Upon hearing there’s a new Museum of Ocean and Surf, the non-surfer’s mind doesn’t likely go straight to Biarritz, France. There is a lot of surfing, though, along the southeast coast of the Bay of Biscay. In fact, Biarritz is said to be the center of surfing in France and one of Europe’s best surfing towns.
The town has a long history appreciation of its oceanic surroundings— from its centuries of whaling to 19th century claims that the waters held medicinal values. For almost twenty years the city has held a premier surf festival that brings world-renown surfers, and surfers represent a significant percentage of the town’s annual tourist numbers.
The museum, a collaboration between US–based Steven Holl Architects and the Brazilian architectural designer Solange Fabião, isn’t so much about catching the perfect tube or riding goofy foot. While its attention to the surfing community may indeed bring surfer tourists to its doors, the museum is an educational tool about the ocean’s health. It’s a place where anyone can “learn about the problems of the health of the ocean,” Holl says, “and their role upon our leisure, science, and ecology.”
“In this incredible cupped form, one side moves you toward the ocean horizon, and the other side cups the space up in the distance,” he says.
The museum, known locally as Cité de l’Océan et du Surf, opened this summer. It began as an international competition in 2005. It has an interior of 3,800 square meters and exterior study and interactive spaces that expand to more than 15,500 square meters. Some two thirds of the building resides below ground.
The primary outdoor space is concave, designed to represent the ocean as a whole, under the sky. It’s flanked by two massive waves. Lengthwise, it tapers toward the Bay is Biscay. Inside the museum, the ceiling bears a convex shape. The interiors are meant to symbolize an “under the sea” concept. Walls are shaped irregularly. They appear like frozen waves. The composition of curvilinear shapes and smooth, gentle lines grants an organic effect. It yields a definite crystallized metaphor for the planet’s most abundant element.
Some spaces seem like the very tubes surfers catch and are brilliantly illuminated with aquamarine hues; others resemble massive walls of waves. Surfaces of dynamic curves are illuminated with lights in ocean waters hues, in contrast with other lighting techniques that mimic what we might see when, say, scuba diving. The lighting is designed to spill into other areas, too, creating a natural flow just as the light below the ocean surface might. Two glass boxes that house various components of the museum resemble the two large boulders in the ocean, visible just past the beach in the distance.
The building appears translucent from the outside, thanks due to its high glass content. This is no accident. Like the interior architecture elements that echo the museum’s surroundings, so does the building’s materials. White Okalux insulating glass conjures images of sea foam on a good surf day. The textured white concrete of the building’s exterior seems like a soft shell; it’s an aggregate made from locally sourced materials. Materials of the plaza are a progressive variation of Portuguese cobblestones paving with grass and natural, local vegetation.
Like the ocean, the museum allows for activities at various levels. People can gather outdoors, within the museum, and upon the roof. The museum contains a store, auditorium, restaurant, offices, exhibition spaces, and several areas indoors and out for planned or spontaneous events and activities. For instance, there’s a skate park on the plaza level. The architects claim this symbolizes the link between the surfing and skateboarding communities.
The LEAF-awarded Museum of Ocean and Surf tapers as the campus nears the ocean. Its narrow scope may help it blend into the site, as the architects’ press materials claim, but the overall location does evoke further questions: How well can a museum fit in the middle of a neighborhood of large residential plots? How vastly does the museum differ from the Museum of the Sea, already a Biarritz institution? As for museums dedicated fully to surfing, look to South Africa, California, or Australia.
(Contact me to see my original publication of this story in Perspective magazine.)