Cite de l'Ocean et du Surf, Biarritz: Interview With Steven Holl & Solange Fabião (PHOTOS)

Celebrating warm days (northern hemisphere...) can very well go hand-in-hand with welcoming the increasing presence of ocean or oceanic museums, and their inevitable site-specific qualities. This article looks at the Cité de l'Océan et du Surf building in Biarritz, France, which opened on June 25th and was designed by SHA (Steven Holl Architects) in collaboration with Solange Fabião. Also, this article includes exclusive interviews with the driving forces of the Architecture/Design Team (Steven Holl, Solange Fabião, Rodolfo Reis Dias), who, in turn, provide generous insight into the process, objectives and expectations of the design. All images in gallery/article courtesy of Fernando Guerra. See link for author's work:

The Cité de l'Océan et du Surf in Biarritz, France, can be seen through the light of two to three increasingly interconnected architecture and urban design desires: buildings which become emblematic icons for the city where they are situated, buildings that aim to be parts of the city in and of themselves, and, lastly, interpretation centers - specifically Ocean Museums - interested in informative and educational endeavors and general environmental awareness-raising and their increasingly dominant strategy of interaction design around cultural practices to mobilize populations at large and their diverse cultural niches. The intersection of these traits is not uncommon and, instead, might evidence a convergence of topics around urbanity, public space, coastal areas and, of course, tourism and awareness-raising for problems facing the oceans.

The brief for the Cité at Biarritz was greatly interested in the tourism component of such a new building. The Cité would be providing one more dot on what can now be a more distinguished TGV-supported architecture pilgrimage that passes through Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum (1997) - by Frank Gehry - and San Sebastian's Kursaal Convention Center and Auditorium (1999) - by Rafael Moneo. Not unlike the older pilgrimage route that crossed several European cities - Way of St. James - which culminated in Santiago de Compostela's cathedral, cultural and business tourism has proven to be a rather (economically) successful intersection to support the revitalization of some urban or historical areas.

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All images in gallery courtesy of Fernando Guerra | FG+SG
All drawings images courtesy of Steven Holl Architects


On the one hand, common sense says that bodies of water are naturally appealing and sought out, and therefore tend to increase the value of surrounding areas, which is a justification for the (easy) success of these particular buildings to constitute public space - all populations are attracted to them. On the other hand, around major coastal cities, architectural additions near bodies of water - rivers or oceans that mark them - are often part of larger, phased reconfiguration plans that reconsider the ways in which the relationships between downtowns, ports and industrial areas can be transformed towards different economic and cultural objectives as roles of different infrastructural activities change, but also do socio-economic panoramas. This often includes remodeling obsolete structures for new uses, or adding new programs altogether. These water-adjacent areas are, therefore, often reclaimed land from industries, port areas or other private ownerships and become channels for the public to access the waterways and their history of alternating ownership.

The Cité (de l'Océan et du Surf) is already called only and justly that - Cité - in anticipation of its future role in becoming an identifiable piece or fragment which is more than a building that aims at continuing lines of public space, and, therefore, becomes a zone which can simultaneously reflect and engage Biarritz. At the heart of these transformations are changes in the relative functions and exchanges between programmatic and cultural characters and the realms of aesthetics that explore these new activities and eminently public connections. The architecture team was particularly interested in having an extended landscape design surrounding the building, which could extend and provide more potential for these linkages to evolve. These new relationships emerge as a reformation of that larger character that we know as the city - the reflection on its future role as an exchange center, and the ways in which there might be particular topologies that redefine the connections between the larger environment, institutions and citizens. It is for this reason that, at the Cité, the embracing wave design--which analogically suggests the continuation of folding topologies of the ocean further away--embodies important beginning movements not for its independent figuration, but for its attempt to exercise that continuity as a matter of fact.

We can find in some of the material choices the search for this particular monolithic quality which is nevertheless supple and flexible, such as the use of "Calçada" - Portuguese cobblestones - as the main plaza/exterior ground pavement; the particular tectonic feeling afforded by this material creates a more elastic layout where the connected levels and pathways are easily interchangeable.

Another strategy that speaks to this interest is the choice to create a seemingly underground building that reduces volume, thus allowing for a better contextualization with the surroundings as an open space, a negative plaza. This way, the plaza is at a better height difference from the main street level. This plaza level is activated by 2 volumes: the restaurant and surfer kiosk. The layout also provides different levels of independent entrance - literally different entry points - and use for different program spaces, i.e., the auditorium.

There is an increasing need to rethink the way in which buildings are the formalization of institutional spaces and can act as scaffolds or infrastructures for the societal transformations they are aiming at.

On the one hand, the increasing presence of virtual media in the programmatic body of the city implies that formalization might not reside or gain efficiency from the proper (physical) space of buildings - just as much as the old battle between program-function-form. On the other hand, media evolution and remote connectivity has created sharper and deeper comprehensions of what a locale is - including a deeper, layered understanding of how a location is formed by other places' processes but also how it is relevant in processes happening elsewhere. In the case of the Cité, one can foresee a strengthening of the community's bonds - including the sport of surf - as well the understanding of how distant places are influenced by each other, which includes the way in which the oceans are shared and affected by all. The hybrid typologies that include research centers and interpretation centers are nowadays extremely important for their dedication to diverse cultures of education and action promotion. The surf sport culture has a wide breadth of practices which appeal to the ocean education endeavor such as the captivation of younger demographics, the sport's drive to foster understanding of geological and environmental circumstances and processes, and the pilgrimage/seasonal factor - many surf practitioners will travel to different surf spots - which lends itself to the creation of events and the promotion of a larger connectivity between different areas of the world through the understanding of their common process and/or linkages.

Much can be written about typologies that almost become stronger urban spaces than the cities they originated in: mall typologies are the usual reference for this. However, discussions around mall spaces are perhaps still bound to a way of understanding urbanity as density and the limit that contains/forms them - a modality that looks at cities in a rather conventional way and repeats stereotypes in attempts to recreate that density. A different modality - conventional in its own right - might look at the reshaping of infrastructural exchanges, through the creation of newly possible centralities.
Maybe Cité has initiated a set of bodies passing through itself which ultimately cross Biarritz, the region and elsewhere in such new way.

STEVEN HOLL, SHA Principal and Lead architect, Co-Author

In the office website, the project is within the category Master Plans&Landscapes. Could you provide some comments regarding the context of the project and ambition provided by the brief?
As well, could you provide some insights regarding your particular conceptual response to this project and your ambitions for the overall project relationship with the surrounding landscape?

The ambition of the project working with the concept of "under the sky - under the sea" is to connect with the ocean horizon while fusing with the landscape. It is not so much a master plan - it is a museum space carved into the land and this unique ocean edge site.
We worked on the project over a period of six years, from the winning competition of July 2005 until the opening on June 25, 2011. During that time the exhibition content shifted from a focus on surfing culture to ocean science. The building's relation to the site stabilized shifting changes of the interior program - a program that may change in the future.

The main concepts in the building - under the sky, under the sea - reflect the building's two main spaces - exterior 'plaza' and interior main exhibit space. This apparently creates an exterior space that one could imagine as still museological ('over the wave'). What do you find is this building's attitude towards museums (the typology) and the making of public space? I am reminded of the way in which you worked museum space, landscape and public space in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
The concave/convex interplay of space following the idea "under the sky - under the sea" begins with the asymmetrical position of the entry on the north with stepped ramp access to the main plaza. As one gradually rises into the space, it turns the body, cupping a large warp of space towards the ocean horizon.
Walking into it at midpoint, its tilt up in the eastern direction focuses you on the sky - so the dialogue of sea and sky is established early in the experience of the place. The south and north edges curve up in Portuguese stones, the east tilts up toward the sky, and the west focuses on the ocean horizon.
The main exhibition space below is shaped by the giant curve with a pressure pushing down, which is lifted up by the light rolling in from the main entrance.
Instead of a museum typology of galleries and rooms, this space allows for flexibility of changing exhibits over time. A continuous wood floor over an air plenum keeps all air and services off the unbroken sweep of the curved ceiling.
This juxtaposition of public landscape space directly above exhibition space is different from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in its focus on the sea horizon with the warp of the open stone curve. Here the space is dedicated to the ocean and its mysteries.

The building seems to be very clearly drawing formal relationships with the boulders at sea. It almost feels like there is an inversion of a common approach to buildings near water bodies: rather than extending the museum out, your project seems to build a landscape by bringing the ocean in. Could you provide some comments on this strategy and your interest in these landscape features?

Embedded in the main warped surfaces are two "glass rocks," which are analogous to the two giant stones on the beach in the distance. These elements - a restaurant and a surfer's kiosk - are sheathed in special "Okalux" glass, cutting sunlight transmissions while appearing close-up like the foam of the sea - "l'écume de la mer." Aspects of the ocean are drawn into this composition in an aim to "build the site." An "empty pool" for skateboarders is cut into a surface cut to form an ocean porch. The warp of the surfaces establishes special experiences of the body moving in space. This especially comes alive with people in the plaza. From one perspective you can see only heads and shoulders, and shadows on the sandblasted glass. From another perspective you can see a grouping of figures from the waist down.
The up and down cutting east and west is a spatial dynamic always balanced by the infinitely straight horizon. It is analogous to being on a rolling sea, when you dip down in a valley of water and are spatially enclosed... then the sea lifts you on top of a roll and you can see in every direction. When the sunlight catches the sandblasted glass guardrails curving up, they glow like a ridge of foam on a sea wave.
The materiality of this building is very important - as is the materiality of the sea. The main surface and structure is white concrete cast in a flaked board formwork; its texture is simultaneously hard and soft. The "glass rocks" are framed in special steel "T" sections that hold the white translucent glass. From the grass between Portuguese stones, one steps up on wooden stairs and a wooden café platform with a panoramic sea view. Due to sinking the main body of the building in the earth, very little cooling or heating is required.

Museums are often defined by narratives their contents prescribe, and their apparently free, large and sometimes flexible spaces are very frequently prescriptive towards a particular exhibitive strategy. What were your interests and strategies regarding prescriptive and non-prescriptive space, regarding the content of the museum?

We were interested in an open and flexible exhibition space strategy which rides below a direct engagement with the sea horizon. The lower set of spaces can flow in and out, changing like currents, while the upper set of spaces fixes the body in a series of different relations of the sea and sky. Instead of a building type, it is a place of shifting perspectives; a phenomenal platform dedicated to a feeling of oceanic space and the immeasurable.

SOLANGE FABIÃO, Architect and Artist, Lead Architect, Co-Author

I would like to know more about the nature of your involvement in the project, and your specific take on the project brief and ambition?

My first collaboration with Steven where I participate as co-design took place in 1999 for the project Xky Xcraper, a high-rise in Voosari, Finland that received honorary mention from the Finnish Association of Architects. Since then we have collaborated in many projects. In 2005 he invited me to be the co-designer for the CitÈ de LíOcÈan et du Surf in Biarritz. At that time the office was very busy and the CitÈ was a too special of a project for its theme and situation, I accepted the invitation. Of course being born in Rio de Janeiro makes the CitÈís theme a givenÖ Steven also had surfed on the West Coast and we thought this would be a great project to collaborate.

I like to compare architecture to film making, there are several functions in the execution of a building and so in a film. In a film there is the director, the scriptwriter, the producer and so on. In architecture among many functions there is the designer, the one that comes up with the essence of what the building will be, that comprises information to make the building work in all levels. My work as artist and architect is to bring original ideas in accordance with the understanding of the intention of the project, to make analysis of the situation towards a conceptual, a formal and functional result. This includes site analysis and urban planning, taking in consideration the environment and its ecological aspects as well as developing plan, elevations, circulation, areas, materiality and so on. For the CitÈ the conceptual/spatial idea came to me through a dream, the idea of an ìencased wave.î Following this dream I developed a first 3D sketch that gave the main direction for the design, the great curve, the volume under and the plaza above, the two sides expressed by the concave and convex, the connection with the ocean, the diversity of the curvilinear with the introduction of the skate-pool were the starting point for the design and together with Steven we integrated the idea to the site, he introduced the ìglass bouldersî to the plaza connecting to the rocks at the beach in front and after the definition of our conceptual sketches I started to develop the plan to see how far the idea would really work further for the competition. I have been working solid in this project for the past 6 years. I am, see myself as an artist and architect but donít see myself having my own architecture firm. As design architect I like to collaborate with firms that think my skills are useful, are enhancing.

In the context of your practice, are there particular points of connection between this project development and other aspects of your work as an artist?

It is part of my artistic philosophy to integrate diverse forms of expression. Already at the early stages of my career one sees this aim. I studied architecture, received my BFA as set designer, worked for television and theater and I am a painter since very early on. I find the development of perception in various creative fields as well as in experiencing various cultures enriching. This approach results in a certain kind of perception that is more permeable.

When I try to find a connection between my art and my architecture and here specifically with the CitÈ I find a search for the essential, the search for a core element as defining in the work. The great curve, its dynamics expresses the essence of the ocean and the surf. One can immediately perceive it when encountering the building. My work is diverse and complex but has a very precise message in each project, formally and conceptually. I have possibly by being as well an artist developed a certain freedom of expression, receiving the original idea for the CitÈ through a dream shows such freedom ñ from unconscious to consciousness.

In another hand my first conceptual art project the ìDiagonal Systemî (1987 ñ 1993) which handles with the limits of space and movement, is also a search, for mediation between the bidimensional, representation and tridimensionality has been evident throughout my carrier and certainly defining in the creation of the geometry of the CitÈ. At the CitÈ though the limit, this intersection is the sea, its profundity when it touches the open sky.

RODOLFO REIS DIAS, Project Architect

You worked on this project from day 1 of the competition phase as the leading Project Architect. Regarding the development of the main concept - under the sky, under the sea - what were the main strategies you found key regarding circulation and the experience that engaged the theme of the museum, landscape and public space?

Steven Holl uses watercolors to develop his ideas for projects. We began the competition process this way. Steven and Solange produced a group of watercolors describing two schemes, and I responded with models integrating the building shape into the sloped site. Over a weekend at their house in Rhinebeck, S+S worked on a new group of watercolors, a development of the first, but now fused with the landscape. The watercolors settled on a single scheme and provided a very detailed architectural concept for the entire museum--plans of each floor, sections and perspectives.

In my opinion, the literal description of the visual idea is secondary to the models but serves to communicate the notion of a building divided in two parts: a concave public plaza that extends through the landscape all the way to the sea--under the sky--and underneath, a large gallery-- under the sea.

All the public areas are along the Northern crest of the building: entrance, access to galleries, shop, cafeteria and restaurant with access to the sloped plaza, and at the highest point, like a prow, a terrace with views of the sea and mountains. These areas are completely free and open to the public.

The controlled areas are along the Southern crest: museum administration, storage, auditorium, technical areas, and an additional gallery.

Regarding this same concept - how were materials choices and intersections with regarding the same strategies?

The site is a harsh, salty environment, so materials were selected for durability: exposed concrete, limestone and glass. We wanted the building to be as light and monolithic as it could be. So we chose white concrete, both smooth and textured, Portuguese white limestone cobblestones, and three types of low-iron glass. For the guardrails we used sandblasted glass, for the boulders, a mix of clear and Ocalux glass--an insulated product filled with white capillaries that filter light.

From the exterior, you experience the white concrete facades. From within the plaza, you see the limestone cut into square pavers. From the porch underneath the plaza, you see all the materials join together as a monolithic whole--the textured concrete walls, the smooth concrete belly of the skater's pool, the cobblestone floor that leads the way to the sea.

Could you provide us some insights into issues regarding integration in the site, from a design but also from a construction and final ambition of the experience perspective?

The museum is 300m from the sea, which is the minimum distance from the coastline that French law allows. It is in a small scale residential community, so burying some of the building's volume reduced the impact of its size. However, there is water underneath, and we had to be careful not to excavate too much, and maintain the site's original topography. The levels inside were adjusted to this topography.


Carla Leitão is an architect, designer and writer currently living, working and teaching Architecture in New York. Practice and academic works interests in ubiquity and intersection of new media and architecture.
Research Assistant: Benjamin Rice