If you like the idea of wacky giant mechanical creatures set in an edgy industrial landscape with innovative architecture, urban parks and street art then you’ll love Nantes. France’s 6th biggest city, straddling the Loire river, located in the west of the country, a few kilometres inland from the Atlantic coast on the southern edge of Brittany, is emerging as a centre of innovation and creativity. It has a long history and complicated identity involving whether or not it is indeed part of Brittany, but that’s not what I want to write about. I want to focus on the fabulous and absurdly original urban regeneration on the île de Nantes (Nantes island) symbolised by a giant mechanical elephant.
This area was once a thriving ship building district but when that industry fell into decline so did the island. However, since 2002 it has been steadily revamped as a cutting edge creative neighbourhood mainly owing to the brilliant imaginations of two men, François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice. Delarozière and Orifice both come from performance backgrounds where they are actively involved in the renewal of street theatre. After more than 20 years of observing machinery and objects in motion and inspired by the imaginative monsters of Jules Verne and the mechanical world of Leonardo da Vinci they have come up with a vision on an unprecedented scale; an artistic project to create a gigantic steel tree, covered in living plants, mechanical insects and other creatures and topped by two enormous herons, for the public to enjoy on the island of Nantes.
While working towards this ultimate goal they have already created a huge mechanical elephant that wanders around the island squirting anyone in the way with water from its awesome trunk. This spectacular pachyderm is made out of a beautiful mix of wood and steel with flapping ears and a covered viewing platform for passengers. The public can ride the elephant for a reasonable fee, entering through its belly where the cogs and gears are on full view. But it’s not just pure engineering on view, there are plenty of creative artistic touches such as sculptures of elephants’ heads and Arabic writing in the metal railings.
Everywhere you look there’s something intriguing upon which to feast your eyes. And of course looking out from the elephant from 15 metres up you get great views of the surrounding city. The idea of the elephant is that it is there for everyone to enjoy even if you don’t want to pay to take a ride (which lasts about 30 mins) you can walk along with it and experience it as it makes its way around the island. It is not in a fenced off area but in the public domain.
The elephant is the most well known of the “machines of Nantes” and makes a wonderful figurehead for all the other machines in the former shipyard. Delarozière and Orefice’s first creations were giant sea monsters which can now been seen on the superb Jules Verne carousel across the esplanade from the “nef” (or nave) where the elephant lives. Within the nef (a beautiful example of industrial architecture) are some of the insects being prototyped for the “Heron Tree”. These are not visible for the non-paying public but tickets can be bought for the machines without the elephant or a combination ticket for both.
Visiting the machines is just as fascinating as going on the elephant and well worth the price. The selection of machines changes every so often as they are developed but when we went (April 2016) we saw a mechanical caterpillar, a huge and horrible spider, an ant and a heron, all small scale models for the tree project. There is also a funny scene with a crazy airplane along the lines of “those magnificent men in their flying machines”. This part of the visit is a guided tour (in French) with explanations of the workings of the machines and how they will be put to use in the tree. A few lucky members of the public are selected to try them out, pulling mechanical levers to move the creatures and flying high above the crowd.
I don’t know if there are tours in English but even if you don’t understand everything being said, just seeing the amazing creatures in action is worth it and you don’t actually have to stick with the group though if you don’t you won’t see the machines in action. Dotted amongst the creatures are fascinating sketches made by Delarozière and Orefice showing their ideas and plans, as well as unusual plants being tested for their suitability for the tree.
So back to the tree. The project was originally expected to be finished and in use by 2018 but it is running behind by a few years and won’t be ready till 2021-ish. When it is functioning however it will be unique and unprecedented as a living, breathing, environmentally friendly metal tree, 40 or so metres high, capable of holding 450 people at a time. The public will be able to walk around branches covered in plants, (a working model of a branch is already on display outside the “nef” above the café de la branch, photo below), some of the beasties living in the tree will be rideable and there will be viewing platforms from which to look out over the city. Finally the crowning glory will be the two herons at the top which will also have seats for a number of passengers. The whole project is mind bogglingly crazy and original beyond words. I can’t wait till it’s finished and I will certainly go back to climb the “arbre à hérons”.
Everything about the île de Nantes is fun, creative, unusual, beautiful and unique. The old shipyard buildings (the “nef”) and warehouses (transformed into cafés and creative performance spaces), vibrant murals and street art, absurd architectural details and funky new builds, the stunning carousel and interesting public art and of course the magnificent elephant itself lolloping through a public park with no barriers separating it and you, all adds up to something very special indeed. Nantes is a wonderful place to visit en famille, its crazy machines will appeal to all ages, from young kids to adults alike and I personally found it hugely inspiring.
To plan your visit and find out more about opening hours etc you can check the Machines de Nantes website. We didn’t reserve tickets, we just turned up as it opened at 10 am and had no trouble getting onboard. However I imagine it could be a different case in high season. Have you been to Nantes? What did you think? I’ll leave you with a few more photos of our visit.
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