CON­CRETE CITIES

Le Havre and Mar­seille are fas­ci­nat­ing cities for lovers of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.

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Men­tion the word con­crete in con­nec­tion with ar­chi­tec­ture and it might cause a sneer or, at the very least, a po­lite dis­missal. Yet, since the de­struc­tion of World War II, France has cham­pi­oned moder­nity in all its forms. That moder­nity has in­cluded a pas­sion­ate em­brace of both raw con­crete ( bé­ton brut) and tamed, re­sult­ing in con­struc­tions of aus­tere beauty and en­dur­ing func­tion­al­ity.

Thanks to the likes of Au­guste Per­ret, Le Cor­bus­ier and gen­er­a­tions of other in­no­va­tors, France has ar­guably led the charge in con­crete ar­chi­tec­ture. At op­po­site ends of the coun­try, Le Havre and Mar­seille of­fer a sat­is­fy­ing glimpse of some of the bright­est jewels in that con­crete crown. Dur­ing the war, the cen­tre of Le Havre – France’s sec­ond-largest port af­ter Mar­seille – was al­most en­tirely de­stroyed by Al­lied bomb­ing raids, in ad­vance of the Nor­mandy land­ings on 6 June 1944.

The task of re­build­ing was given to Au­guste Per­ret (1874–1954) – one of the great pi­o­neers of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, par­tic­u­larly in the use of re­in­forced con­crete as a build­ing ma­te­rial. How­ever, he re­mains less well-known out­side his na­tive France than some other early mod­ernist giants such as Le Cor­bus­ier and Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe. (A young Le Cor­bus­ier worked as a draughts­man in Per­ret’s of­fice from 1908-1910, and later said of him: “In France, there is some­one who is re­ally de­vel­op­ing mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.”)

The re­con­struc­tion of Le Havre came at the end of Per­ret’s il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer, and he al­ready per­fected his use of re­in­forced con­crete to cre­ate a new clas­si­cal or­der in works such as the Mo­bilier Na­tional in Paris and the Église Notre-dame du Raincy on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal.

All the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Per­ret’s ma­ture build­ing style are ap­par­ent in Le Havre’s re­in­forced con­crete ar­chi­tec­ture: the ex­posed, uni­form, grid-like struc­tural frame­work, the use of pre­fab­ri­cated con­crete blocks, care­fully se­lected and con­trast­ing con­crete fin­ishes (bush-hammered, me­chan­i­cally sanded, gravel-brushed and more), the use of con­crete lat­tice­work and glass. The con­crete ar­chi­tec­ture of the city cen­tre was de­clared a Unesco World Her­itage site in 2005.

A good place to start your ex­plo­ration of Le Havre’s con­crete heart is the hô­tel de ville (town hall), de­signed by Per­ret and built be­tween 1952 and 1958. The im­pos­ing build­ing stands on the north side of a vast square, with giant col­umns in the clas­si­cal style along its main fa­cade (which clev­erly dou­ble as rain­wa­ter drains), and a 72-me­tre-high tower of­fer­ing the public un­sur­passed panoramic views from its broad 17th-floor bal­cony.

The hô­tel de ville’s giant col­umns clev­erly dou­ble as rain­wa­ter drains

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MAIN PIC­TURE: The cen­tre of Le Havre as de­signed by Au­guste Per­ret (BE­LOW); (BE­LOW LEFT) The in­side of the spire at the Église Saint-joseph

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