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The Retro-Futuristic Undersea Habitats of Jacques Rougerie

This visionary architect has been building fantastical habitats under the sea since the ’70s.

The original Aquascope. (Unless otherwise noted, all images are property of the Jacques Rougerie Foundation/Used With Permission)

If spy movies and comic books are to be believed, the world’s oceans are packed to the gills with underwater vehicles and secret science bases that sprawl across the sea bed like some futuristic metropolis. Unfortunately, creating underwater living spaces is extraordinarily difficult, and there is currently only one permanent undersea habitat in the world, Aquarius, located in the Florida Keys. 

Luckily we still have dreamers like architect Jacques Rougerie, who, since the 1970s, has been designing and creating habitats and craft that not only allow people to hang out under the waves, but also to do it in sci-fi style.

Rougerie was originally inspired by the undersea research platforms of Jacques Cousteau, and after becoming an architect, spent much of his design output on creations that would allow humans to experience life underwater. Whether they are buildings on land or oceanic constructions, Rougerie’s designs rely heavily on a style called “bionic architecture,” which tries to incorporate elements of the natural world into the form of architectural structures. Many of his designs truly look like they based on some kind of bio-mechanical alien creature, mixing the function of underwater survival with flowing natural forms.

The SeaOrbiter

In recent years, Rougerie has made a splash with the designs for his next project, the bizarre and ambitious SeaOrbiter. A vertical ship with multiple stories both above and below the surface, the SeaOrbiter would act as a non-stop research station capable of traveling the seas on extended expeditions. The finished ship would be capable of supporting up to 22 crew members at a time, with laboratories and science centers for use in everything from studying sea life to training sea life. It would also look like something from outer space.

For the time being, the SeaOrbiter is more dream than reality (although the vessel’s “eye” has been fabricated!), so while we wait for his latest revolution in undersea living, lets take a look back at some of Rougerie’s most incredible creations that have actually hit the waves. 

Galathée (1977)

Rougerie’s very first undersea habitat was this bulbous vessel. Thanks to inflatable sacs installed on the sides of the submersible, this undersea shelter could settle itself at variable positions under the water, allowing for viewing and research at a number of different sections of the ocean. It also started the trend of prominent, eye-like viewing windows that continue throughout many of Rougerie’s creations.

The Galathée is pulled up from the waters. 

Rougerie and others sit comfortably inside of the Galathée. 

Notice the inflated side bags. 

Aquascopes (1979)

These space-age trimarans were designed and built not as scientific vessels but to allow casual passengers to observe life under the waves. The viewing portals sit on the sides of the central fin that extends under the water while two wide arms sweep off either side, keeping the vessel from tipping. Rougerie actually produced 25 of these ships, some which are still on the waters today as tour vessels.  

An Aquascope cresting like a manta ray. 

The underwater view of the craft must be even more spectacular from the inside.

An Aquascope still in use as a tour vessel. (Photo: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aquabulles (1978-1998)

One of his more simple designs, the Aquabulle is a simple viewing station that is little more than a submersible bubble that holds enough usable air for those inside to survive for hours at a time. The main advantage here being that the whole thing is essentially a big window. Rougerie first designed the shelter in 1978, but a number of scientific endeavors have employed aquabulles in the years since their creation.    

An aquabulle can also sit at variable levels under the surface.

Divers enter from beneath the viewing bubble.

Rougerie and a diver seem pretty proud of their aquabulle. 

Divers putting an aquabulle in place.

Rougerie stands over his creation.

Hippocampe (1981)

This viewing bubble gave a widescreen viewing window to researchers who could stay in it for up to two weeks. Giant eyes on either side of the structure gave researchers a chance to take in a large view of the underwater landscape as opposed to through some tiny porthole. 

The Hippocampe had windows looking up and down beneath the waves. 

Divers setting up the Hippocampe.

A view of the workstation inside the habitat. 

The habitat is lowered into the water. 

The Hippocampe being built, with a pair of Aquascopes in the background. 

Aquaspace (1982)

Another trimaran-type ship, the Aquaspace looks a bit more like something designed for the military of the future. More traditionally boat-like than many of Rougerie’s designs, this vessel has a long viewing deck running along its underside, and is one of his only designs to run off of sail power.

The Aquaspace in shallow water. 

Rougerie admiring the Aquaspace. 

The ship waiting for the tide to come in. 

The view from inside the Aquaspace.

The ship passes France’s Mont Saint-Michel.