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How many cows make an elephant?

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Dyana Songi

There’s a magical world of mechanical endeavor in Nantes’ redevelopment of its disused shipyards

Finding a huge swathe of unused space in an urban centre is something London developers can only dream of. In a city where space is considered a luxury, they’d fall over their own safety wellies to put up the newest wharf or quarter, with housing at the forefront of their ambitions.

Not so the admirably creative French, who, given the opportunity to use their imaginations, have done so in fabulous style in Nantes. Et voila – the magnificent Les Machines de l'île is an artistic, touristic and cultural project created as part of the Nantes urban renewal project. It is based on the former yards that, once used for ship construction, closed in 1987. The enormous moving machines are designed and built by the artists François Delarozière, of La Machine production company, and Pierre Orefice of Manaus Association.


Les Machines de l’île is a world of wonder; reminiscent of the feature film The City of Lost Children with added elements of traditional fairground rides. Most exciting is the 12m high Le Grand Elephant, who comes to life twice a day and takes a 45-minute walk around the old shipyard with up to 49 passengers in its substantial howdah, blowing water from its enormous trunk at the watching crowd. The mechanical creature, ‘born’ in 2007, is 8m wide and made from 45 tons of wood and steel. It’s a non-exact replica of The Sultan’s Elephant – created by the Royal De Luxe company – which toured the world from 2005 to 2007; the main difference being that this one was designed to carry spectators. Interestingly, it’s much more exciting to watch this process than to ride on the elephant – you can’t see much of what’s happening beneath you from the viewing platforms, and it doesn’t cover much ground quickly. The movements and sounds are breathtakingly lifelike, especially the poignant blinking eyes complete with fluttering lashes. Free from the health and safety restrictions of the UK, onlookers are free to stroll about the moving creature, and left to judge for themselves whether it’s a good idea to stay out of the way of Nellie’s big feet. This marvellous mechanical machine is the city’s pride and joy; locals’ faces light up when they talk about Le Grand Elephant, and representations of it adorn many of the city’s shops and restaurants.

Le Grand Elephant deposits its riders at Le Carrouel des Mondes Marins (The Marine Worlds Carousel) – a strangely disturbing but nonetheless pleasing 360 interactive sculpture rising nearly 25m high. Here you can ride in any of the 35 moving underwater creatures on one of three levels – the ocean floor, the depths, and sea and boats – operating their mechanical heads, fins and wings yourself. When we were there, the friendly Carousel staff solemnly advised us to choose carefully, as only one ride each is permitted, and carefully clipped our paper tickets. Without overthinking this, we opted for a pair of hybrid horse fish creatures on the top level, affording us such a great view of the surrounding city that we easily forgot to operate the creatures’ nodding heads and closeable mouths as we rumbled round. Descending to the middle level, we watched other riders who were far more committed to the action than we were – one pair furiously pulling at levers and winding handles and emerging from the albeit short ride quite out of breath and a little stressed out, but deserving an A for effort.

Other creatures are displayed in the Galerie des Machines, including a giant mechanical spider (yikes!) who wakes from a nest and walks about, while the workshops where the machines are built can be seen from an overhead walkway. This in turn leads to a series of metal paths with live plants forming part of the structure known as the heron tree – currently in redevelopment. Models and a short film are used to illustrate the process of building, detailing the materials used, the time taken, and the number of talented individuals involved in the creation of these fantastic (in every sense of the word) machines. A proud but somewhat grim boast included in the subtitled film is the number of cows used to make Le Grand Elephant’s giant leather ears. FIve on each side – in case you were curious! Moo.