When science-fiction pioneer Jules Verne was born in the French port city of Nantes in 1828, its quays teemed with exotic plants and animals and the spoils of maritime trade a feast for a child's imagination that would nourish the writer through many a fantastic voyage. But by the mid-1980s the last shipyards on the Ile de Nantes had closed, and the maritime heart of the city had become a wasteland. Today, a grand project Les Machines de l'Ile has that heart beating again.
Every day, crowds of visitors roam the docks, hypnotized by a strange lumbering beast: a 50-ton (45-metric-ton) steel-and-tulipwood elephant, carrying passengers on its back and spraying water from its undulating trunk. The mechanical pachyderm, created by François Delaroziére and Pierre Orefice, formerly of street-theater company Royal de Luxe, was commissioned by the city to help draw Nantais back to the island. As housing and restaurants arrive, new machines will follow, beginning with a three-level sea-creature carousel in 2009. Inside renovated shipyard warehouses, its fabulous creatures are being noisily built of wood and steel; visitors can help test the machines by riding atop a squirming giant squid, or controlling the gaping jaws of an anglerfish.
Les Machines de l'Ile is a wildly ambitious bid, says Delarozière, to create a city where "the public become actors in an urban spectacle." But its higher aim, Orefice says, is to make Nantes once again a city that "opens little doors" through which a child can dream. www.lesmachines-nantes.fr
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