Le Grand Splash
Seth Sherwood -- Interior Design, 10/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
All Le Havre wanted was a nice, new municipal swimming pool. But when Ateliers Jean Nouvel submitted plans for the site—located in the French port city's rundown docklands—local officials gaped at something wholly unanticipated. "I was stupefied," recalls Le Havre Mayor Antoine Rufenacht. Rather than a rectangular hole in the ground, Nouvel's proposal depicted a 130,000-square-foot, post-modern complex filled with numerous interconnected pools, water channels, steam rooms, and hydrotherapy areas, all in a blocky design inspired by the millennia-old thermal baths of the Roman empire.
Each chamber of Les Bains des Docks, as the spectacular complex is called, is a poetic jumble of monolithic white squares and rectangles recalling classical ruins. Covering the floor, walls, and ceiling are more than 32 million white mosaic tiles, that favorite medium for Roman and Byzantine art. The only splash of color—and touch of softness—is in the lounge next to the separate children's pool. Square rubber-foam cushions in bright, saturated hues—red, orange, yellow, and green—line every surface, as if the area were built from giant Starburst fruit chews.
Seduced by Le Havre's coastal skies, Nouvel also strove to admit the maximum natural light, inserting huge jagged fissures in the fortresslike walls lining the outdoor pool. Inside, he deployed skylights, large windows, and translucent glass walls wherever possible. Throughout the day, the sun's rays filter at shifting angles through the apertures and refract variously off the angular surfaces inside, creating a constant interplay of light and shadow. "It's magical," Rufenacht notes. And a far cry from the usual community pool.