Bassins des lumières – beauty flourishes from evil

There can be few more poignant stories of redemption than Bordeaux’s Base sous-marine, the Nazi U-boat behemoth than now houses the world’s largest digital arts exhibition – a staggering visual display amongst the waters of dis-used submarine pen. Bassins des lumières is absolutely unmissable, whether as visit during an event, or host to a privatised event function.

Dominating the skyline of the Bacalan district of Bordeaux is the Base sous-marine, a submarine base dating from WW2 and one of the most gargantuan structures you are ever likely to see. Over the years it has had a number of lives and in 2020, it opened its cavernous halls for visitors to witness one of the truly great visual art displays in the world. Bassins des lumières, the world’s biggest digital arts display is nothing short of astonishing.

The redemption

An abomination of land use, the original structure was built to enhance the German WW2 war machine during occupation of France. U-boats wrought death and destruction across the Atlantic from this base. With a 9m thick concrete roof to protect against aerial bombardment, the submarine base is an absolute behemoth. Post-war, the building was transferred from French Navy to commercial manufacturers and then saw decline around the turn of the century. What to do with a structure comprising of 600,000 cubic metres of concrete - demolition or re-purpose? The latter was chosen and out of the horrors of its inception has risen true beauty in the form of art.

A unique event venue

From across the water, the Base sous-marine is unmistakably gargantuan - its functionalist form rises to dominate the horizon. From the inside, the space is truly mind-blowing – cavernous, eery, illuminating and utterly compelling. Along each of the 4 submarine docks there are stunning audio and visual displays, with projections mirrored off the water. There are bridges crossing the submarine pens, decks, and tiered seating, all offering different perspectives on the artwork. There are few substitute configurations for this kind of experience – it is utterly inconceivable that this type of venue would be constructed today – its purpose was to wage war, not display art. Yet as the defeat of its war machines left it without a purpose, civilising and visionary factors helped create this truly unique spectacle.

Sustainability is a beautiful thing

Sustainability has a big problem to address. The sustainability prize is unimaginably good and absolutely essential, yet there are event professionals who still view it as a more expensive, less enjoyable outcome. These sentiments are worryingly widely held. Sustainability is about many things including maintaining cultural identities so that we aren’t flying to generic urban landscapes, WW2 was a terrible chapter in Europe’s history, but history cannot be erased. The repurposing of the Base sous-marine gives a unique home to Bassins des lumières, it avoids the issues of demolition & disposal of more than half a million cubic metres of concrete and preserves a historic chapter in the city of Bordeaux. There would be no Bassins des lumières if new urban apartment blocks now occupied this site.


The redevelopment and rebirth of the Bacalan district of Bordeaux creates a whole new alternative location to host meeting and incentive groups. The hip waterfront has newly developed bars and restaurants, the wine museum is just across the water and the riverside promenade and tramway connecting to the historic centre is on the doorstep. Bordeaux has many wonderful districts as well as the nearby vineyards and the stunning Atlantic seaboard, but in Bacalan, Bordeaux has a central district that is vibrant, growing and home to some of the finest cultural venues in the city.

View over the water of a Bordeaux visual arts exhibition
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