Bordeaux’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and a project was developed that placed an emphasis on creativity, cultural dissemination, and the general public. In the summer of 1999, the new submarine base opened with a multidisciplinary programme that focused on creative work (photographic exhibitions, musical shows, immersive productions, etc.). Today, the base’s former ‘Tour’ Bunker contains a unique 4,000 m2 exhibition area that is dedicated to contemporary art and image making. The venue is used for ongoing contemporary works and it holds a cycle of several exhibitions a year, including a major monographic exhibition. An example is the current exhibition devoted to the French artist and filmmaker Clément Cogitore (15 October 2019–5 January 2020).

Culturespaces at the submarine base

In 2018, Culturespaces was entrusted with the management of four of the submarine base’s alveoli (formerly pens) in order to establish a digital art centre. After creating the Carrières de Lumières at Les Baux-de-Provence and establishing the Atelier des Lumières in Paris, Culturespaces, planned to hold four immersive digital exhibitions devoted to modern and contemporary artists, as well as an immersive art festival. To achieve this goal, Culturespaces decided to further enhance the attractiveness of the submarine base by creating a digital art centre to promote the culture and technology of the City of Bordeaux.

Two years later, after major restoration work conducted by Culturespaces, the Bassins de Lumières will open its doors to the public with three inaugural exhibitions.

‘La Base 3 en 1’: a project conducted by the City of Bordeaux

Located at the heart of the Bassins à Flots district, the submarine base is adopting a global cultural project on a regional scale: ‘la Base 3 en 1’ project eventually aims to use the site’s entire 41,000 m2 with the Bassins de Lumières and the ‘Tour’ Bunker, and develop new activities in the rest of the base.