In the early years of the 20th century in France, the boom in personal hygiene and a desire to swim coincided with the rise of art deco ...

Bègles Piscine Les Bains: rejuvenating Gironde’s oldest swimming facilities


In the early years of the 20th century in France, the boom in personal hygiene and a desire to swim coincided with the rise of art deco architecture. In some cases, the phenomena combined, resulting in places like the “Piscine Les Bains” establishment to be found in Bègles.

Officially opened on December 4th 1932, the pool was the first of its kind to start operating in the Gironde département. It had been commissioned two years earlier by the town’s Socialist mayor, Alexis Capelle, and was executed to the designs of local architect Louis-Alfred Blanchard. Various specialists brought their specific expertise to the decorative mix: a painter named Bime, a sculptor named Vignal, the ceramist brothers Castiaux and the enameller Duvigneau.

Patrons would enter through the grand entrance on the street corner, and proceed either to the indoor pool on the left, or to the right which was given over to public bathing and showering facilities. In 1964, an outdoor “piscine d’été” was built to the rear of the building.


The establishment led a carefree existence for more than 60 years and in 1991 was granted listed status, registered on France’s “Inventaire supplémentaire des bâtiments historiques”. However, by then the facilities had deteriorated and, failing to meet stringent norms, in 1996 the pool was forced to close down for good. The building remained unused for almost ten years, by which time modern-era mayor Noël Mamère, one of the figureheads of France’s Green Party, initiated plans to refurbish the whole structure.

He called on the architect Patrick Bouchain, whose stated intention was not one of wanting to restore or rebuild but rather “to bring the place back to life. Many monuments are either abandoned or become museums. With regard to the swimming pool in Bègles, it was decided that the building would retain its initial function”. (Source: Batiactu.)


The new-generation establishment opened in 2006 and does a fine job of combining the old and the new. Today's changing facilities are where the public showers used to be. Other than a few interior embellishments, the cubicles look much as they did back then. The outdoor pool area has now been covered with a glass roof, through which the sun shines on the new 12.50m x 25m swimming pool, where water is maintained at a pleasant 28°C. The indoor pool has been transformed into an elaborate wooden activity and fitness course used by children, convalescent adults and senior citizens alike.

Adjacent to this is a modern hammam and sauna installation. Completing the picture is a patio garden that comprises a functional water feature, or more precisely a "phytoremediation pond" where vegetation is employed to remove chlorine from water used in the pool. The processed water is then used in the establishment’s lavatory network or to water the greenery, and also fills the cisterns of the municipality’s street-cleaning vans.


Many of the original art deco features are virtually intact, from the wacky window frames and plaster wall mouldings to the tiled floors and faux-marble benches. The dome skylights in what used to be the lobby are gone though, replaced by a more watertight design embellished with colourful glass baubles. The former lobby is now a bio-food restaurant which trades under the name “Nature et des Courgettes” (a pun on the “Nature & Découvertes” shop name). Meanwhile, the main entrance has been moved further to the centre of the building's right wing in order to accommodate a disabled access ramp.


The new-look venue also boasts its own original artwork. When bathers walk through the foot bath on their way to the pool, they can admire a mosaic conceived by the German-born Brussels-based artist Marin Kasimir, the pixel-like squares merging to create a picture of the corridor to the former showering cubicles, forming another symbolic connection between the past and present – which cohabit particularly well at “Piscine Les Bains” . 


> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Piscine Les Bains, rue Carnot, Bègles.
> The town of Bègles has published this excellent Flickr gallery of Piscine Les Bains, including some fine archive pictures.

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