Biarritz, France, is an incoherent suburb of large holiday villas, unkempt car parks, and overdesigned lampposts. Beyond a magnificently offensive Tudor-Romanesque-Hacienda pile is a golf course in a small valley, and the hollow ping of drivers is audible above the sound of the breaking waves. A hill rises beyond with a gothicized chateau perched ominously on the peak. All this overlooks the beach, which has eroded so quickly during the last century that measures have been taken to arrest the loss of any more French coastline to the Atlantic. This gives the waterfront a fringe of ostentatiously unnatural granite boulders and manicured planting, with concrete paths full of people walking dogs or lugging surfboards. Thus, the juxtaposition of the minimal and modern Cité de l’Océan et du Surf, designed by Steven Holl Architects with Solange Fabião, with the surrounding grotesques is unintentionally hilarious: like an earnest teenager reading Goethe at Disneyland.

The design team won an international competition in 2005 for this new museum devoted to oceanographic science—beating out the likes of Bernard Tschumi and Jean-Michel Willmotte—with its concept of a concave structure topped by a cobbled plaza. The 50,859-square-foot building is full of high architectural references (Aalto and Le Corbusier among them, although design architect Steven Holl, AIA, denies it), dependent on fine material finishes. The design self-consciously marshals the landscape in a romantic manner, with an artfully informal pathway leading from its sloping roof to the ocean beyond.

The most important elevation, Holl says, is the roof, a swooping form that slopes toward the ocean to the west and is cobbled in Portuguese stone. The sides of the roof rise up to two stories above grade at the tallest point on the north and south edges. The gently sloping cobbled surface forms the site’s main plaza and is accessible by a glass rail–lined ramp at the east end and gradual inclining path from the west. Two masses pop up through the surface: Called “glass boulders” by the project team, these glass-and-steel-curtainwall-clad forms house a restaurant (with an adjacent terrace) and a kiosk for local surfers. The same curtainwall system appears on the museum’s north façade; the bulk of the rest of the structure is clad in white concrete. At ground level on the building’s southwest corner, there is a covered area—a “porch for surfers,” Holl says—that can be used for outdoor events. And perhaps anticipating analogies of the building’s convex form to a skate-park half pipe—albeit, with the cobbles, an unskatable one—this porch is topped by a smooth skating pool.

The rest of the program—including exhibition space, a gift shop, and auditorium—is dug into the ground. Visitors enter through a reception area at the northeast corner, and descend down a grand staircase to the exhibition spaces, which are fairly dim (the predominantly audiovisual displays make natural light a low priority). A convex, plaster-clad ceiling is the inverse of the sloping plaza above, and its inherent structure limits the number of columns necessary in the galleries. The exhibition design, which was out of the control of the architect, is very ordinary indeed, with inconsistent graphic style and barely functional interactive displays. In fact, Holl says that the brief changed during design development, and this explains the division of the plan into two exhibition areas linked through a timber-lined tunnel.

Holl describes a two-part concept for the building form: one “open to the sky” (outside) and one “under the sea” (underground), and the relationship of form to content does feel somewhat literal. But, on the other hand, it is a building of ambition, if not to make sense of the non-place around it, then to communicate something about that landscape: The cobbled path that wends its way from the ocean front moves through a series of gardens featuring native plantings, up and on top of the building, through the plaza, and eventually to the very pleasant terrace. On that journey, the buildings tries its best to dignify its surroundings by ignoring the bad bits. Yet the plaza itself is perplexing. It seems to recall Alvar Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall—another elevated piazza trying to make something civic out of an unlikely context. But there’s no main event because the civic landmark, the museum, is not in pride of place on the plaza itself, but underfoot in the volume below.

The building is a selectively contextual work, far in spirit from the reality of Biarritz, and much more comfortable with the elemental beauty of the ocean and the ineffable blue of the sky. The roof may be wavelike, but in the end you feel that it tips up at the edges in order to remove the context from view, rather than to evoke a life on the ocean.

Project Credits

Project Cité de l’Océan et du Surf, Biarritz, France
Client SNC Biarritz Ocean
Architect Steven Holl Architects, New York, with Solange Fabião—Steven Holl, AIA, Solange Fabião (design architects); Rodolfo Dias (project architect); Chris Mcvoy (project advisor); Filipe Taboada (assistant project architect); Francesco Bartolozzi, Christopher Brokaw, Cosimo Caggiula, Florence Guiraud, Richard Liu, Ernest Ng, Alessandro Orsini, Nelson Wilmotte, Ebbie Wisecarver, Lan Wu, Christina Yessio (project team)
Associate Architect Leibar&Seigneurin
Consultants/Engineering Vinci-Marseille (roof); Betec (structure); Elithis (mechanical); Avel (acoustical); Apave; Quality Control Office
Lighting Design L’Observatoire International
Contractor Faure Silva–Gtm
Exhibition Engineering Cesma
Exhibition Contractor Geroari
Size 50,859 gross square feet (building); 376,740 square feet (site area)
Cost €20.9 million ($30.1 million U.S., building), €1.5 million ($2.2 million U.S., landscape)

Materials and Sources

Ceiling Dacoustie (Fellert Alpha acoustic ceiling)
Duravit (bathroom fixtures)
Descol (auditorium self-leveling floor); Coney (technical floor); Les Ateliers Duphil (wood flooring)
Schott (Okalux)
Zumtobel; Troll; Dufau/Interdecor/Atelier-Creations
Metalwork ACMM
BCP Création
Plaster J. Mottard
Plumbing Hervé Thermique
Delagrave (auditorium seats)
Tile Stone Source (bathroom tiles)
S.A.T Étanchéité
Wayfinding Etap Lighting (emergency signs)
Window Shades
Windows and Doors
Atrium (wood doors); Olivari (door handles)