Perched on a hill high above the sea, at walking distance from the shore of the bay of Biscay, la Cité de l’Ocean et du Surf in Biarritz was inaugurated on June 25, 2011. The colors of the sea, the infinite marine horizon and the relatively unknown depth of the ocean, not to mention his own experience as a young surfer on the East coast of the Pacific Ocean, inspired Steven Holl to respond with a wave-like platform perpendicular to the coastline - a platform from which three glass pavilions emerge like three great rocks in the sea. Below this gently curved platform with a nearly folded edge - the crown of the wave - is a vast curved ceiling that provides a deep cavern where reflected daylight penetrates from above on three sides to be then mirrored on the ceiling. Below this ceiling lies the permanent exhibition. The first of the glass pavilions acts like a reflected lens to provide most of the daylight below and serves as a reception place above. The other glass pavilions contain a restaurant, bar and offer panoramic views of the bay with the zigzag profile of the mountains of the Basque country in the far distance. As the sun is about to sink beyond the horizon into the sea, people gather on the terrace with evident pleasure on their faces. On their left is the curved plane with an empty cavity like a large empty eye gazing into the sky above, interrogating what cannot be fathomed. In front of them there is an undulating paved surface leading down to the sea far below. Inside-out, between sky and the earth, the building is set below, on and above the earth. This feature provides an exhibition area to celebrate the surfer’s paradise of waves for which Biarritz is renowned. It also creates a crystal ball-like configuration with suspended bridge and staircases inside. This architectural invention will encourage the minds of generations to reflect on measured and known dimensions as much as on the immeasurable, unknown organic and inorganic depth of the ocean. Of course the city and its Mayor, Didier Borotra (Senateur-Maire), are proud of their achievement. With the help of the region and Council of Europe, they have added an important landmark to their landscape and their city. Hopefully Biarritz, a city of great natural beauty, will benefit architecturally as well from this occasion. The town deserves much better interventions than the speculative hotels which have flourished there since WW II. Urbanistically, this project is on the edge of the city. Far away from La Grande Plage and its Casino, it provides a lighthouse on the south in symmetry with the traditional marine lighthouse to the north. Above all, it recalls the experience of Saint-Exupery’s Petit Prince, and the Little Prince’s drawing of the hat. We still carry with us the image of the snake that swallowed an elephant. Since architecture obeys the law of all works of art, which is the condition of being a miniature, here in Biarritz we are invited to contemplate the mystery of the ocean in an enigmatic miniature. It is this quality that gives this architecture its force and beauty. Glowing at night like fragments of fire at sea, reposing like a fragment of seaweed in the air swept up by the wind, one cannot remain indifferent. One might discern an Arte Povera quality in the colors and materials which, never pronounced, allow the reflections of the powerful landscape and seascape to remain dominant and add to our contemplative mood. As in Mies’ architecture, refined details that never call attention to themselves are there to meet the searching eye with an apt response. It is a rare challenge to be asked to respond to such a vast enigma as the Ocean, by far the largest part of earth, well known but hardly known well. The task of evoking the pleasures of the surfer as well as the adventure of future oceanographers, explorers, discoverer, scientists and poets is no negligible one. Yet it is the mark of a great work that it does not provide an answer but creates a comparable enigma, an almost “oceanic feeling”, as Romain Rolland once called this ongoing encounter with a power beyond description.
Yehuda Emmanuel Safran