The Modernist Pool of Your Dreams Is Inches from Normandy's Beaches
Take a dip in this architectural marvel.
Throughout Normandy, France, you’ll find a profusion of medieval-looking, half-timbered homes. The fairytale houses offer a stark contrast to the ghostly bunkers on the surrounding beaches where World War II’s most famous battle raged. Thousands flock to Normandy to partake in D-Day tourism every year, an experience that is moving and significant—and emotionally wearying. Luckily, in the seaside town of Deauville, there’s an oasis.
In this region of sharp visual contrasts, the resort town is home to one of norther France's most pleasantly alluring surprises: the Piscine Olympique. This gorgeous Modernist swimming complex offers a serene respite from historical solemnity and serves as a stunning reminder that the beaches of Normandy aren’t just for history buffs.
The Piscine Olympique is the vision of French architect Roger Taillibert, who completed the project in 1966. He went on to design the Olympic complex in Montreal (despite the name, Deauville has not hosted the Olympics), the Parc des Princes football stadium in Paris, and other projects.
The complex has a unique nautical flair: white pre-stressed concrete “sails” pitched in ridges constitute its exterior and create a resulting concave/convex ceiling inside. The building sits directly on the beach (d’eau means “of water”) and draws the water for its two pools directly from the sea. Architect Arrol Gellner, who co-wrote Storybook Style: Whimsical Homes of the 1920s with Douglas Keister, says of the pool, “It has a softness that’s kind of comparable to the old, worn Normandy architecture. It’s not angular, not mechanical at all—as a Modernist building, it’s kind of warm and fuzzy.”
Swimming in such an extraordinary space is a multi-sensory experience, as glass walls show the beauty just outside and bring in light. Noted Lebanese-American architect Charles Debbas points out that the concrete shell structure permits the interior to be monumental: “As the day goes by and light changes, you have a greater variety of experiences in there.”
Sandrine Chardon, head of communication for the inDeauville tourism organization, says the Piscine Olympique received an average of 275 visitors a day this summer. My family and I were happy to be among them on an overcast summer day as dark clouds hovered over the curved white structure. After days of visiting museums, bunkers, and war cemeteries, it felt good to stop being a tourist and just float.
The pools—one family friendly, one for lap swimmers—were pristine, no doubt because of the rigid rules one must follow to enter them. Visitors are required to shower, wear a swim cap (more on that later), and walk through two shallow pools of about 8 inches deep to cleanse their feet before entering the main pool, which is heated to a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
However, it wasn’t the inexpensive dip we’d envisioned. Incidentals mounted to €100 (currently, the equivalent of $109). We had purchased towels beforehand (it would have been €3 for a half-hour rental for each of us), but were caught unaware by other unexpected charges.
My husband was prevented from going in the pool because his board shorts weren’t allowed. He was sent to the vending machine to purchase a €15 Speedo… something he thought he’d never in his life wear. Similarly, I was wearing a two-piece, and my modest swim shorts were deemed “too sexy” by the lifeguard on duty. In an inspired moment, I realized my black underwear looked exactly the same as what was in the vending machine for women, so I returned to the locker room to put them back on, thus cavorting on vacation in my underwear and saving a little money.
And a final hurdle: all four of us had to purchase a soft cloth swim bonnet branded “Deauville” on the side (essentially a swim cap, but liltingly called a “sweem bonnay” by the front-desk person) to cover our hair and feel like Esther Williams aquacade hopefuls. The plus side of this unexpected souvenir? We have them for next time.
Our trip to Normandy gave us plenty of photos and memories. We visited German bunkers and Sainte-Mère-Eglise church, whose roof features a mannequin with its parachute straps caught in the pinnacle (the real guy lived to tell the tale). We even saw the site where Joan of Arc was burned.
Yet for an afternoon we floated. It was a serene counterpoint to all the heavy-hearted sites we’d visited. And since we got to France by way of London, now when I hear the childhood rhyme, “I see London, I see France, I see someone’s underpants,” I will reflect that I actually lived it.