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An iconic monument considered emblematic of Rennes and one of France's greatest Art Déco gems, the Saint-Georges swimming-pool was listed as an historic monument in 2016 and is almost synonymous with the city itself. Visitors flock here to swim or explore the building. The pool is also often transformed into a venue for cultural events or festivals. Dive into the history of one of Rennes' most precious buildings…
The Saint-Georges pool in Rennes was listed as an historic monument in 2016. Officially opened in 1926, it is still going strong today. Visitors to 2 rue Gambetta come here to swim and to admire the Art Déco façade and mosaic-embellished interiors crafted by the Odorico family. Jean Janvier, the mayor of Rennes at the time, wanted to build a pool in the city. This visionary project had already been planned prior to WWI and was brought to fruition many years later, despite strong opposition from locals.
AN INITIATIVE SPURRED ON BY THE HYGIENE CRAZE
"The Saint-Georges pool is part of a wider ideological movement," explains Gilles Brohan, a heritage guide at the tourism office."It was an illustration of the radical socialist mayor's political agenda aimed at putting hygiene at the centre of city living, at a time when urban life was undergoing profound change".
Physical health was synonymous with moral health in those days, and the mayor wanted to give the city a facility that was still something of an anomaly (at the time, there were only 16 heated pools across France) and provide locals with an opportunity to learn to swim."Before the pool was built, locals who wanted to swim did so in the Vilaine or the Canal d’Ille and Rance for a few fleeting months of the year," according to Gilles Brohan.
This innovative facility saw the day in the mid-1920s and differed from standard public or private baths in that visitors came here to swim rather than wash, although some locals still struggled to understand the concept well after its inauguration, wondering why they were asked to shower before entering the water...
The pool was deliberately built close to the river, as it needed to be centrally located and near another major sports facility, the velodrome. Work on the pool began in 1923, over the ruins of an old church right next to the Palais Saint-Georges, which was returned to local council ownership after the army accidentally set fire to it in 1921.
Led by the city's official appointed architect, Emmanuel Le Ray, the project proved controversial. Not all locals understood the point of such a facility, and most importantly of all its cost - a total of two million francs, deemed exorbitant. Worse, the décor seemed ostentatious and excessive. Made by the Odoricos, a family of mosaic artists, the pool's frieze was intended to make Rennes locals feel "proud of their pool, and inspire them to visit".
Although the décor was broadly designed by the architect, Isidore Odorico's talent is what brings the space to life, thanks to her inimitable style and use of colour. Now submerged due to higher water levels, the frieze depicted the perfect sea, calm and embellished with small colourful waves of green, yellow and brown. The materials used ticked all the right hygiene boxes: the stone and mosaics are very easy to clean thoroughly.
INSPIRED BY THE POOL AT THE BUTTE AUX CAILLES
The Saint-Georges pool's architect was inspired by the swimming-pool in Nancy (a landmark built in 1904), and most of all the pool at the Butte aux Cailles in Paris. The external façade was handled by Gentil & Bourdet, and features an archway reminiscent of the Grande Criée market in Marseille's port, framed by two staircases at each corner in a classical style that contrasts nicely with the Art Déco elements.
Because of these architectural features, and because the pool is still operational today (as are the baths), the Saint-Georges pool is a remarkable cultural gem that visitors can explore as part of the tourism office's Odorico-themed itinerary.
More than just a swimming-pool where locals come to splash around, the Saint-Georges pool is often made over and transformed for events and festivals, such as the bars en trans’, a spin-off of the Trans Musicales festival, when this monument to Art Déco style is turned into an aquatic dance floor. DJs set up their decks on the diving board, swimmers swap their goggles for rubber rings and inflatable unicorns, bobbing to the sound of the electronic waves. A magical DJ set that transforms the pool into a watery nightclub.
A GIANT SCREEN FOR THE MAINTENANT FESTIVAL
In 2010, the pool was used to screen a video by artist Herman Kolgen, transformed into a quirky cinema as part of the Maintenant festival organised by Electroni(k). A giant screen and projectors were set up above the pool, allowing 150 swimmers to watch the film in a one-of-a-kind venue. Yet another wonderful surprise for pool regulars...
THE STAGE FOR A GLOBAL AQUATIC VENTURE FROM PHILIPPE DÉCOUFLÉ
In 2011, Philippe Découflé whipped up an aquatic impromptu (Swimming poules et flying coqs) with Christophe Salengro, chairman of Groland and his Octopus troupe for the Mettre en Scène festival organised by the TNB.
In June 2017 and January 2018, the giant moon created by Luke Jerram, installed as part of the Tombées de la Nuit 2017, breathed new life into the Saint-Georges pool. Swimmers hit the water bathed in strange light emanating from a giant inflatable structure measuring seven metres across. An art installation that made waves: this artificial pop-up moon designed by the British artist earned the Saint-Georges pool a place in the list of eight craziest swimming-pools according to American magazine Architectural Digest, which boosted the Rennes pool's visibility.
The experience was so high-impact, the Tombées de la Nuit invited the artist to return with his giant moon in January 2018. With or without the moon, the pool is most definitely worth a visit: and your stay in the Breton capital wouldn't be complete without it.