Cap Ferret’s Houses on Stilts – the Best Way to Avoid Flooding?

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

My briefs may have their challenges, but at Cap Ferret I saw how necessity inspired humble oyster farmers to build in the face of one of nature’s most powerful forces.

Cap Ferret is a sandy peninsula in South West France stretched out between the calm Bassin d’Arcachon and the breaking waves of the Atlantic, creating a paradise for surfers and oyster lovers alike. The dramatic tides decide whether you will be walking through the basin or sailing.

I recently escaped there with the family – but I have to admit, I can never entirely “switch off”. In a bout of architectural curiosity, I found a map showing how the land in Cap Ferret is owned in small parcels, spread about like feudal small holdings.

It turns out these were the oyster beds, where for just one hour a day patches of sand emerge for the farmers to pick their exposed crops. For the rest of the day, all you can see is a submerged forest of timber posts pointing to their plots.

The oyster farmers’ homes were shaped by the sea as much as their livelihood. Timber shacks stand on stilts throughout the cape, with Victorian details and verandas decorating sturdy designs that have endured countless tides and storms.

As Cap Ferret sits within a nature reserve, new builds aren’t possible. Instead, some of the shacks have been repurposed into impeccably designed holiday homes for the Parisian chic set. They’re truly unique renovations of architecture that can never be repeated.

If I’m ever asked to design a home on stilts, I know where to find my inspiration.

Oyster farmers weren’t the only ones who left their mark amongst the dunes. The German invaders of World War Two dotted the beach with bunkers to man their westward watch. I wonder if the soldiers managed to enjoy any oysters as they stared into the waves for weeks on end.

Decades of Atlantic tides have scattered the bunkers about like Lego bricks. Now they’re a concrete canvas for local graffiti artists, who have transformed the stoic symbols of that brutal time into playful, surreal abstractions.

The dynamic landscape of Cap Ferret is like nothing else; a meeting point between human life and nature’s infinite forces that has thankfully been preserved. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone looking for a bit of sleepy French luxury.

By John Dyer Grimes