A 45-ton mechanical elephant staggers into view, while a steampunk carousel, tiered like a haphazard wedding cake, whirs to life just behind. It would be an odd sight anywhere else. But this is Nantes, and these whimsical creations are among some of the reasons why it was once dubbed the loopiest city in France.

Located on the Loire River in the Brittany region, Nantes is an unlikely creative cauldron. Every summer since 2012, the port city has been transformed into an open-air gallery, with a 12km-long sculpture trail leading visitors through its cobblestone streets and charmingly lopsided buildings. Headed up by director Jean Blaise, Le Voyage à Nantes is a publicly funded organisation, and the culmination of a sustained cultural regeneration programme begun in the early 1990s.

Splash, 2017, by Collectif Vous, at Batiment B

Jean Prouvé and Angela Bulloch are just some of the creative luminaries who have participated in past editions of the festival, and whose installations have become permanent fixtures in the city. The works extend further along the Loire: sail the river from Nantes to Sant-Nazaire and you will encounter works by Daniel Buren, Erwin Wurm, and more.

New to the trail this year is architect Myrtille Drouet’s Micr’Home on Rue du Puits-d’Argent. Elevated 5m above ground and sandwiched between two existing buildings, the minute residence is spread over three 2m-wide floors, encompassing all the essential living spaces. Here, Drouet examines our urban environment, addressing the shortage of space and affordable property in growing cities.

Likewise for building buffs, Nantes has a smattering of architectural gems to discover in between drinking up the art. The Musée d’arts de Nantes recently opened following a sensitive transformation by Stanton Williams Architects; artist Susanna Fritscher has conceived a striking site-specific work to inaugurate the museum’s new interiors. Jean Nouvel’s positively Orwellian Palais de Justice, completed in 2000, is worth a visit. Construction continues apace throughout the city: architect Rudy Ricciotti is revamping the Gare de Nantes for 2020, and the rapidly transforming Île de Nantes will bring together a variety of creative industries in a former industrial site.

Installation view of Susanna Fritscher’s inaugurating exhibition at the Musée d’arts de Nantes

In spite of Nantes’ positive outlook, anxiety and dereliction appeared to a common thread among artists. On the opera stage of the 18th-century Théâtre Graslin, Nicolas Darrot’s haunting installation comprises a large, mechanised black flag waving menacingly in the dimly-lit space. In the Place Royale, artist Laurent Pernod has created a ghostly oasis of naked figures lolling atop a trio of large petrified trees, while in another town square Boris Chouvellon conjures a ‘modern ruin’ in the form of a decaying Ferris wheel.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Other whimsical highlights include a dizzying (and functioning) slide that wraps around Nantes’ grand Château des ducs de Bretagne, a moonscape complete with trampolines, and a corkscrew ping pong table. The buzzing Cantine Du Voyage is also open once again, with a menu that uses fresh fruit and vegetables from its very own garden.

RELATED TOPICS: SCULPTURE, DANIEL BUREN, FRENCH ARCHITECTURE, INSTALLATIONS