What is the connection between the 1968 summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and the Gironde towns of Braud-et-Saint-Louis, Cestas, Les...

Swimming in sunflowers: Gironde’s 'piscines Tournesol'

What is the connection between the 1968 summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and the Gironde towns of Braud-et-Saint-Louis, Cestas, Lesparre-Médoc and Saint-Médard-en-Jalles? The answer involves swimming… for we give you the remarkable “piscine Tournesol”!

The story goes that, at the 1968 Olympics, the performance of France’s swimmers was particularly disappointing. This resulted in a nationwide action plan that was launched the following year by the State secretary for Youth, Sport and Leisure to bring swimming to the masses. The plan, codenamed “1000 piscines”, provided a structure and support for the construction of affordable pools, which would in turn make swimming more easily accessible.

Although the number of pools built as part of the plan ultimately fell short of the symbolic figure of 1,000, between 600 and 700 establishments reportedly came to be built. Various designs were rolled out, with poetic names such as “Plein-Ciel”, “Plein-Soleil” and “Caneton”, but the most distinctive and memorable was surely the sunflower-inspired “Tournesol”. This became the archetype for the deployment of the “1000 piscines” strategy and, over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, 183 piscines Tournesol were built throughout France.

The Tournesol pools in Braud-et-Saint-Louis (top) and Cestas.
The curious futuristic design was the work of the architect Bernard Schoeller, who collaborated with the engineer Thémis Constantinidis on the conception of the structure, and with the company Matra for the choice of materials to be employed for what was to be, in essence, mass-produced pre-fabricated units, right down to the filtering and heating systems, the changing rooms and even the lavatories. 

Design and overall concept of the Tournesol pools, as featured on http://www.archi-wiki.org (contributor: Lionel Grandadam).
The circular structure conceived by Schoeller with Constantinidis measured 35 metres from side to side, totalling a surface area of 1,000 square metres at the heart of which was positioned a 25-metre pool. The structure was to be formed by 36 metallic arches, which combined to create a dome which would be six metres high at its apex. The elements that formed the shell were to be made out of polyester, every other segment comprising seven porthole-like windows. Significantly, two of the sections would be mobile, running on a rail system and making it possible to open the roof 60° either way. This resulted in the piscine Tournesol’s most notable feature: the ability to be instantly transformed, whenever the weather permitted it, from an indoor pool into an outdoor pool (at least over a 120° span) bearing in mind that, in most cases, a grassy area would complete the picture, enabling swimmers to head outside and sunbathe between dips in the water.

The rail system which enabled the switch from indoor to outdoor pool status. Pictures taken in Cestas.
After a prototype was successfully built in 1972 in Nangis, to the east of Paris, a first “series-produced” model was opened in Roissy-en-Brie later that year. Both have since been demolished. All of which brings us to la Gironde and its grand total of four piscines Tournesol. Three went up in 1975 in Cestas, Lesparre-Médoc and Braud-et-Saint-Louis. The Saint-Médard-en-Jalles pool followed in 1981. The Gironde pools came in various colours. The Cestas shell was produced in a shade of yellow, while the Braud-et-Saint-Louis and Saint-Médard domes were pale blue. The Lesparre offering was the eminently collectible burgundy (Médoc?) red. But what has become of them?

The Cestas pool is doing very well thank you. It is located on a large sports complex just off the A63 motorway, making for the pleasing sight of swimmers mingling with footballers, rugby players and tennis players. If you want to enjoy a swim there, admission will set you back just €1.60 euros. The Braud-et-Saint-Louis pool is also operational, although there is much talk about its fate and it may soon make way for a more ambitious “centre aquatique” offering smaller pools for toddlers, water-slides and the like.

Scenes from Braud-et-Saint-Louis, including the reception area (top left), the prefabricated changing rooms (top right) and, bottom right, the outdoor foot bath located by the joint between the two moving panels.
If so, it would be replicating exactly what happened in Saint-Médard-en-Jalles where the piscine Tournesol was a shorter-lived venture. In a state of disrepair after 26 years of use, it was dismantled in 2007 to make way for today’s modern swimming complex, which retained the 25-metre pool from its previous incarnation.  

Saint-Médard: the way it was (source: Saint-Médard-en-Jalles, au fil du temps) and the way it is today.
Let’s finish off in Lesparre, where the dust has more or less settled after the recent demolition of the structure, which had come to be regarded as an eyesore for visitors and locals as they drove into this quaint Médocain town. The pool had been closed since June 2014, although the original plan was to refurbish the facility. Then came the news over the summer of 2016 that the pool was to be erased completely, and the €70,000 demolition job was completed in September. As I saw when I visited the site, nothing remains of the pool (other than a small technical unit) and the area has been totally covered in sand. Once again, plans are gradually taking shape for a more substantial swimming complex to serve the surrounding area. 

Lesparre: top right, the pool as it was (source: www.pss-archi.eu); main photo, demolition work in progress (source: www.sudouest.fr); bottom right, the scene today. 
If you’ve been reading carefully, you have therefore no doubt worked out that, of Gironde’s four piscines Tournesol, only two remain, and the future looks particularly uncertain for one of the two! A part of me does think this is a shame, however old-school and rudimentary Tournesol pools may seem in an age of big-thrill water parks. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way: while Gironde’s sunflower pools have fallen into disrepair and become regarded as eyesores, elsewhere they have been meticulously maintained and have even been officially listed as 20th-Century Heritage: the “Patrimoine du XXe Siècle” label has been bestowed on piscines Tournesol in Marseille, Carros-le-Neuf (near Nice) and even in Biscarrosse in Gironde’s neighbouring Landes department. What is more, they are cherished by many in France, with online traces of this affection including regular appearances on the Architectures de Cartes Postales website, and the delightful @laffairetournesol Instagram account.

Laure Manaudou, pictured at the 2004 Olympics,
praying that she would one day be featured in
an Invisible Bordeaux item (source: lemonde.fr).
But perhaps the most important thing to consider is whether the French became any good at swimming! According to online records, after the 1968 debacle, it wasn’t until 1984 that France secured an Olympic swimming medal, through Frédéric Delcourt (200m backstroke silver) and Catherine Poirot (100m breaststroke bronze). Then there were a few more lean years until Laure Manaudou won the 400m freestyle gold in 2004, matched by Alain Bernard in the 100m freestyle in 2008. Others to follow in their footsteps include Camille Muffat (400m freestyle, 2012), the men’s 4x100m relay team (2012), Yannick Agnel (200m freestyle, 2012) and Florent Manaudou (50m freestyle, 2012). So the “1000 piscines” action plan didn’t do so badly after all…

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One of the more unusual outings on offer over this year’s European Heritage Days weekend was a guided tour of the PIC, or Plate-forme...

Inside Cestas’s PIC (Plate-forme industrielle du courrier)

One of the more unusual outings on offer over this year’s European Heritage Days weekend was a guided tour of the PIC, or Plate-forme industrielle du courrier, the massive postal sorting office that can be found in Cestas, just off the A63 motorway to the west of Bordeaux.

Having often driven past this massive facility, I was particularly looking forward to enjoying the inside view, so there was a definite sense of anticipation as we joined a group to be ushered inside in scenes reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

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Over the past few weeks, you have possibly enjoyed the accounts of the joint Invisible Bordeaux/ Bordeaux 2066 roadtrip to the four cor...

New video: the extreme Gironde roadtrip!

Over the past few weeks, you have possibly enjoyed the accounts of the joint Invisible Bordeaux/Bordeaux 2066 roadtrip to the four corners of la Gironde: north, east, south and west. 

The adventure is now also available as a scintillating Youtube video, so sit back, relax and follow us as we visit the remains of a brothel in Captieux, the wharf in La Salie, admire some boats in Le Verdon-sur-Mer, and study some trees in Saint-Avit-Saint-Nazaire. All you have to do is hit the play button and make sure your internet connection remains stable for the next eight minutes! Enjoy!

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This is the third and final part of a travelogue following Bordeaux 2066 ’s Vincent and me on our quest to visit the extreme northern, ea...

The Gironde four corners road-trip > Part 3: west (La Salie and its wharf)

This is the third and final part of a travelogue following Bordeaux 2066’s Vincent and me on our quest to visit the extreme northern, eastern, southern and western points of the Gironde over the course of a single day. So far we have viewed memorials in Le Verdon, admired some trees in Saint-Avit-Saint-Nazaire and, a-hem, explored a former brothel in Captieux. What would the département’s westernmost point have in store?

It was now 6:30pm and we had driven some 485 kilometres by the time we parked our car in the shade of the pines at la Salie Sud beach, on the Atlantic coast more or less mid-way between Arcachon and Biscarrosse. Venturing out onto the sandy pathway over the dunes to the sea we gained a little height and enjoyed our first view of La Salie’s distinctive – and controversial – landmark: “le Wharf”.

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In the first part of this travelogue recounting an attempt to visit Gironde’s four cardinal points over the course of a single day, Bor...

The Gironde four corners road-trip > Part 2: south (Captieux and its former brothels)

In the first part of this travelogue recounting an attempt to visit Gironde’s four cardinal points over the course of a single day, Bordeaux 2066’s Vincent and I successfully conquered Le Verdon and its countless memorials, followed by Saint-Avit-Saint-Nazaire and its nothingness. From there we headed to the département’s southernmost point, Captieux.

We arrived in a part of Captieux known as “Le Poteau” at around 4pm, 380 kilometres on from our starting point. Looking south we were gazing into neighbouring département Les Landes. A large milestone was in position at the border between the two administrative areas although Vincent soon spotted an anomaly: beneath the painted inscription correctly identifying the road as being the D932 were traces of the milestone’s previous location on the Nationale 10. Isn’t it great to know that milestones don’t die, they’re just recycled and turn up elsewhere!

"D 932" painted over the section which used to read "Route N 10"
Moving a little northwards along the road, Vincent was determined to check out the remains of Gironde’s southernmost building, to establish whether it could be connected with what is one of the most unusual, surprising and sordid tales to be told: that of the brothels and prostitutes of Captieux.

The story goes back to 1950 when the US military set up an ammunition depot which spread out over no less than 100 square kilometres in the Le Poteau area. The structure remained there until 1967, by which time President De Gaulle had called an end to US military bases in France. But, in the meantime, the substantial presence of military personnel had also resulted in the influx of prostitutes who would operate out of hastily-built brothels along the départementale road.

After the US military departed, the brothels remained, despite having been outlawed by the “Loi Marthe Richard” way earlier, in 1946. Business continued to flourish throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, the prostitutes reportedly selling their services to young men seeking their first taste of sexual healing, rugby teams in celebratory mood, travelling salesmen, truck drivers who would engineer a detour through Captieux, and other miscellaneous visitors from all over who knew exactly what they would find in Captieux. There were many shady dealings surrounding this obscure subculture, and it is said that relations between pimps would often turn nasty.

As we are about to find out, this used to be a brothel.
The most astonishing thing is that the authorities turned a blind eye to what was going on, although one reliable source has since told us that Captieux was regarded as a convenient arrangement: “there was an unwritten deal with the Bordeaux milieu: the city itself remained clean and the whores were out there in the country for Sunday night escapades and troisième mi-temps adventures.” (The raucous rugby equivalent of the nineteenth hole!)

That remained the state of affairs until everything came to a head in 1987 with a massive police raid on the area, which resulted in around 100 arrests and the 14 remaining establishments being closed overnight. Many of the makeshift structures were dismantled or more or less disintegrated. Lengthy trials followed and led to even lengthier prison sentences for those judged to have been responsible. Subsequently, Captieux slowly picked itself up and evolved back into being the quiet and peaceful country village it had presumably been until the 1950s!

Back to 2016 though and our roadside ruins! Vincent and I sliced our way through overgrown greenery to the walls of the building, made our way through what appeared to be the main entrance, and came up against what resembled the counter of what must have been a reception area. We were most definitely inside a former brothel. To our left was the door to a room where there were even remains of carpet pasted to the wall. Over to our right was another room which enjoyed the added bonus of an en-suite shower cubicle. We continued exploring but took great care as everywhere we looked there were tiles that hung precariously from what was left of the roof. 
Inside the former brothel, including what we think was the reception area (picture on the left).
Back outside we made our way along the side of the building and inspected the walls. At one end we spotted faded hand-painted depictions of female faces, and letters that appeared to spell out “La B“. Had other letters disappeared completely over time? Were we misreading what we saw and was the establishment either “le Bambi” or “le Bilitis”, both of which are referred to on this page?  With that enigma in mind, we left the brothel behind and drove into Captieux itself, a few kilometres to the north.

"La B" (?) and its alluring female figures.
We stopped off in a café for a refreshing fruit juice, and quizzed the landlord about Captieux’s dark past. He certainly didn’t appear to be too perturbed by our question, which suggested the subject was anything but taboo. The landlord, who emphasized the fact that he only moved to Captieux 15 years ago, in turn asked another customer about his memories of the establishments (the customer recalled there being two to three girls in each brothel) before calling a correspondent to try to find out the name of the mysterious “La B” building we had found ourselves in; he promised to get back to us with the answer. [Much later, a piece in local newspaper Sud Ouest featured pictures of “our” brothel and we were able to establish that its name had in fact been “La Baraque”.]

As we were paying for our drinks, he shared the tale of an acquaintance who, back in the day, was one of a group of youths who didn’t have much money. Every Saturday night, they would each throw some cash into a kitty, and each person’s name would go into a hat. Whoever’s name got pulled out of the hat was treated to a jointly-funded session with one of the Captieux ladies.

And it is with that image in mind that we departed, with one further destination to reach in our four corners challenge: we were aiming for La Salie on the Atlantic coast, Gironde’s westernmost point.

What is there to see at the extreme western point of the Gironde département? Find out in the final episode of this travelogue!

The Invisible Bordeaux/Bordeaux Four Corners roadtrip is also available as a motion picture. Enjoy!

> La version française de ce récit est à retrouver du côté de Bordeaux2066 ! 
> 2019 update: Sud Ouest released a fine long-read feature about Captieux and its brothels (a subscribers-only article available here), which included this incredible eye-witness account of the area as it used to be:

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